Category Archives: Reviews

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. We hear that they are eyeing expansion, and may soon be opening a Bingo Tea Malaysian restaurant and bubble tea cafe in Uptown. 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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Shaya – Amazing Israeli food in New Orleans

We always love to get Cajun and Creole food when we are in New Orleans, but we are also impressed at how much international cuisine and fine dining is present in the city. On our latest trip, we were excited to learn about James Beard-winning chef Alon Shaya’s eponymous modern Israeli restaurant in the Garden District, Shaya (4213 Magazine Street, New Orleans, LA).

ShayaHummus

The key feature of Shaya is the impressive wood-burning stove in the corner of the bright, airy restaurant. The stove was running at full tilt during lunch, and it was fun to watch the pita being pulled out of the oven and being brought right to the table. The menu at Shaya is vegetable-focused and that shines through the menu. For lunch one of the most popular items is the salatim – where you select from a variety of small plates to share (3 for $15 or 5 for $23). Salatim means “salad” and refers to the assortment of cold dishes that serve as a kind of appetizer for Israeli meals.

Salatim

We were really excited to sample some salatim that we had never heard of: Ikra (whipped cream cheese, caviar and shallots), Lutenitsa (roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic and tomato) and the more familiar Labneh (yogurt with peppers and radishes) and Tabouleh (parsley and bulgar salad). Each of the salatim had a unique flavor profile, and we loved the lush, creamy flavors of the Labneh and Ikra, and the piquant peppers of the Lutenitsa (also popular in Balkan and Eastern European cuisines).

ShayaInterior

We had also heard great things about Shaya’s hummus, which comes in varieties from plain tahini ($9) to more exotic takes with curry, eggplant, or lamb ragu. We selected a variety with asparagus and crispy shallots, which was perfect for early spring. The hummus was creamy and rich and we absolutely could not get enough of the pita, which we sopped up every morsel of hummus with. Fortunately, you can get as many pita refills as you want.

FalafelShaya

Beyond the salatim there were soup and salads (including matzoh ball soup and a fresh cucumber salad), small plates (ranging from halloumi cheese to the ubiquitous avocado toast), and sandwiches like the classic Israeli staple, the sabich. For the rest of our lunch we selected L’s favorite: falafel ($12) and the lamb kofte ($15) along with the roasted Brussels sprouts. The kofte was shaped into more of a patty, and was topped with tomato jam, herbs, tahini, and served over a bed of white beans. It was like the best kebab you ever had and a burger had a baby, with a sprinkling of spice. The falafel was our favorite variety, crispy and bright green from the high herb content, and they were each clearly fried to order.

KofteShaya

The grand finale was the chocolate Babka cake, served in a small cast-iron skillet. We are huge fans of babka, a sweet brioche loaf marbled with chocolate, and Shaya’s version was divine – and drenched in a caramel sauce (there now appears to be a cinnamon variety on the menu). Shaya reminded us a lot of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, another modern Israeli powerhouse, which is a good thing. However, the fresh pita really sent Shaya over the top. This place is the real deal! Alon Shaya is opening up 2 more restaurants, and we can’t wait to see what else he has in store.

ShayaBabka

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The French Pastries of St. Roger Abbey

In honor of Bastille Day, we are going to highlight a taste of France right here in Chicago: St. Roger Abbey. St. Roger Abbey is a French religious order of Friars and Nuns with a worldwide presence, but an American base in Chicago. We first learned of St. Roger Abbey when we came across the nuns selling macarons at Christkindlmarkt one year. The order has a wide variety of authentic, organic French pastries including palmiers, madeleines, Breton cakes and croissants that they sell to raise funds for their charitable work. They even have a cafe in Wilmette (1101 Central Ave, Wilmette, IL 60091) and an online store where you can support their mission. Sounds like a good reason to buy some croissants!

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Pastry Post-Doc: Tulumba for Ramadan

Sorry for the long absence… I meant to post this at the beginning of Ramadan, which was May 15. So, clearly this post is a bit late, but fortunately I managed to write this post before the end of Ramadan, this upcoming Thursday, June 14. One of the most important parts of Ramadan is the nightly Iftar, or breaking of the day’s fast after sunset. We of course have an eye to the sweet, so we decided to share one of our favorite Ramadan desserts, which is enjoyed throughout the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, Tulumba. Tulumba is a fried, extruded churro-like pastry dipped in a sugar syrup. We thought immediately of Indian jalebi when we first had them. A sweet tooth is definitely required for this recipe! You can find Tulumba throughout North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, under a variety of names (it is known in Iran as Zoolbia/Zolobiyah Bamieh, in Egypt as balah ash-sham and in the Middle East as asabe Zainab), though it may be most associated with Turkey. Given the geographical range of Tulumba, you can be sure to find regional variations from country to country. The Spruce has a recipe from Turkey (seen below), and here are other versions from Greece, Egypt, Iran, and the Middle East.

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Pastry-Post Doc: Thiakry / Degue from West Africa

We recently attended the end-of-the-year gala for the local college’s African Student Association, which was a delightful banquet full of delicious dishes from all around Africa: jollof rice, moi moi, plantains, injera, beef tibs, samosas and more. However, there were no African desserts. That got us to thinking – what would be a good African dessert to add in the future? That’s when we first heard about Thiakry (aka Dégué) – a sweet couscous-like dish with origins in West Africa. Both titles refer to the millet grain used in the dish itself, which is called Thiakry in Senegal, or Dégué in the rest of West Africa. The grain used in Thiakry can be millet or if that is not available, wheat, which is then mixed with dairy, dried fruit, vanilla and spices like nutmeg or cinnamon. The final texture is similar to rice pudding. You can check out the following recipes for varieties of Degue/Thiakry: Yummy Medley, Food World, and Salwa Petersen. You can buy Degue/Millet in most African markets, or in various shops online. This is a dish that is open to experimentation and customization – so you can add pretty much anything you want – as in this modern take on the recipe from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (seen below).

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Soup Dumplings come to Cleveland at LJ Shanghai

chinaWe love the southeast Asian food in Cleveland (looking at you Superior Pho), but we are still on the lookout for our new favorite Chinese restaurant in the area. Fortunately, we have found a strong new contender in LJ Shanghai (3142 Superior Ave., Cleveland), which specializes in Shanghainese soups and Xiao Long Bao (XLB) aka soup dumplings. We had been craving soup dumplings and, up until this point, had not been able to find any in the area, so we were stoked!LJShanghaiLJ Shanghai is located in AsiaTown, in a small, unassuming storefront. The inside is modern and bright, and you will know you are in the right place when you are greeted by the little dumpling mascots on the front window. The menu is at LJ Shanghai is relatively small, and we appreciate the curation because we are easily overwhelmed by long menus. Each menu item also has an included photo, which proved to be super helpful. You can start out with lighter bites like the the steamed pork buns ($5) or the garlic and cucumber. There are also hearty entrees like steamed chicken ($15) Braised duck with soy sauce ($10) and sweet and sour ribs ($10).LJXLB

However, we were here for the XLB, ($5 for 6 – seen above).  The dumplings are steamed in a basket, during which time, the gelatinized broth melts, creating the desired ‘soup.’ The soup dumplings at LJ are very good, with a thin noodle skin and a tasty, pork filling surrounded by the mysteriously liquefied soup. The dumplings are accompanied by a variety of other dipping sauces (ginger, vinegar, chili sauce etc) to customize your experience. We have not quite mastered the technique of eating XLB elegantly, but we are looking forward to future attempts.

LJWonton

Another standout on the menu is the soup, which is the perfect hardy antidote to the seemingly never-ending Cleveland winter (though Spring is starting to peek its head out…we think). Some soup options include beef and vermicelli curry soup ($8) Shanghai flat noodle soup ($8) and mixed veggie noodle soup ($10). We sampled both the Wonton soup ($6 without shrimp, $8 with shrimp) and the Chongquing spicy beef noodle soup ($10 with beef, also available without beef, or with pig intestines). The spicy beef soup was nicely spicy thanks to the chili flakes and oil, and as a result was extremely warming. We also appreciated the good cuts of beef, crunchy bok choy and a heavy helping of cilantro and peanuts. The wonton soup was its polar opposite, very light and almost delicate, with a clear broth, and we especially enjoyed the handmade pork wontons.

LJBeef

The prices were very reasonable, and we even had enough soup to bring home for leftovers. LJ Shanghai is a great edition to Cleveland’s AsiaTown food landscape. Though the XLB may not be on par with expert purveyors like Din Tai Fung, they are definitely standouts in the local food scenes. We can’t wait to go back and have another round (and work on our technique)

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Lilia’s new-school Italian in NYC

Italy

We have been traveling a lot this year: LA, Kansas City, New Orleans, Madison, Chicago, Columbus… and as a result, we have an ever-growing backlog of posts we have been meaning to write. So, we thought it was about time that we post about a restaurant we’ve been thinking of for a while: Lilia (567 Union Ave, Brooklyn, NY). We are famously finicky about Italian food, we always figure that we can make it better (and cheaper) at home, so, other than pizza, we rarely order Italian out. But sometimes a restaurant seems interesting and special enough to lure us out of our old habits, and that was the case with Lilia. Lilia is the brainchild of chef Missy Robbins, and was named as one of the best new restaurants in 2016 by the New York Times and Time Out New York.

Photo From Eater NYC

The restaurant is definitely scene-y, and we were certainly not cool enough to be there among New York’s buzziest. And I can’t say we were made to feel particularly welcome: even though we had a reservation early on a Thursday, we still had to wait about a half hour to sit, all the while waiting awkwardly in the vicinity of the bar, because the bar itself was completely full. Though in the meantime we did have time to explore the interesting space – which used to be an auto repair shop – and the menu. The menu was divided into small plates and entrees, but we opted for small plates to share. The pasta is all made by hand, and we heard only great things about the sorcery of Missy Robbins, who cut her teeth as Executive Chef at Chicago’s Italian icon Spiaggia from 2003-2008.

More precisely, the menu is divided into cocktail snacks, antipasti, “Little Fish,” Pasta, “Big Fish,” and Meat. The cocktail snacks are sort of like appetizers for your appetizers: Sicilian olives, prosciutto, house-made mozzarella or radishes with sea salt. Up one level in size are the antipasti, including many interesting veggie-forward combos: Red celery and fingerling potatoes; whole artichoke with mint; and cauliflower with spicy sopressata and pesto. I notice that now they have Bagna Cauda on the menu – which we certainly would have gotten! Our first chosen dish was roasted trumpet mushrooms with balsamic, arugula, and Sicilian almonds (above) – the mushrooms were woodsy, and almost meaty, and went well with the deep, aged balsamic. For a second “lighter” bite, we went with the fennel salad with oranges – one of our favorite dishes that we first tried in Siracusa, Sicily. There is something about the combination of fennel and oranges that is just perfect.

Next was the “Little Fish” menu which featured grilled scallops with walnut, yogurt and marjoram alongside mussels and sea salt. From this section of the menu, we started out with cured sardines with capers, butter and dill on top of fettunta (bread rubbed with garlic – above). This was our favorite bite of the night – salty, savory and a perfect flavor combination. Sardines have really been growing on us recently, and these were the salty, savory bite showcased on some excellent bread. The “Big Fish” and Meat sections of the menu had much larger entrees and included grilled swordfish with sweet/hot peppers and mint and grilled veal flank steak with hot peppers.

The pasta dishes are intended to be a starter course, as in Italy, but we basically ignored that advice. There were almost 10 pasta choices, and each sounded more delicious than the next: ricotta gnocchi with broccoli pesto, basil and pistachios; fettuccine with spicy lamb sausage; or potato-filled ravioli with crème fraîche, garlic and rosemary. From the pasta menu we chose the sheep-milk cheese agnolotti (mini, rectangular filled pasta pockets), topped with saffron, dried tomato and honey and Malfadine – flat pasta with wavy edges – with pink peppercorns and Parmesan. The malfadine dish was a great riff on cacio e pape. The simple Roman classic was elevated by the slightly thick, handmade pasta and high-quality Parmesan. The agnolotti was light and fresh, with a slight sheep’s-milk tang which shone through the light sauce. The handmade pasta was uniformly excellent. We finished off our meal with a seasonal apple galette with winter fruits- which was perfectly proportioned with flaky, crispy crust.

Flipping the script – Lilia is also known for their soft serve (we didn’t sample it this time, but maybe we will be back)! The Italian-only wine menu is quite extensive, and they have the widest selection of amari (after-dinner bitters) we have ever seen! In the morning, and for lunch, you can visit a more subdued Lilia for coffee, pastries and panini. Though you may have to cut through the hype a little bit to eat there, we really enjoyed our meal at Lilia. The small plates were all perfect and simple in an ingredient-forward way, spicing up traditional flavor combinations and dishes. Lilia lived up to our standards for Italian food, and that is saying something!

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Northwoods charm (and pie) at Honeypie

Happy Pi(e) Day! In honor of this auspicious day, we are revisiting one of our favorite places for pie, Honeypie (2643 S Kinnickinnic Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53207) in Milwaukee. Our two favorite things about Honeypie are 1. the PIE and 2. the fact that there is something for everyone. The restaurant is decorated with a classic Wisconsin Northwoods theme, with clapboard walls, reclaimed wooded booths, maps and vintage Wisconsin-y ephemera.

Most importantly, there is a dessert case in the back with a variety of pies, biscuits, sweet breads and cupcakes. Over the years, we have sampled a number of Honeypie’s pies, and we have never been let down. Some of our favorites include the black bottom banana cream pie (below), blueberry (below), Milwaukee mud pie, strawberry rhubarb and ginger chai cream. You can order a whole pie in advance ($29 or $32) or by the slice ($6). You can also ship miniature Honeypie pies anywhere in the nation through their Piegram service. To take the pie love to another level, they even host pie-making classes.

honeypies

Black bottom banana cream pie and blueberry pie.

There is also a large food menu, with Midwestern classics like mac and cheese ($14), grilled cheese with tomato soup ($11), a classic Friday Fish Fry ($16) and – a treat unique to the upper Midwest – the Cornish pasty ($10). There is also more elevated fare like scallop ceviche ($15) and confit chicken ($24). Honeypie is an all-day restaurant and you can also get brunch or a drink off of their full menu of drinks and local beers. So whether you are in the mood for pie, a Bloody Mary or mac and cheese, you will find just what you want at Honeypie.

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Banitsa – Bulgarian Pastries hidden in Barcelona

When we went to Barcelona we were not expecting to find Bulgarian food, but that is indeed what we got when we stumbled upon Banitsa (Carrer de la Diputació, 188, 08011 Barcelona, Spain), a hole in the wall cafe serving sweet and savory pastries by the same name. Banitsa is truly tiny, and there is no AC, but the friendly service and good food more than made up for it. The menu basically consists of either sweet or savory varieties of Banitsa (€3). So what exactly IS as Banitsa? It is a filo dough pastry coiled around a filling, similar to a small version of borek, and is popularly eaten as a breakfast food in Bulgaria.

The banitsa offered in Barcelona are a bit more avante-garde and contain fillings you are unlikely to see in Sofia: mint and pear, chocolate and orange, pumpkin and blue cheese and coconut milk curry. There are many vegetarian and vegan options, and even a gluten-free banitsa. The pastry case also contained some tempting-looking cakes including the classic Medovnik honey layer cake. To round out your meal, you can also get coffee, lemonade, tea, yogurt and hearty soups. There is also a small selection of Bulgarian groceries. We sampled chocolate and sesame seed and cheese varieties, both of which were excellent, and we loved the mini-burek format. if you are looking to get off the tourist track and try something new in Barcelona we heartily recommend Banitsa.

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