Category Archives: Reviews

Chicago Gourmet 2019 Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Riziki’s Tanzanian food in Columbus

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

Rizikis

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

sambusas

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

Chapati

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

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On the Laksa trail in Sydney

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

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

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

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

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A Taste of Afghanistan at Kabul House in Evanston

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

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

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

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

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

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Pan Artesenal: Croissants and More in Humboldt Park

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

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

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Unexpected Chicago CTA Finds: Sala Pao Shop

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

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

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

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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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