Category Archives: Reviews

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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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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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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Peruvian chicken in Madison: Estacion Inka

We were so sad to hear that one of our original beloved Peruvian restaurants, Inka Heritage in Madison had closed! On a recent trip to Madison we looked them up to learn about their hours, only to find out that they were closed for good. Fortunately, we learned that the owners went and opened up another restaurant, this time a more casual spot in downtown Madison: Estacion Inka (604 University Ave, Madison, WI 53715). Unlike the more upscale vibe of Inka Heritage, Estacion Inka is a casual quick service place where you order at the counter and sit at the few tables in this clean, bright storefront. However, don’t be fooled by the restaurant’s simple appearance, the menu has many of the same favorites as Inka Heritage.

Here, the focus is on roast rotisserie chicken, which comes in a variety of sizes and permutations. Peru is known for its obsession with the perfect roast chicken, and we have tried a few dedicated Peruvian chicken spots in Chicago like D’Candela, so we are glad to see this type of restaurant come to Madison. We were at Estacion Inka on a weekday for lunch, and there is even a very attractive lunch special of a quarter chicken with rice and beans for a staggeringly cheap $5.65. You can also get a quarter ($7.99), half ($9.99) or whole roast chicken with one side: French Fries, Black Beans, White Rice, Cilantro Rice, Sweet Plantains, Fried Yucca, or Salad. There are some pre-defined options if you can’t choose, including the Caribbean special with rice, black beans and plantains ($8.99). We ordered the lunch special and Caribbean plate, and devoured every bite.

The chicken was tender and juicy with crispy skin, and the sides were on point. Another key element is the slightly spicy aji pepper sauce to slather on your chicken, which really brought it up a notch. Smoothies round out the menu, including M’s favorite flavor, Lucuma ($4). The tres leches cake ($3.50) and the alfajores looked tempting, but we were so full from our lunch that we had to stop at the smoothie. While we mourn the loss of Inka Heritage, Estacion Inka is a great stop for anyone in Madison craving some Peruvian flavor at a great price.

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Elegant Egyptian Classics at Sofra in Luxor

Whenever we were looking for restaurant recommendations in Luxor, Sofra (90 Mohamed Farid Street Al Manshiya, Luxor) kept bubbling up to the top. One thing that will impress you about Sofra right away is its historic setting in a 1930’s era structure. When we arrived at lunchtime, the whole bottom floor was empty, but we climbed the stairs and we found a bustling dining area. Notably, Sofra has one of the most relaxing and tranquil restaurant settings we encountered in Egypt. The upper level was filled with historic wooden furniture and traditional copper tables, colorful lanterns and draperies. Even though it was open to the elements and the 95 degree heat, the shady dining room was not hot at all.

The menu was filled with elevated Egyptian classics. We started out with Baba ghanouj eggplant dip and Khiyar Bil Zabadi Salad (cucumber and mint in yogurt – 21 EGP) which were both cool and refreshing. We each ordered a hearty main: hamam mashi (grilled, stuffed pigeon 65 EGP) stuffed with spiced rice and lamb shank fattah with a yogurt sauce over rice and bread cubes (95 EGP). We had tried pigeon before in Egypt, and it did remind of Cornish game hen – a lot of bones with little meat. However, Sofra’s version blew us away – the bird was tender and juicy and the rice stuffing made the meal feel more substantial. The lamb shank was fall-off-the-bone tender, though we would have liked more yogurt sauce on our dish.

One of our favorite things in Egypt is the fresh juices, so we went with cantaloupe (18 EGP) and classic mango juices (22 EGP) to accompany our meal. For dessert we tried Sahlab (25 EGP), a warm rosewater pudding made with flour from orchid tubers. Everything at Sofra was outstanding, the portions were generous, and we left happy and full. We would recommend Sofra to anyone who is visiting Luxor – delicious food, at reasonable prices, in a luxurious setting – what could be better?

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Wenkie’s Ice Cream in Luxor

The best ice cream we had in Egypt was at Wenkie’s (El Gawazat Street Luxor, Egypt) a German-run shop in the heart of Luxor. Wenkie’s specialty is making ice cream out of super-local water buffalo milk. Water buffalo are found throughout Egypt near the Nile and we were really excited to sample buffalo milk in a form other than our favorite cheese: buffalo milk mozzarella.

The shop was bright and welcoming, and featured a pin map on the wall of the locations of all the visitors (we couldn’t contribute since the US had already been well-covered). The owners of the shop, Ernst and Babette Wenk were running the show when we arrived, and helped explain all of the available flavors to us. We especially like that they make ice cream in local flavors like hibiscus, guava, pomegranate and doum fruit (which we were not even aware of until this trip). We ordered 3 scoops (15 pounds each) and they gave us a ton of samples afterward. You could also get milkshakes, coffee and even waffles!

The buffalo milk ice cream at Wenkie’s is indeed delicious! We loved all of the flavors we tried as well as the creamy texture of the ice cream. The doum fruit also lent itself very well to ice cream, perhaps better than having it as just a juice. We also were delighted by their chocolate and gingerbread flavors (we should have guessed that Germans would make amazing gingerbread). Ernst encouraged us to try the Hibiscus and chocolate together to make a sort of Black Forest cake. If you are in Luxor you have to visit Wenkies, there is simply nowhere else like it!

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Afternoon Tea at The Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan

There is nothing we love more than a good cup of tea, so we always try to do a little research into the best teas in the area when we are traveling. We were surprised to find out that one of the most storied teas in Egypt was found in Aswan, in southern Egypt, at the Old Cataract Hotel, a British colonial hotel from 1899. The Old Cataract Hotel is very expensive and decadent, and has played host to a variety of luminaries and dignitaries over the years. With this tea we have now had tea in 4 of the 6 populated continents. Somehow along the way we have missed South America, despite our long stay in Brazil – oh well – we will get there again eventually.

The price of tea at the Old Cataract Hotel is quite steep by Egyptian standards where a normal cup of black or mint tea will cost you only a few pounds. There are two versions of the tea available, a lighter and heavier option, and you pay by how many trays of food you want (versus per person). For the lighter teas, it is 360 pounds for one tray of food and 50 pounds for a second serving of tea (though nowhere is this listed). It is worth noting that the Old Cataract is quite fussy about letting non-guests in, and each non-guest must spend 200 pounds while there. We just walked right in the front door (be aware there is security as there are in many expensive Egyptian hotels), though we met others who have been stopped and questioned as to where exactly they were going.

The main attraction of the tea at the Old Cataract is the luxurious setting and the gorgeous view over the Nile from a comfortable shady terrace. We were a little disappointed to see that, of all of the teas being advertised on the menu (over a dozen), there were only 2 available: Darjeeling and Earl gray (we chose Darjeeling). After a bit of a wait, we got our tea in a substantial cast iron kettle, and a while after that, we got our tiered tray of food. There was plenty on the tray for both of us, so we were glad we did not order two, which would have been way too much for an afternoon tea.

For savories, we got roast beef, salmon with capers, and chicken salad popovers along with turkey and cheese and veggie finger sandwiches. M particularly liked the popovers and said that the salmon was his favorite bite of the whole tea. For sweets we had a “scone” with “clotted cream” (more of a bread roll and whipped cream), a mini berry macaron, a brownie, mini opera cake, a lemon tart and a fruit tart and a cup of custard. The mini opera cake was my favorite of this lot, though all of the desserts were pretty good. The last tier was a welcome surprise that you do not get at most teas: fresh fruit! We enjoyed the heaps of fresh mango, honeydew, strawberries and kiwi.

Sitting on the outdoor terrace and taking in views of the Nile was an extremely pleasant way to while away the afternoon. We felt like we could take our time and really take in the ambiance of the Old Cataract Hotel. During tea you definitely feel the last remnants of Colonial British Egypt (for better or worse). While you are certainly not paying for the service, the atmosphere could not be beat, and it is a relatively cheap way to enjoy the historic ambiance of the Old Cataract Hotel.

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On the Cheese Tea trend at Bingo Tea

We are always on the lookout for bubble tea, but little did we know that the whole landscape had changed in the past few years. One of the biggest bubble tea trends now is cheese milk/foam tea, which originated in Taiwan years ago. To be honest, cheese foam sounds a little bizarre, but think more cream cheese than cheddar. The sweetened, light milk foam topping eventually incorporates itself into the rest of the tea drink, making it extra creamy. We tried “cheese” milk for the first time at Bingo Tea (2150 S Archer Ave, Chicago, IL 60616) in Chicago’s Chinatown. The topping has been given the more palatable name of “Sea Salt Milk Foam” and is available as an add-on to any drink. We tried the classic matcha milk tea with boba and a peach tea with a sea salt milk foam, which we thought was a great combination. The matcha was solid, too! Bingo Tea also boasts a special reusable cup with a sipping lid (like a typical coffee cup lid) which allowed you to integrate the foam and tea while sipping. If you order a milk tea with tapioca boba, you do get a straw.

Though it may be the main attraction, cheese/milk foam is not the only unique drink at Bingo Tea. They also have a wide variety of interesting drinks including fresh fruit teas with dragon fruit, yogurt-based drinks, rose oolong tea, purple yam milk tea, and add-ons like grass jelly and matcha pudding. The prices may be a little higher than most bubble tea places, but they do also include the reusable plastic drink cup. Bingo Tea is also a great place to hang out, the inside is warm and modern, and there is even a selection of house-made baked goods including Durian Bread. If you live on the north side, there is now a second location of Bingo Tea on Argyle. Perhaps the biggest attraction of Bingo Tea, however, is the mascot (which looks exactly like M)! Bingo Tea is a great addition to the Chicago Bubble Tea scene, and we look forward to trying milk foam on some other tea varieties.

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Egyptian home cooking at Fasahat Somaya in Cairo

When we read about the food Renaissance in Cairo one name that kept bubbling to the top was that of Somaya Hamed. One of the few prominent female chefs in Cairo, Somaya cooked for participants of the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square. Now she has laid down roots and opened up a restaurant of her own. Fasahat Somaya (19 Youssef El Gendy Street, Off Hoda Shaarawy Street Cairo) which occupies a small corner in downtown Cairo near Tahrir Square.

The restaurant can be identified by its white walls and bright blue sign only in blocky Arabic script carved into the wall (seen above) – you won’t be able to miss it because invariably there will be crowds milling about waiting for the restaurant to open at 5 PM. The restaurant is only open for 2 hours a day, first come, first served, and there is a finite amount of food. When they are out of food, they’re closed for the night! We have heard that the best Egyptian food is always cooked at home, and you feel just like you are being invited into Somaya’s home as she greets you from her open kitchen (chef/owner Somaya is below).

Somaya will have a few selected items for the menu of the day, and you can expect something different daily, so come with an open mind. There is no menu on the wall, and the prices were unlisted. The waiter told us the offerings of the day and we decided to order one of each.

On the day we visited, Somaya was making:

  • Sweet and sour chicken: These were crispy chicken drumsticks with a sweet and sour glaze. The drumsticks were delicious, with more of an East Asian flavor than Egyptian.
  • Whitefish with a lemon cream sauce: This was probably our favorite dish of the night. The whitefish was mild and tender and the lemon cream sauce was the perfect complement.
  • Molokhia: Egypt’s famously slimy and polarizing jute leaf soup. We have had this Egyptian classic a few times while here, but this was our favorite version.
  • Salata Baladi: delicious local salad with many permutations, this version had tomatoes, cucumber, onion and peppers in an oil and citrus dressing. Fresh and delicious!
  • Roast potatoes with cumin: We were not expecting much out of this dish but it was tasty and hearty.No two nights will be alike, and Somaya’s menu is always changing with the seasons. Our whole meal for four only set us back about $20 US, which was absolutely astounding. We would definitely recommend getting in line early for Somaya’s takes on Egyptian classics with a twist –  you feel like you are eating in someone’s personal kitchen – where the best food is always located.

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The Doum Palm of Aswan

We are currently riding down the Nile River in Egypt on a dahabiyya, an historical wooden boat, and are outside of Aswan. Our lovely crew decided to pull over to make a picnic for us on the shore of the Nile. While there, we marveled at a proliferation of palm trees with wrinkly green/pink fruits that we had never seen before. Not a coconut or banana certainly… somewhat guava-like but still not that….

Turns out this scrubby palm with tons of spikes was a Doum Palm! This sturdy palm tree grows in arid climates across the Sahel of Africa and produces a sweet fruit by the same name. Doum fruit is eaten from Senegal to Tanzania and beyond, and is apparently popular in Egypt as both an edible fruit and folk remedy. Our intrepid crew got us some ripe Doum specimens from the trees and made a chilled smoothie for us back on the boat (seen below). Though the appearance was standard, the flavor was really shocking! Think a fruity butterscotch with a hint of maple. With a flavor like that, it is no wonder the Doum Palm is also called a “gingerbread tree.” The sweet candy-like taste also reminded us of the lucuma fruit from Peru which has a similar, unexpected cake-like quality. Who knew the Sahara could produce gingerbread!?

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Bellies en Route Cairo Food Tour

Unsurprisingly, our favorite thing about traveling is the FOOD, and we try to learn a bit about the local cuisine before we visit a place. You may be surprised that up until now we have never taken a food tour. When we learned about the first food tour in Cairo, given by Bellies en Route, it sounded like the perfect food tour for us. Bellies en Route is curated and run by Egyptians Mariam “Mia” Nezar and Laila Hassaballa. They are experts in the Cairo food scene and picked out the perfect eats for first time visitors, exposing you to the vast variety of classic Egyptian foods. And as you may have guessed since we are not Arabic-speakers, the tour is given in English.

We met Mia in Tahrir Square in the heart of downtown Cairo at 4 PM to start off our walking tour of downtown Cairo foods. Mia and Laila have throughly vetted all of the stops on the tour both for tastiness and consistency so you know you will be in for a treat, taking out all of the guesswork in a new city. Our host Mia, a born and bred Cairene, was also extremely knowledgable about the history of Cairo and its cuisine. We really appreciated the extra historical context and insight she provided throughout the tour.

Our first stop was for some classic Egyptian home cooking. Our amuse-bouche was salad water (Muyyet Salata) a vinegary drink in a shotglass proportion with garlic, lemon and dill meant to whet the appetite. Our next sample was macarona bechamel, a tasty baked pasta dish with meat and a cream sauce (with extra tomato sauce on the side) that is popular at home but rarely seen out in restaurants. Without the tour I am sure we would never have gotten to try it. Think of it as kind of a cousin of tomatoless Greek pastizio.

Another new-to-us specialty the Bellies unearthed at a historic coffee roaster was Arabic-style coffee which is light in color, and nothing like the thick, potent Turkish coffee you may be expecting. This conconction is served unsweetened with cardamom, and tastes akin to a green tea. You definitely have to try it for yourself!

Next we were off to a juice bar to sample some fresh Egyptian juices, something the country is particularly known for. We sampled karkade, a popular drink made from a flower similar to hibiscus (and the Mexican agua fresca Jamaica), sugarcane juice, and Sobia, a rice and coconut water similar to Mexican drink horchata without the cinnamon. I find it interesting how there are so many analogues between Mexican and Egyptian drinks. It was particularly fun to watch the raw sugarcane stalks pressed through the machine to make the juice, and surprisingly it was not too sweet. Of course, in Egypt, the king of all juices is Mango. Egypt grows dozens of varieties of mangos and their in-season time is hotly anticipated. Sometimes it is impossible to know which juice bar is good (or clean enough) so we felt grateful for the Bellies’ guidance.

We also visited a well-known classic restaurant for Egyptian comfort foods, Felfela, which is actually built into an alleyway and is particularly atmospheric (seen above). After that we visited a hole-in-the-wall homestyle Egyptian restaurant tucked into a nondescript storefront in downtown Cairo that we can assure you could never find on your own. At these two restaurants we sampled heartier Egyptian fare including Egyptian falafel (made of fava beans instead of chickpeas as it is in many other places), a parade of mezze, and the polarizing Egyptian soup molokiah (dark green soup seen below).

Molokiah is made of jute leaves cooked in a chicken (or other type of) stock, and has a very unusual texture. The plant leaves, which are somewhat akin to kale or collard greens, have a viscous okra-like texture when cooked. The dish is a love-it or hate-it thing and we personally fall into the pro-molokiah camp. Mia also showed us how to sop up the molokiah with pieces of the baladi bread made into the shape of a “cats ear” (same deal as an Italian scarpetta).

By this point we were getting pretty full, even though most of what we had been tasting was the sample portion size, but we pressed on, eager to sample more! As our last savory item, we visited a place for koshary that came recommended over the more famous Abu Tarek. You have to attend the tour to find out where! We have written about koshary (and our affinity for it) a few times before and it is a must-try for any visitor to Egypt. Koshary is a satifying mix of lentils, chickpeas, various shapes of pasta, fried onions and tomato sauce, which you can customize with spicy or garlic sauces.

After all of these main courses, we stopped at a traditional dessert shop where piles of cookies and desserts in large copper trays were on offer. We sampled basboosa, honey cake and kunefe. Basboosa is cooked with semolina flour and flavored with rosewater and kunefe is made with two cake-like layers of crunchy wheat vermicelli filled with a layer of cream.

And there were even more surprises in store, but you have to attend the tour yourself to find out. We are grateful to the Bellies for showing us a different, more local side to the Cairo food scene. If you are new to Cairo and want an on-the-ground food tour featuring food that the local Cairenes actually eat themselves, we couldn’t recommend Bellies en Route more. Our only major advice is: come to the tour hungry!

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Cairo Kebab Before we head to Cairo

We are going to Egypt (starting in Cairo) TODAY. So before we headed to Egypt we whet our palates with a little Egyptian food right here in Chicago. There is a lot of Persian and Lebanese food in Chicago, but not much Egyptian, so we had to seek out Cairo Kebab1524 W Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL ) for a taste of Egypt.

One of the signature dishes you have to get in Egypt is koshary (seen above), so naturally we had to get it at Cairo Kebab. Koshary is mix of rice, lentils, macaroni and chickpeas with a spicy tomato sauce and topped with fried onions. Now, we have only had koshary a few times, so we are super excited to sample it in Egypt. Cairo Kebab’s rendition of koshary ($8.75) was a huge portion of filling, tasty comfort food, and we could really taste how well all of the elements complemented eachother. We also filled up on the delicious hummus and pita ($6 for a large, as seen below) and stuffed grape leaves ($5). At this point we were already astounded by the sheer amount of food – so it is a good thing that we decided to split among us the Cairo Kebab Combo ($15) a platter of Chicken Kebab, Shish Kebab, and Kofta Kebab, served on a bed of rice with grilled veggies. The kebabs were tasty, delicious and filling. If you are a fan of any particular type of kebab you can order that one individually as well. Though we did not try it – the chicken or beef shewarma also looked particularly tantalizing ($11.75).

We finished up our meal with typical sweets for dessert: Baklava and Mamoul (date cookies). We are definitely fans of Cairo Kebab – their renditions of Middle Eastern favorites and Egyptian specialties were great. We are now feeling a little  more prepared for our trip to Egypt and its culinary delights. Do you have any Egyptian food recommendations?

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Chicago Gourmet 2018 Recap

This is my 6th (!!!) year going to Chicago Gourmet, a weekend-long food and wine festival that takes place in Millennium Park in the heart of Chicago’s Loop. Chicago Gourmet is a food festival that features chefs from restaurants around town serving small bites in food pavilions, alongside wine and spirits exhibitors, and it just seems to get bigger every year.  There are 2 rounds for each Pavilion during the day, with a set of 3 or 4 new chefs when the pavilion turns over halfway through the day (12 to 3 PM or 3 to 6 pm).

My priority is always finding international food, and Chicago Gourmet tends to deliver in this department. This year there were 2 exclusively international Pavilions, The Mexico and Thai Pavilions, with other international bites sprinkled throughout. Though there were plenty of world cuisine on offer, I was disappointed, however to see that the sister cities pavilion, which had been present at the past few Chicago Gourmets, was not there. Stella Artois still had its signature booth, alongside a few more beer purveyors in the wine-focused festival than I had seen in previous years including Birra Moretti, Bell’s and Moody Tongue.

The Mexico Pavilion featured chefs from Guadalajara, Mexico this year, all up-and-coming chefs that do not yet have their own restaurants. There was even a mariachi group performing! The bites offered at the Mexico tent were innovative and tasty takes on Mexican classics, think: a pork belly taco with shrimp ceviche and pineapple sauce, a scallop tostada with mole and edible flowers, and a miniature roasted pork sandwich.

The Thai Pavilion also turned out some tasty Thai food from restaurants around town, including our perennial favorite Star of Siam that featured their inimitable Rama peanut sauce chicken. We also loved the Som Tum papaya salad from JJ Thai street food, but my favorite bite from the Thai tent was a delicate Miang Kham betel leaf from Herb Thai Restaurant, which featured all of our favorite flavors: shallot, ginger, garlic, lime, and peanuts.

Of course, there were also chefs serving up global fare in some of the other pavilions. Rick Bayless and Topolobampo turned out a great Oaxacan black mole on a homemade tortilla as his bite in the BBQ Tent. The labneh (Turkish yogurt) with carrot slaw from The Bristol was also a winner. The Supreme Seafood pavilion was also a standout, and features some of the longest lines year after year. Seafood-wise, the ceviche from La Josie and the Octopus taco from Octavio were standouts.

The dessert pavilion is always my favorite, and it did not disappoint this year. We visited for both rounds, and were surprised at all of the innovative flavors and American classics. Bang Bang Pie had a delicious berry cobbler, Hewn had a chocolate mascarpone marble brownie and our favorite was a stunning miso tart from Floriole.

As in previous years, there were also many international and domestic wine and spirits distributors. The free-flowing drinks are certainly a large part of the appeal for many fest-goers. I especially enjoyed the TYKU Sake booth from Japan. I sampled a few different sakes, and learned about what differentiated the different grades of sake, a spirit I had never really considered before – and there is a lot to learn about sake. For example, I learned that having polished rice made foe a more refined and high-grade sake. And of course the Campari tent was turning out delicious Aperol Spritzes, though since it was only 50 degrees, they were not as refreshing as they were last year when it was 90+ degrees.

One thing I did a little differently this year was to try a variety of wines in an effort to become more educated on the different varietals of wine and their specific qualities. Our dirty little secret on ETW is that we do not really know anything about wine! At least in terms of wine exploration, I think my wine mission was pretty successful. Having attended and skipped over the wine in the past, sampling all of the wine made Chicago Gourmet a little bit more worthwhile. More on that in a future post.

Some non-food vendors get in on the Chicago Gourmet fun to varying levels of success. This year Cadillac sponsored a build-your-own donut bar featuring Do-Rite donuts, which was fun and delicious, but left me scratching me head about how it related to cars. I brought a donut home for M, so no complaints there.

Of course, another major part of Chicago Gourmet is the demos and classes. The celebrity chef demos, featuring big names like Rick Bayless and Carla Hall demos always draw a crowd. However, I wanted to see someone who was newer on the scene, so I went to a demo by Jennifer Kim of the much talked about Chicago restaurant Passerotto, which features a mash-up of Korean and Italian cuisines. She made glutinous rice noodles in a lamb-neck ragu. It was interesting to see how these noodles were made, and the similarities and differences between rice noodles and Italian pastas.

The temperature this year was a bit cooler at about 55 Degrees, which turned out to be the optimal weather for food sampling. All in all, Chicago Gourmet was a fun experience, and a great way to try some new food and wine. I learned about restaurants (and wines) that I had never heard of before, and ate to excess. I am looking forward to seeing what Chicago Gourmet will come up with next year!

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Berber Street Food offers a tour of Africa and the diaspora

When we heard that there was a new African restaurant in NYC with a chef from Mauritania, our ears perked up. The restaurant is the brainchild of chef Diana Tandia, who is originally from Mauritania, but has worked in upscale restaurants around NYC for decades. She decided that it was time to strike out on her own, so she opened Berber Street Food (35 Carmine St, New York, NY 10014). The menu is a mosaic of different African and African Diaspora cuisines, along with some interesting fusions.

Berber Street food is a tiny – and we mean tiny – restaurants with 15 seats. This counter-service is not a place for groups, or to linger over a leisurely lunch (though when we were there, the couple occupying the table in the window was having a simultaneous birthday party and photo shoot, so who knows). When we entered around lunchtime, the place was packed, and we were happy to see that they were doing a brisk takeout trade.  Many of the lunch orders were buying Afro-Fusion express bowls ($10), which were various combinations of grains, greens and proteins, including tofu curry, Berber-spiced meat and Jamaican jerk chicken.

For starters, called “street food bites,” there are Senegalese empanadas (vegetable or beef curry $3 each), Kofta meatballs with Berber spices ($8), or a Suya Nigerian beef brochette ($8), along with Jamaican jerk chicken wings ($7.5o). All of Africa and the diaspora seemed to be covered.We were excited to see akara, a black-eyed pea fritter that is the Nigerian descendants of Brazilian acarajé with tomato and onion sauce ($7), so we knew we had to order it. Though smaller in size to acarajé, they tasted pretty similar and were delicious. M topped his with some spicy kani, west African hot sauce made of habanero peppers (which were also placed decoratively in basket at each table).

The mains were a little more pricey, and covered the greats hits of the region, including Djolof Fried Rice (which is claimed by many West African countries – $17) rice cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with either chicken or tempeh and Moroccan vegetable tajine, served served in an actual tajine ($18). We had the Berber Feast ($24) which consisted of roast lamb, squash and couscous, the most Mauritanian item on the menu. The lamb was fall of the bone tender and not gamey at all (sometimes a problem with lamb), and we enjoyed the accompaniments and sauces, though we felt the price was a little steep for the portions. We washed down our dinner with Berber iced mint tea ($3) and ginger lemongrass drink ($5) – we also discovered that these two mixed together made an amazing riff on the Arnold Palmer.

The attention to detail in Berber Street Food restaurant is amazing. It is basically a one-woman show, with Diana cooking, taking orders and delivering food (though it did appear she had a sous chef helping her back in the kitchen). We enjoyed talking with Diana, who connected with us over having spent some time in Brazil. If we lived in the area we could definitely see ourselves having lunch here pretty often. We wish Berber Street Food nothing but success!

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Baobab BBQ: South African braai meets American BBQ

There has always been controversy over the meaning of the word “barbecue” – some people use it interchangeably with “cookout” – grilling burgers or other meats in the backyard, while purists would argue that “barbecue” only actually applies to meats cooked low and slow in a smoker. Barbecue gets even more complicated when you factor in usage in other countries. In South Africa, barbecue – in all senses of the word – is called braai. Now there is a place in Chicago to experience low and slow smoked meats with a South African braai twist, Baobab BBQ (2301 W. Foster Ave., Chicago, IL). The owner, Andrew Dunlop, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa was extremely friendly, and chatted with us after our meal. Dunlop was long obsessed with American BBQ, and brings his mix of American and South African sensibilities to the Baobab menu.

The main attraction at Baobab BBQ is the meat, you can pick a choice of pulled pork, brisket, or roast chicken. There is also the classic South African spiced beef sausage: boerewors. You can get a combination platter of various meat (Brisket, Pulled Pork, Ribs, Pulled Chicken, Hot Link- $19) or sandwiches on brioche rolls with slaw ($9). Sides are extra, and their signature side is mac and cheese with bacon. We ordered the boerewors sandwich and a pulled pork sandwich – both were excellent. The pulled pork was tender and juicy, and we liked the slightly-spiced boerewors, which was similar to a brat but had a flavor all of its own. There are a variety of sauces on the counter to top your meats with, including the intriguingly-named Monkey Gland sauce. We were assured that the monkey gland sauce was that in name only (it is actually a ginger, garlic and chutney-based sweet sauce). Other varieties include Bourbon, Kansas City-style and mustard sauce.

Though many of the meats are prepared in American style, other South African flavors permeate the menu. There is also a salad with a traditional South African biltong, a dried beef, topping the salad ($8). For dessert you can get South African classics ($5 each): melktert (milk tart) or Koeksusters (braided fried dough). We tried both of these desserts, the milk tart was a pastry crust shell with a delicately-flavored milky pudding, and the koeksisters reminded us of a crispy, syrupy churro. The last dessert, which we didn’t try on this visit, is another SA staple: Malva Pudding, an apricot cake covered in cream. Another nice added feature is that Baobab donates some of its profits to local schools. Baobab BBQ is a unique addition to the thriving barbecue scene in Chicago, and we appreciate the South African braai twist on US barbecue.

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Markellos Bakery for a 24-hour pan dulce fix

One of our favorite places in Brazil was the 24-hour bakery, ubiquitous in São Paulo. This tends to be somewhat more of a rarity in the US since I guess Americans do not have urgent sweet-tooth cravings, instead opting for late-night diner food. But seriously, who doesn’t want a good cookie after a night out? In fact, I had never seen a 24-hour bakery in Chicago until we happened upon Markellos Bakery in Albany Park (3520 W Lawrence Ave, Chicago, IL 60625). We stopped there on a whim after a concert got out after midnight, and we were still hungry! Markellos is situated unceremoniously in a strip mall next to a laundromat. The owner of Markellos was Greek-born Markellos Res (who recently passed away), though despite this, the majority of the pastries are Latin. There is a large variety of pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) from sugar cookies, to croissants, to rolls, to conchas to our favorite puerquitos. If you are in the mood for something savory, rumor is that they have Guatemalan tamales on the weekend. And the price is right, for $5 you can get a ton of sweets. Remember to bring cash!

Markello’s photo from Markello’s Twitter

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Kie Gol Lanee’s Taste of Oaxaca

One of the best things in Chicago is getting to enjoy the regional Mexican cuisine around every corner! Our favorite regional Mexican food is Oaxacan, so we are always on the lookout for new places featuring this region’s cuisine. Fortunately, in 2016, a new Oaxacan place opened quietly in Uptown, Kie-Gol-Lanee (5004 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago, IL 60640). Located near the Argyle red line stop, which is usually known for its Vietnamese pho options, Kie-Gol-Lanee has risen quickly to stand out as one of the premiere Oaxacan restaurants in Chicago. According to a Fooditor interview with the proprietors, the name of the restaurant is a phonetic spelling of Oaxacan village where they were born, Santa Maria Quiegolani, which is in turn a Spanish version of the Zapotec language words for “old stones” or “place by the river.”

We visited Oaxaca a few years ago, and our favorite thing there were the ubiquitous mole sauces, which come in 7 main varieties but have countless variations within each. Kie-Gol-Lanee heavily features its moles and other Oaxacan specialties on the menu. Though there are tacos and guacamole, more unique Oaxacan dishes make up much of the offerings. The appetizers start out strong: they even have the polarizing chapulines (fried grasshoppers – $8) as an appetizer. Personally, we love chapulines, and thought their rendition was great – they are a perfect salty, crunchy meal starter. Other unique appetizer included mushrooms in plantain leaves ($9). Salads with nopal (cactus) and beet sounded tempting ($9) as did the Oaxaca-style tamales (steamed in a plantain leaf instead of the more common corn husks – $5).

We were the most intrigued by the main courses, which included a variety of meats and seafood, many featuring moles. Highlights included gallinitas al horno ($20) Cornish game hen with black mole sauce and sesame seeds, and the camarones a la diabla ($20), shrimp with guajillo and chipotle pepper sauce.  We ordered the arrachera a la parilla ($21) – grilled skirt streak with grilled onions and jalapenos, topped with a huitlacoche mole, and the chicken enchiladas topped with red mole ($16).  The steak was cooked perfectly, and we were pleasantly surprised by the huitlacoche mole, which we had never tried before. Not a typical mole, this variety contained one of our favorite esoteric foods, huilacoche, a mushroom that grows on corn, which has a deep, earthy flavor and makes a delectable black sauce. The red mole on the enchiladas was incredibly rich and complex, elevating an otherwise simple dish. The moles here were the real deal, and you can tell that each was made from scratch from a huge variety of spices, vegetables and peppers.

We also sampled some of the agua fresca drinks- the jamaica (hibiscus) and horchata ($3), though in retrospect we should have tried the more unique offering, chilacayote (made with squash). However, we did get our squash fix with dessert – candied chilacayote squash with cinnamon ($8). For those scrunching up their nose at the thought of candied squash for dessert, this tasted like a cross between sweet potato and melon and was really pleasant! We highly enjoyed Kie-Gol-Lanee and it transported us right back to Oaxaca. Though priced slightly higher than a typical Mexican restaurant in Chicago, Kie-Gol-Lanee is worth every penny. The service is friendly, and the authentic Oaxacan food is something that you cannot find at many other places in the city.

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