Chicago Gourmet 2019 Recap

It’s October, and another Chicago Gourmet is in the books! This year’s Chicago Gourmet festivities, “Lights, Camera, Napkin,” provided a wonderful mix of food, spirits and fun, as it had in the past. I attended on Saturday this year and the mercurial Chicago weather cooperated, but just barely, and the earlier part of the day was 55 degrees and misting. Though there was a brief period of rain, the clouds lifted in the second half of the day. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, I have been going to Chicago Gourmet since 2009, and have experienced almost every type of weather through the years. Stationed in Millennium Park, Chicago Gourmet is a showcase of all things food, and features: diverse bites from top Chicago restaurants, international wine and spirits distributors, cooking demonstrations, book signings, lectures, and big-name brands pulling out all the stops with over-the-top booths. The price for Chicago Gourmet is famously steep (2019 prices: $195 per person per day, or $310 per person for a Weekend Pass), but it earns you unlimited food and drinks, plus whatever additional swag you can get your hands on.

My favorite part of every Chicago Gourmet is checking out the gourmet tasting pavilions, where local Chicago chefs dish out sample-sized portions that represent their restaurants. Sometimes the pavilions are themed (BBQ, Seafood, or a national cuisine), but other times they are drawn together seemingly randomly under the banner of a sponsor (Mariano’s, US Foods, etc.). Halfway through the day, the restaurants change over, giving visitors double the samples to try. My two favorite pavilions, this year, and in years past, are the Dessert Pavilion (with the awkwardly punny name “Keeping Up with the Konfections”) and the Thai Select tent (Thai Select is an imprint of the Thai government).

At the first round of the Thai Pavilion, I sampled dishes from Jimmy Thai Restaurant, JJ Thai Street Food, and Sticky Rice Northern Thai Cuisine. Jimmy Thai served a delicious green curry over homemade somen wheat flour noodles, JJ dished out chicken meatballs with tamarind sauce, and Sticky Rice went regional with Nam Prik Ong, northern Thai dish of ground pork, tomato and chili paste. I appreciated the nod to regional cuisine! Later in the day, the booth switched over to tasters from Star of Siam (our first Chicago Thai restaurant), Herb Restaurant, and Jin Thai Cuisine. The second round’s theme seemed to be Thai comfort food including Basil Chicken from Herb, Chicken Pad Thai from Jin and Mussaman curry from Star of Siam.

The Dessert Pavilion started strong with Recette, Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits and Bittersweet Pastry Shop and Café. My overall favorite bite from Chicago Gourmet this year was the caramel and pumpkin Canelé from Recette. A canelé is a French pastry that resembles a mini bundt cake, with a soft, almost custard-y center and a caramelized exterior (above). We had previously sampled Recette’s pastries at Renegade Craft Fair in Pilsen, and they delivered again at Chicago Gourmet. Bang Bang gave a Fall-appropriate showing with an apple crumble with an unusual-but-delicious miso twist, and Bittersweet introduced me to a whole new chocolate concept: Ruby chocolate mouse. Ruby chocolate, developed by Callebut in 2017, is distinguished by its fruity flavor and pink hue. It may look Day-glo but the color is all-natural!

For the second half of the day, the Dessert Pavilion mixed it up a bit by presenting desserts from restaurants which are not particularly known as dessert places, including a fall panna cotta from Steadfast and a Viennese sachertorte – chocolate cake layered with apricot, topped with a tiny pretzel (above) – from The Berghoff Restaurant. The dessert trio was rounded out by some delicious apple gelato from longtime-favorite Black Dog Gelato.

In my quest to seek out world eats, I found plenty of options. There was a lovely Japan Pavilion, featuring ramen from Strings Ramen Shop and what may have been the most unusual bite of the day: The “Kizuki bun,” a deconstructed Japanese hotdog from Kizuki Ramen and Izakaya.In terms of portions, Piggie Smalls went over the top and made a whole gyro sandwich (who can resist!?).

Other yummy world eats included veggie samosas from Hakka Bakka Indian Kati Rolls (above) and fresh ricotta and mozzarella from the Mozzarella Store, Pizza & Caffé. Tucked away in the Sam Adams Pavilion were samples from Evanston-based Viet Nom Nom and Cynthia’s Gumbo, a Louisiana Cuisine food truck run by Cynthia Boyd-Yette & Terry Yette.

I made a point to attend some of the cooking demos this year, always a fun experience, and especially welcome when the weather outside is a little less than sunny. I am always impressed by the skills of the chefs at these demos, and always learn a thing or two – this time I really learned the unexpected – how to make tofu. There was a great demo by Laura Cheng of Sun Wah and Thai Deng of Haisous on tofu. Laura Cheng owns Sun Xien Soy Products, purveyors of handmade tofu right in Chicago, a spin-off of the popular Sun Wah restaurant on Argyle. After Laura made the fresh tofu, Thai took it and turned it into a Vietnamese-inspired dish, and explaining the fresh herbs one by one as he added them to the dish, including the enigmatic banana blossom and culantro. The session was moderated by Bon Appetit’s Food Director Carla Lalli Music.

Chicago Gourmet also played host to a number of panels and seminars, and I attended a master class on South Asian Cuisine. The session was moderated by Check Please! host and Master Sommelier Alpana Singh and included the following experts: Sujan Sarkar of ROOH; Zeeshan Shah and Yoshi Yamada of Superkhana International; Colleen Sen, Author & Culinary Historian; and Rohini Dey of Vermilion. The panel was an eye-opening look into the state of Indian Cuisine in the US, and a fascinating look at those pushing the boundaries. Though many Americans are not familiar with regional Indian foods, the vastness and diversity of Indian cuisine cannot be overstated!

Rounding out the day were the wine and spirits, and I do my best to sample some of the international offerings on this front. There are some yearly classics: the Stella Artois area, where you can pick up a signature glass along with your beer samples, and Peroni’s bright-orange tent slinging the Aperol Spritz (prosecco, Aperol bitters and soda water), which has perhaps become the signature drink of Chicago Gourmet. I did learn about an entirely new-to-me spirit at the Iichiko tent, Shōchū, a Japanese spirit made from rice, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or barley. Though it may be confused with sake, shochu is actually much more popular than sake in Japan! I sampled a shochu and lychee drink, paired here with salted caramel gelato from Vero Gelato (found inside Mariano’s stores).

One of the best aspects of Chicago Gourmet is that it is different every year. Combining old favorites with new additions, Chicago Gourmet was as fun as ever. From sampling rare Whiskey, to watching world class chefs cook onstage, to tasting new treats from around the world, Chicago Gourmet is a foodie’s dream!

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Riziki’s Tanzanian food in Columbus

One of our favorite things about Columbus, OH, is its diverse food scene, which has a particularly strong representation of East African food (which is scarce in Cleveland). I am always on the hunt for the newest African restaurant in Columbus, since it seems there is a new one opening every month. However, when we lived in Chicago for the year I fell behind, and missed the opening of Columbus’ only Tanzanian restaurant, Riziki’s Swahili Grill (1872 Tamarack Cir S. Columbus, OH 43229).

Rizikis

The vibes at Riziki’s are amazing! When you visit, you are greeted by chef/owner Riziki herself, who is from the island archipelago of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania. The menu at Riziki’s a relatively small, but hits all of the Tanzanian classics, which combine Indian, East African and Middle Eastern influences, as befitting its Indian Ocean location. During the Friday lunch rush, Riziki’s was doing a brisk takeout service, but we decided to eat in at the casual dining room, painted in bright aqua, with wax-print cloth tablecloths. We quenched our thirsts with some fresh tamarind juice as we perused the menu.

sambusas

We had read that Riziki’s sambusas (triangular filled dough pockets akin to Indian samosas) were amazing, so we decided to go with a mix of chicken, beef and spicy veggie, sold for only $1 a piece. The sambusas were elegantly presented in a hand-carved wooden dish, and boasted a perfectly crispy, thin, oil-free wrapper and flavorful fillings. Riziki should probably start charging triple the price. M also enjoyed the addition of the habanero-laden house-made hot sauce.  The Indian culinary influence was also present in the main dishes, including the beef Biriani ($11.99). Other mains included a whole fried fish ($14.99), which we wish we could have chosen, if we had a little more time. On Sunday, Riziki serves a special Zanzibari dish called “Sunday Funday” – Mbatata za Urojo – also known as “Zanzibar mix” ($11.99) a dish with a mix of mango, bean fritters, potatoes and chutney.

Chapati

For our mains, we decided to split a chapati with goat curry and a side of kale ($11.99). The globally-popular chapati bread heavily displays the Indian influence on Zanzibari food, and is a layered flatbread fried in ghee. A chapati is supposed to be light and flaky, and Riki’s was some of the best we have ever had. The goat curry was heavily spiced, and the chapati worked as the perfect vehicle for the hearty stew. After dinner, we chatted a bit with Riziki herself, who had come to Columbus over a decade ago. She said that business at the restaurant had been picking up, but that the location made it a bit hard to find. The strip mall housing Riziki’s was a veritable United Nations of international shops and restaurants, but its location was in the midst of a residential district far from the city center. Be persistent though, and make an effort to find Riziki’s, it is worth it!

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On the Laksa trail in Sydney

It has been a while since we have returned from Australia, and we now find ourselves new homeowners in Cleveland, delaying our writing just a bit. But don’t let the tardiness trick you into thinking we didn’t eat anything worthwhile in Australia, it was an amazing food adventure, particularly in Sydney! One of the things we were most looking forward to on our Sydney adventure was Malaysian laksa curry (which we have sampled a few times before). Sydney is known for its Malaysian food, and restaurants slinging laksa can be found in every neighborhood. The base of laksa is a smooth and creamy coconut milk curry with rice noodles, livened up with chili oil and sambal, a fusion of Chinese and Southeast Asian flavors. Fried tofu is traditionally included, but the main protein may be shrimp, chicken or beef (or more). From these core ingredients, restaurants put their own spin on their signature laksas, and that is where the real fun begins.

Finding the best laksa place in Sydney is a subjective, daunting enterprise, seemingly as contentious as finding the best pizza slice in New York City. We started sleuthing for the top laksa places before our trip, and were pretty quickly overwhelmed by choice. Fortunately, we found some great resources that helped us narrow down the top picks. We could never hope to replicate the 20-strong laksa list made by I’m Still Hungry, and we are grateful for their on-the-ground comprehensiveness. Using this master list, and triangulating with a few other options, we set off on the Sydney laksa trail.

The first place we tried for laksa was Happy Chef (f3/401 Sussex St, Haymarket NSW 2000, Australia). Happy Chef is located in a nondescript 2nd-floor food court in Sydney’s vibrant Chinatown, and may not look like much, but packs a powerful punch. We did particularly like the logo of the eponymous Happy Chef, which you can see on the counter above. One  feature we liked at Happy Chef was the large amount of different proteins you could add to your laksa including BBQ pork and scallops, we went with the potentially pedestrian chicken default. Not long after ordering, and despite the lunch rush, our order was ready. On the counter there are a wide variety of toppings including chili oil, scallions, soy sauce, hot sauce and more to customize your laksa. The coconut milk broth was rich, and had a little kick to it, which we garnished with a bit of scallions and hot sauce. There was also a choice of noodles, but we opted for the traditional mee noodles. The noodles themselves were particularly good, and had a substantial spring and bite to them. This place is cash only!

The second laksa place we tried was the venerable Malay Chinese Takeaway (1/50-58 Hunter St, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia). Malay Chinese is located right in the CBD, which makes a popular place among local workers. Usually there is a line out the door for these laksa, so our odd eating time that day of 3 PM turned out to be pretty lucky. The main choices for laksa here are just chicken and prawn, so we split our orders a little bit to try some more of the offerings: 1 order of king prawn and chicken and 1 order of regular prawn. The broth at Malay Chinese was spicier and more flavorful than that of Happy Chef, though we slightly preferred Happy Chef’s noodles. One particularly salient part of the Malay Chinese Takeaway experience was the cook singing along to Michael Jackson while you order is being prepared. Though there were some slight difference, both were excellent bowls of laksa, and we can see why they are so popular. Our brief foray didn’t even  put a dent in the Sydney Laksa trail, and we hope to get a little further on our next trip.

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Australian Food Adventures

AustraliaThings have been a bit quiet here, because we have recently moved, and we are going to Australia in a few days! We are excited to experience several different cities in Australia, from the cosmopolitan restaurant scene in Sydney to the night markets of Darwin. Leading up to our trip, we have been trying to learn more about Australian food (we do know that they love savory pies)! While in Sydney, we are excited to try Din Tai Fung, and all the laksa (Malaysian noodle curry, pictured below) we can eat. We are also reading up on the latest directions in Australian food, and what makes Australian food Australian. See you in August!

Laksa.jpg

Chicken Laksa at MaMa Laksa House in The Grace Hotel, Sydney by Stilgherrian

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A Taste of Afghanistan at Kabul House in Evanston

We have always had a taste for Afghan food, and when we were back in Evanston for the year, we were excited to be in close proximity to Kabul House (2424 Dempster Street, Evanston, IL ), an Afghani restaurant that had recently moved into fancier digs just over the Evanston / Skokie border. We visited Kabul House on a chilly night to celebrate a family birthday, so it was great to have a crowd to sample more of the menu. When we entered on a Saturday night, the place was abuzz with lots of large groups! Be sure to make a reservation in advance if you are going on a weekend.

Though it is reasonably priced, the restaurant’s decor is opulent, with large windows, French cafe chairs and arched doorways. The menu at Kabul House is extensive, with a large variety of appetizers, kabobs and vegetarian dishes. We were excited to see some Afghan dishes we had not heard of before in the “Authentic Dishes” sections including the Aushak – dumplings filled with scallions and leeks, topped with tomato/meat and yogurt sauces – which you can get in both appetizer and entree sizes. Other interesting dishes included Pomegranate Glazed Salmon ($17.00) and the Chicken Qorma Stew ($13.00) boneless chicken cooked with tomatoes, onions, green pepper, ginger, garlic, cilantro and herbs.

Among our party we sampled a variety of appetizers and entrees:

  • Bulanee Appetizer ($9.00) Thin pastry flatbread filled with leek, scallion and spiced potato. This almost reminded us of a flat version of a burek – delicious!
  • Mantoo Appetizer ($9.00) Steamed dumplings filled with spiced ground beef, shredded carrots and onions, and topped with tomato/meat and yogurt sauces.
  • Chicken Kabob ($16.00) Pictured below – we loved the deep, almost tandoori-like spices on the chicken. Beef Kabob ($19.00) and Soltani Kabob Combo ($19.00) One skewer of Barg (Filet Mignon) & one skewer of Koobideh (Seasoned Ground Sirloin). All of the kebabs were delicious, and the best versions of kebabs we had seen a while, perfectly spiced.
  • Kabuli Palau ($16.00) Boneless lamb served with seasoned rice and caramelized carrot strips and raisins. The sweet and savory combo worked really well, and we later learned that this is Afghanistan’s national dish.
  • Vegetarian Platter ($13.00) Eggplant, spinach, baby pumpkin and cauliflower all cooked separately in spices, served with Afghan rice (basmati rice with carrots and raisins). We really liked this platter because it allowed us to try a little bit of everything, many of which were available as individual veggie appetizers. The pumpkin cooked with honey and onions, was actually our favorite of the bunch.

For dessert there was baklava, but we went for the more interesting Firnee ($5 – below), milk custard made with a hint of rosewater, topped with pistachios and fresh berries. It was deliciously creamy and reminded us of Egyptian Mohallabiah. Everything at Kabul House was delicious, and the portions were insanely generous. The traditional Afghan dishes were delightful, and we look forward for a return visit, hopefully with another big group.

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Pan Artesenal: Croissants and More in Humboldt Park

We absolutely love Pan Artesenal (3724 W Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL), a new bakery in Humboldt Park fusing Mexican and French baking traditions. They offer a wide variety of breakfast sandwiches, lunch bites and pastries, in a warm, welcoming space. The bakery is run by sisters Lizette and Marisol Espinoza (a French Pastry School graduate) featuring influences from both France and Mexico. The menu is full of riffs on traditional pan dulce including conchas, wheat rolls and cuernitos, European standards like baguettes, and truly unique creations like the nopal scone and the maguey worm baguette.

We have tried a variety of different pastries, but the real stars of the show are the croissants. Turns out we are not the only fans. These croissants have even been featured as one of the Chicago Tribune’s favorite croissants in the city. The croissants come in a myriad of rotating flavors including a classic butter, pistachio, nutella, cajeta and my personal favorite, the almond ($3.50). The croissants are light, buttery and flaky, and don’t skimp on the fillings. We also appreciate the full drink menu including espresso, iced coffee and hot chocolate, which along with the free WiFi, makes it a great place to work for a few hours. Pan Artesenal has quickly become one of our favorite cafes in our city.

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Turkish Suhoor dishes for Ramadan

During Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish), observant Muslims are encouraged not to eat between sunup and sundown. The big feast meal breaking the fast after sundown is Iftar, and this is traditionally a pretty lavish spread. However, less attention is sometimes given to Suhoor/Suhur, the pre-sunrise meal. In order to get through the day fasting, a hearty Suhoor is common. One of our favorite breakfasts is Turkish, so we were curious to learn about Turkish dishes for Suhoor. Turns out that for Turkish suhoor, hearty, filling dishes are the norm, including creamy kaymak cheese, the egg dish menemen and the baked macaroni dish makarna. Of course, these filling dishes may be accompanied by cheese, bread, honey, fruit, tea, coffee and anything else you may enjoy at a classic Turkish breakfast!

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Unexpected Chicago CTA Finds: Sala Pao Shop

What is one thing you expect to see in a subway station? We bet you didn’t say Thai steamed buns. However, at the Western Blue Line station in Chicago, that is just what you get. There you will find the Sala Pao Shop (1909 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60647) tucked into an unassuming counter space. We didn’t really know that Thailand had bao-like steamed buns, but it turns out that they are indeed popular as a street food snack and in Chinese restaurants throughout the country, where they are known as salapao.

At Sala Pao shop the focus is obviously paos, which are $2.50 each and come in a variety of flavors: Basil Chicken, Pork Shumai (with pork and a hard-boiled egg), BBQ Pork, Veggie (mushroom, carrot, peas and broccoli), Penang Beef, and even a sweet custard option. The most traditional flavor is perhaps the sweet roast pork, but our favorite was the basil chicken. There was also a deal to get a free drink with the purchase of 4 paos, and we highly enjoyed our Thai iced tea. There are also some more substantial options like chicken or veggie dumplings (6 for $4.50), wonton soup ($4.50), Penang curry chicken rice bowls ($6.99) and vegan rice bowls with veggies and glass noodles ($6.50).

With L riders in mind, the Sala Pao shop has a variety of drinks including lychee thai tea, thai iced coffee, green tea, and basic coffee for a commuter pick-me-up. There is even something intriguingly called “Tropical Cream Soda” in lychee, guava and mango flavors ($3.25). We are looking forward to trying more pao and drink varieties (especially the sweet custard pao). You can even get a punchcard that earns you one free pao for every 9 purchased.  Next time you are riding the El, don’t despair, stop at Sala Pao shop instead and treat yourself!

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Treats from Okinawa

Our friend Jose from NYC has a second home in Okinawa, where his wife’s family is from, and the last time we saw him he was generous enough to shower us with Okinawan treats! We have long been fascinated by the unique culture of Okinawa, the largest of a chain of islands located south of the rest of Japan. Due to its relatively remote location Okinawan culture is completely different than in a place like Tokyo, which means Okinawa has its own unique, amazing food.

Local brown sugar, kokutu, is a prized commodity in Okinawa, made by slowly cooking down sugarcane juice (instead of adding molasses back in), imparting it with a unique flavor. Jose brought us two kinds of brittle made with Okinawa brown sugar: Black sesame & crushed peanut and coconut chunk. Plus we got Japan-exclusive Kit-Kats – almond and cranberry and dark chocolate.

There were also beautifully wrapped little cakes, which turned out to be – Sata Andagi – Okinawan fried doughnuts. Our variety had peanuts, white sesame and orange peel, though they can come in a variety of flavors, including the emblematic Okinawan sweet potato (also very popular in Hawaii). Thank you Jose for bringing us these wonderful Okinawan treats that we could have never gotten anywhere else!

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Moroccan Jewish Tanzeya for Passover

The Jewish holiday of Passover has begun and lasts until next weekend. A major caveat to Passover cuisine is that is must be free of chametz, all leavened bread products. This has led to a proliferation of special kosher for Passover foods, and many creative uses for matzoh, which is unleavened. One of the most emblematic Passover dishes is charoset, a sweet mixture of fruit, honey and nuts, which makes a symbolic appearance on the Seder plate. There are literally thousands of recipes for charoset (some we have covered before), but there is a particular version from Morocco, called Tanzeya. Here is a recipe from Joan Nathan made with figs and spices like cinnamon and cardamon. New York Shuk sells pre-made tanzeya and has a recipe for charoset truffles (pictured below). Or if you want to go the simpler route, two matzoh sandwiched with charoset sounds pretty good to me!

Tanzeya from New York Shuk

 

 

 

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Mont Lone Yay Paw for Thingyan – Burmese New Year

Tomorrow, April 13, 2019, is the start of Burmese New Year celebrations – Thingyan – a Buddhist multi-day festival which culminates in huge celebrations for the New Year itself. Thingyan is also known as the “water festival” because during its celebrations, it is not uncommon to get completely drenched in crowds throwing and spraying water. This is said to be a representation of washing off the old year, and the cleansing aspects of the new year. But of course, one of the most important things is the food! A traditional treat for Thingyan is Mont Lone Yay Paw, glutinous rice flour balls stuffed with jaggery (cane sugar), boiled, and topped with coconut. You can find this treat at stalls called Sa Tu Di Thar all around public Thingyan festivities. Making Mont Lone Yay Paw is a group activity during Thingyan, and it has also turned into a haven for practical jokers: sometimes the sweet treat has a mystery, super-hot bird’s-eye chili hidden inside! Mee Malee has a recipe for Mont Lone Yay Paw, and you can learn how to make this dessert below in a video by Kothargi.

 

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The Mysterious Origins of the Po’Boy Sandwich

When we are in New Orleans one of our favorite meals is the Po’Boy or “Poor Boy” sandwich, a crusty 6 or 12 inch French bread roll traditionally stuffed with fried seafood, or as we learned, roast beef. You can find these classic po’boys all across the New Orleans area, but the sky is now the limit, and more avant-garde restaurants like Killer Poboys (811 Conti St, Erin Rose Bar, New Orleans) are doing vegan and internationally-influenced Po’boys. Our favorite Po’Boys are probably the classic fried shrimp ones from Parkway Bakery (538 Hagan Ave., New Orleans), however we also love trying new places, and on our latest trip, we deeply enjoyed the garlic fried oyster po’boy from stalwart restaurant Liuzza’s On the Track (1518 N Lopez St, New Orleans – half po’boy pictured below with their signature gumbo). The exact origin of Po’boys is shrouded in mystery, as most good food origin stories are, but the New Orleans weekly Where Y’At has a deep dive into its murky origins.

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Moldovan Cuisine at Moldova Restaurant in NYC

Moldovan food has been on our radar for a little while, since there are actually several Moldovan restaurants in NYC that we have tried to visit for the past few years, but our schedule didn’t allow it. Last time we were in NYC, however, we finally had the fortune to visit one: the straightforwardly-named Moldova Restaurant (1827 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11230). Halfway to Brighton Beach, in a quiet area of Midwood, there is not really any chance that you would just stumble into Moldova. However, despite the quiet appearance from outside, we found that the inside was absolutely full of feasting families.

The walls were covered in murals and Moldovan crafts, and the atmosphere was convivial. We really had no idea what to order, but went all-in on the carb, meat and cheese-heavy menu. The menu was actually quite extensive, offering cold and hot appetizers, soups, meat entrees and special dishes for pre-order including the extravagant Miel Copt cu Ciuperci si Taitei de Casa (Baked whole baby lamb with mushrooms and homemade pasta) for a staggering $350.

We decided to share all of the dishes among the three of us, and made selections from the appetizer and mains portions of the menu. Fortunately, our dining companion, A, was just as adventurous as we were. As we perused the menu, we shared a pitcher of the house Compot de Casa (fruit punch – $9 for a pitcher, $3 for a glass). Some appetizing menu options included Mititei, grilled sausages served with peas and onions ($9), Perjoale Ca La Tiraspol ($13), stuffed, fried chicken breast with cheese and sour pickles, and classic Beef Stroganoff ($16).

With some help from our waitress, we finally agreed on an order (though I think she thought our appetites would be a bit heartier). One of our favorite dishes was our first pick, the Placinte “Ileana Cosinzeana,” baked pastry stuffed with farmer’s cheese and herbs, potatoes, onions, and cabbage ($5), pictured above. The bread was light and flaky, and we loved the strong flavor of dill with the creamy farmers cheese filling. It reminded us a bit of burek, but in a single layer.

Continuing on the dill theme, we next had what can only be described as dill cheese balls, which had been billed as a “salad” on the menu, tasty, but super filling. We also had a simple bowl of zeama, chicken noodle soup ($7), which was nice and hearty, and we appreciated the homemade noodles. Next was Sarmale Ca La Mama, cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and beef ($8), which was fresh and hearty. Our waitress and many reviewers suggested we order the signature dish of Mamaliga Trapeza ($13) corn meal dumplings with pork, cheese, sour cream, and scrambled eggs. The mamiglia reminded us a bit of polenta, and was a good accompaniment for the pork.

We ate like kings at Moldova Restaurant for a relatively low price (and had a ton of food left over). Due to our huge amount of leftovers, we regretfully had to skip dessert. However, we were particularly intrigued by all the dessert varieties with sour cherries including dumpling and crepes (each $7). Even if you are not familiar with Moldovan food, definitely give Moldova Restaurant a try, if you are seeking something different. It was one of the best Eastern European restaurants we have been to in a while, and we highly recommend it!

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Sfinge for St. Joseph’s Day

We have already sung the praises of the zeppole for St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), but it almost always overshadows the similar fried confection, the sfinge (or sfingi). The sfinge, like the zeppole, is stuffed, fried dough with Southern Italian origins. However, while the zeppole is filled with custard, the sfinge is filled with ricotta cream, much like a cannoli. Both are topped with candied fruit. We also think the sfinge has more of a cream puff texture versus the doughnut texture of the zeppole (don’t tell, but we might like sfinge better!). You can find sfinge around March 19 at any good Southern Italian style bakery. This is one treat we wont be attempting to make at home, but here is a recipe from Cooking with Nonna, of you are feeling advanced. We especially like the sfinge from Angelo Brocato (214 N Carrollton Ave.) in New Orleans and Palermo Bakery (7312 E Irving Park Rd) in Norridge, right outside Chicago. Astoria, Queens is also a hotbed for Sfinge.

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Masa Madre: the best babka in Chicago

It is no secret that we love babka, the twisted brioche bread with ribbons of tasty fillings ranging from cinnamon to chocolate and beyond. We have sampled many babkas in the past few years, especially in New York, but were a little disheartened by the lack of exemplary options in Chicago. However, now Chicago has an AMAZING babka purveyor: Masa Madre. Masa Madre is a two-woman babka-making operation in Pilsen that bakes babkas ready-to-order and pick up right from their apartment. Masa Madre is run by Mexico City-born Tamar Fasja Unikel and Elena Vázquez Felgueres, and the babka is inspired by Unikel’s Mexican-Jewish heritage. Some of their special-edition babkas, like the churro or dulce de leche are a fun spin on combining these two cultures. Masa Madre offers chocolate, cinnamon and matcha green tea every week. On holidays, there are even seasonal baked goods like pan de muerto and sufganiyot for Hanukkah. You place an order through their Facebook page a few days in advance and pick up your loaves in Pilsen, which is a small price to pay for the freshest of babka. One loaf is $20, and you can get mini babka muffins for $3.50. Our favorite is definitely the ooey-gooey chocolate – check out those delicious swirls!

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Celebrating Mardi Gras with German Fasnacht

So we definitely are more familiar with King Cakes and paczkis, but the reach of the Mardi Gras fried doughnut also extends to Germany with Fasnacht. Fasnacht is a type of fried doughnut used to celebrate the holiday of Fasnacht, from where it gets its name. Fasnacht/Fastnacht (as it is called in Germany, Austria and Switzerland) means “Fast Night” and is the day before Ash Wednesday, where the last decadent treats (like the sugar and oil in doughnuts) are supposed to be eaten before the austerity of Lent kicks in. Fasnacht doughnuts may be square-shaped or more round like paczkis. I have never seen Fasnacht for sale, but outside of German-speaking Europe you can find them in small pockets, especially in places with Amish populations! Here are some recipes from All Recipes, Eve of Reduction, and PA Dutch Country (recipe circa 1936).

Fasnacht from Lancaster, PA by Timothy Freund

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Edible Bird’s Nest Drink…At Costco

Recently, at Costco, we ran across a case of an unusual-sounding drink: Golden Nest brand “Swallows Nest Beverage,” nestled right next to the Frappuccinos for the price of 8 bottles for $20. We thought the “nest” part was perhaps just a brand name or a metaphor, but it turns out that this drink is actually made from an edible bird’s nest, a prized culinary ingrediant in China. This ingrediant is more commonly known as Edible bird’s nests,” and are actual bird nests created by varieties of swiftlet birds out of hardened saliva. Yep, you read that right. The nests are prized for their purported health benefits and contain a large amount of amino acids. Birds nests can go for hundreds or thousands of dollars per kilo, so a price of less than $3 per bottle seems quite reasonable!

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Scandinavian pastries at Lost Larson

There is nothing we like more than trying pastries from around the world, so we were delighted to visit a new bakery in Andersonville in Chicago that celebrates the neighborhood’s Scandinavian heritage: Lost Larson ( 5318 N Clark St Chicago, IL). Lost Larson specializes in traditional Scandinavian pastries made with the highest quality ingredients. The bakery itself is bright and clean, and there are even some comfy booths for seating.

We have been to Lost Larson a few times, and we have yet to try something we did not love. We think that the croissants are particularly good. The scrumptious chocolate croissant has a touch of cardamom, and there is also a Danish riff on a croissant, the Tebirkes ($4.50), which has an almond filling and is covered with poppy seeds. M was head over heels for the cinnamon roll ($4.50), which was subtle, not overly syrupy or sticky. The cardamom bun ($4.50), a Swedish classic, was also superlative. They also have seasonal specialties in the pastry case like Saffron buns for St. Lucia’s day in December (unfortunately they were sold out when we got there).

A full selection of beverages are available including espresso drinks, tea and a matcha latte. Recently, we also sampled a special elderflower mulled apple cider. Don’t sleep on the breads displayed behind the counter either, we were in love with the slightly-sweet Swedish limpa bread with fennel, anise, and orange peel. There are also a few savory open-faced sandwiches (known as smorrebrod in Denmark) with eclectic toppings like avocado and pickled herring ($8.50-10) if you are in more of a lunch mood. Though Lost Larson may be a bit more expensive than other bakeries, it is worth every penny!

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Ul Boov for Mongolian Lunar New Year: Tsagaan Sar

Happy Lunar New Year! It is now the year of the pig in Chinese astrology (M’s lucky year!). There are so many delicious traditional foods, across all of the regions that celebrate Lunar New Year, that it is hard to choose one to feature. This year, we decided to go a little off the beaten track, a feature a dish that is specific to Mongolian Lunar New Year, Tsagaan Sar. This holiday is traditionally celebrated with copious amounts of food, including lots of dairy, tea with milk and dumplings. The centerpiece of the Tsagaan Saar (which means “White Moon”) table may be the Ul Boov, a huge layered presentation of cakes and cookies. Ul Boov literally means “shoe sole” and describes the shape of the fried cakes that compose this dish. Check out a video of an Ul Boov being made below.

 

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Filed under history, Holidays

Birrieria Zaragoza: Amazing Goat stew in Chicago

Birrieria Zaragoza (4852 S Pulaski Rd, Chicago, IL 60632) has been a stalwart restaurant for years, so we consider ourselves extremely remiss for not visiting them before this month! They only serve one thing – birria (hence the name Birrieria) – long-simmered goat stew from Jalisco state in Mexico. The benefit of only having one thing on the menu, is that you know it is going to be good!

We were amazed at all the different ways you could get the birria: as a stew, in a taco, or with broth only as a consomme. If you are itching for some tacos, you can get the birria made directly in taco form for $3.75 apiece, but if you get your birria by the plate, they also provide you with tortillas to make DIY tacos. We ordered a large plate with no bones ($15 without bones, $13.75 for bones in), which in our opinion is worth the slight extra expense, because then you can directly make your own tacos, and eat any extra meat. The platter came with 6 handmade tortillas, limes, peppers and other accoutrements.

All of the versions of birria came out to us super quick and piping hot. You can brighten the rich stew up with hot peppers and lime, and it was great to be able to make our own tacos just how we wanted them. We also got some nice freebies from the restaurant: a cheese quesadilla on a homemade tortilla (normally $2.75), and homemade tomato salsa in a molcajete (normally $4). We really liked the homemade tortillas, and the molcajete salsa was the perfect addition to brighten up the the birria tacos. We have to get back to the birria though – it was silky and tender, without any hint of gaminess. This is the best birria we have had in Chicago, bar none!

As you can see, the prices are all extremely reasonable, and we ate like kings for less than $25. You can even order goat by the pound for carryout ($22 for bone in, $25 for bone out), which we would definitely consider for a Superbowl party…. The service at the restaurant is great, too, it is definitely a family affair, and everyone couldn’t be friendlier. Birria is the perfect food for a cold dreary day (read: all of Chicago winter), so now is the perfect time to stop in for some at Birrieria Zaragoza!

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