Tag Archives: Chicago

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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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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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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Chicago Gourmet 2018 Preview

Chicago Gourmet

It’s that time of year: Chicago Gourmet! This is when Chicago rolls out the red carpet for local restaurants and for chefs and food businesses from around the world. This is the 6th year that we have been to Chicago Gourmet and are so excited to sample all of the delicious food. The official schedule has been posted, and it looks to be as good as ever with a full slate of demos, seminars and exhibitors. Some highlights include: We look forward to seeing you there!

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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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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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Serai: Malaysian Cuisine in Chicago

We first had Malaysian food in the suburbs of Chicago many years ago at Penang. In the intervening years we have sampled Malaysian food in Malaysia itself and London, and every time we have it, we always fall in love again. Despitwe this deliciousness, Malaysian food is still pretty rare to find . When we heard about Serai (2169 N Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60647), a new Malaysian restaurant opening in Chicago, we knew we had to give it a try. Malaysian food in a unique combination of Chinese, Thai, Malay, Indian and Indonesian influences, and with that amalgamation, it is no surprise that it is one of our favorite cuisines in the world.

Serai is located on a quiet corner of Logan Square, and is bigger then we expected – there are two dining rooms with wooden tables and chairs, and a full bar. The menu is pretty extensive, with Malaysia specialties, and it branches out into more general Thai or pan Asian foods. However, we heard that the Malaysian specialties were the standouts, and we recommend that you start off with Malaysian specialties. Some of the most iconic Malaysian dishes are on the menu including Char Koay Teow ($11.95) – stir fried flat noodles in soy sauce; Hainanese chicken rice ($14.95) – garlic and ginger poached chicken with rice cooked in its stock; and nasi goreng ($11.95)- a Malaysian fried rice. The server we had was very knowledgeable about Malaysian food, so don’t be afraid to ask questions about any recommendations or specialties.

We started out with a roti with vegetable curry (clearly showing influence from India). The roti flatbread was nice and flaky and the curry was mildly spicy and flavorful, and we appreciated that we could get the curry in chicken or vegetarian varieties. After only a little deliberation, we ordered our two favorite Malaysian dishes, beef rendang ($13.95) and laksa curry noodles ($13.95). The laksa noodles came in a coconut milk curry broth with char siu BBQ pork, shrimp, fish balls, a hard-boiled egg and “tofu puff.” Tofu puffs are fried, small pieces of tofu that somehow manage to have an airy texture, and Serai’s were exactly like what we had in Malaysia. The beef rendang ($16.95) is beef in a spicy dry curry sauce with lemongrass and ginger, served on a banana leaf with sides of rice, eggplant and string beans. The beef was extremely flavorful, and extremely complex, with just a hint of heat.

The servings at Serai were generous, but we happy scarfed down our dinner, pleased to get another taste of Malaysia. Though we were too full to partake, there are also a few desserts like coconut pudding or sweet sticky rice, and hard-to-find drinks like iced Milo (an international version of Nesquik), Teh Tarik and Malaysian-style iced coffee. Overall, we were very impressed with the food at Serai. Everything was delicious – and reminded us exactly of the food we had in Malaysia. We can’t wait to come back and try some more of the Malaysian classics, especially the chicken rice!

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BienMeSabe: Venezuelan Arepas in Chicago

When we go to NYC, we always enjoy getting arepas – Venezuelan corn masa patties with a variety of fillings – but we didn’t really have a go-to arepa spot in Chicago (pupusas, yes, but not arepas). When we were back in town, my sister recommended we try BienMeSabe (1637 W Montrose Ave, Chicago, IL 60613) in Ravenswood, a new arepas spot that has been making waves in the Chicago food scene. Apparently, it is even becoming a go-to place for MLB players from Venezuela. The inside of BienMeSabe is clean and simple, and an attractive seating option is the large outdoor patio. BienMeSabe was so new, that when we visited, the mural they were putting up on the wall was not even finished being painted. Another key feature of BienMeSabe is that it is BYOB. When we got there on Sunday for lunch, many people were enjoying the BYOB option on the patio.

BienMeSabe’s menu mostly consists of arepas with a variety of veggie and meat toppings, each running between $8 and 10. We sampled the Reina Pepiada (Chicken Avocado Salad & Gouda Cheese), Caribbean (Caribbean Cheese, Plantain & Avocado), and the After Party (Roasted Pork, Gouda Cheese, Avocado slices). If you are not in the mood for arepas, there are also meat-heavy mains including grilled steak, fish, and the national dish of Venezuela, Pabellon Criollo. We began our meal with the shrimp tostones and the fried yuca. The shrimp tostones consisted of grilled shrimp on top of fried green plantains, and were particularly good, we really loved the spicy avocado-based Guasacaca salsa. We were also excited to see that we could get some classic Venezuelan drinks: chicha – a rice milk drink similar to Mexican horchata, and papelon con limon limeade.

The areaps are decently sized for the price, and they are not stingy with the fillings. The arepa toppings were good overall, but a little bit of a hit or miss. The roast pork on the After Party was flavorful and tender, and we think it was our favorite arepa of the day. Though the fried plantains on the Caribbean arepa were delicious, there was just too much of the somewhat flavorless shredded cheese. And for me to say there is too much cheese, there really has to have been a lot. Despite this, we really enjoyed the arepas overall and we are happy to have a Venezuelan place in the hood. We will definitely be back to BienMeSabe to sample some of the other arepa varieties and maybe a tres leches cake!

 

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The Secret History of Melrose Peppers

Would you believe it if I told you there was a pepper unique to Chicago? No, I’m not talking about the ubiquitous sport peppers on a Chicago-style hot-dog, I am talking about the Melrose pepper. Melrose peppers are a type of sweet pepper ranging in color from green to red, that are mainly grown in the Chicago area (though now you can order seeds and plant them anywhere). Below are some green Melrose peppers we found at Mariano’s – you can see how they look like hot peppers – but they have no heat.

Having grown up in Chicago, I am surprised that I have not learned about the Melrose pepper’s existence until now. A recent Chicago Tribune article featuring the peppers was my first introduction, though my mom says that my Italian grandmother used to mention Melrose peppers. The peppers actually have their roots in Italy, and the seeds were brought over to Chicago by Neapolitans Joseph and Lucia Napolitano in 1903. The pepper that they transported grew wild in Southern Italy, and really took to the soil of Chicagoland, specifically the Napolitano’s home Melrose Park (from where they get their name). The peppers proliferated throughout the gardens of Italian-Americans in Melrose Park, and became a Chicago classic over the decades.

Outside of home gardens, you can also now find the peppers in August at Caputo’s and Mariano’s supermarket locations throughout Chicagoland (I would recommend that you call for availability). You can also buy seeds here, here, here and here (which is what we plan on doing next year). You can prepare Melrose Peppers similarly to bell peppers, though they are not as pungent, and are sweeter. A popular Melrose Pepper recipe is stuffing the peppers with Italian sausage, and the Tribune has another recipe for stuffed peppers along with other preparations. We have tried Melrose Peppers a few ways, and even though we do not like green peppers (or at least one of us doesn’t), we really enjoyed the taste – and history!

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Nutella Cafe to open in Chicago

In years past we wrote about the enigmatic Nutellerias  of Europe (and the short-lived Nutella cafes in North America): store/cafes dedicated to nothing but Nutella, the world’s favorite chocolate and hazelnut spread. Though the international Nutella cafes have come and gone, it now it appears that we will finally have a Nutella-only cafe of our own stateside. The Nutella Cafe will open in Millennium Park Chicago on May 31, and is officially run by Nutella’s parent company Ferrero. The Cafe will offer sweet, Nutella-based treats as well as savory non-Nutella fare. Previously, Nutella lovers in Chicago and NYC could enjoy the Nutella kiosk in Eataly, but this new cafe represents a whole new level of Nutella love (the door is even shaped like a jar of Nutella).

Nutella by Brian Cantoni

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Brunch with a Brazilian Twist at La Sirena Clandestina

brazil It’s always a delicate balance finding somewhere to go out to eat on a weekend for lunch – note that I say lunch – not brunch! Fortunately La Sirena Clandestina (954 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL) strikes a nice balance between lunch and brunch dishes, and is sure to please people with all kinds of palates. La Sirena Clandestina has an eclectic menu with lots of Brazilian flourishes, based on Chef John Manion’s childhood in Brazil – they even have our favorite cheesy bread on the menu – Pão de Queijo – though it sadly wasn’t available when we visited.  We are always looking for new Brazilian tastes, so we were definitely looking forward to sampling La Sirena’s mix of Brazilian flavors and local ingredients.

SirenaSteak

The weekend daytime menu at La Sirena is a mix of sweet and savory, brunch and lunch. On the brunch side of things you can get their take on Eggs Benedict, with soft shell crab and Brazilian malagueta peppers ($18) or chilaquiles with plantains and salsa verde ($15). For those going more savory, you can get a grilled hanger steak with a fried yucca “tot” ($18) or the “El Che” (a take on the Cuban sandwich – $13) – achiote roasted pork loin with ham, Swiss cheese and pickles. There are also some nice, healthier vegetarian options including the Kale Salad ($9) and the white bean hash with avocado and chimichurri ($15) Among our group we ordered some options from each “type.”

SirenaEgg

One of our favorites, the hanger steak was perfectly tender and well-accented by the garlicky sauce – we also appreciated the whimsy of the yucca “tater tot.” Another hit was the Tapioca Nordestina ($12) – which was similar to a beachside dish that is popular in Brazil. This consisted of manioc flour crepes stuffed with cream cheese and topped with strawberry and rhubarb compote. This was a combination of flavors we didn’t expect – but worked really well together, and was not too sweet at all.

SirenaTapioca

As an added twist on brunch, instead of the typical mimosa, you can get a variety of mixed drinks with Brazilian cachaça, along with aguas frescas (the juice of the day was chamomile lemon) and teas from Rare Tea Cellar. The vibe inside the restaurant is relaxed and casual, with vintage Brazilian tunes playing in the background (think Os Mutantes and Elis Regina). The space is not very big – so reservations are recommended. We highly enjoyed our eclectic brunch at La Sirena Clandestina, and it was a great spot for the pro and anti brunch crowds alike.

LaSirena

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Ramen Misoya, the original Ramen-ya in Chicago

We are happy that authentic Japanese ramen has exploded as a trend in the US, and now you can find great ramen in most US cities.  If you’re looking for the starting point of this wave of ramen in Chicago, you have to go out to the northwest suburbs, where Ramen Misoya (1584 S Busse Rd., Mount Prospect, IL 60056) was the first authentic Ramen-Ya (ramen restaurant) in the Chicago area, starting in 2013. Little did we know, but Ramen Misoya is actually a chain, with a few locations throughout the US and Japan, and now a downtown Chicago outpost (213 E. Ohio St.). Despite the influx of ramen restaurants in Chicago, one of our favorites is still Ramen Misoya.

Ramen Misoya is a tiny place with maybe only 8 tables, and a small amount of counter seating, so get there early. The menu may seem overwhelming at first, but there are 3 main varieties of broth to choose from, and you can get 5 versions of meat and vegetable toppings for each broth. The three miso-based broth options are Kome, Mame and Shiro: the Hokkaido-style kome ramen is made with a rice-and-soybean miso, and is the darkest and most full-bodied; the Nagoya-style mame is slightly bitter; and the Kyoto-style shiro is the lightest miso variety of the trio, and was described as having a fruity flavor. All ramen comes topped with ground pork, green onions, sprouts, and menma (fermented bamboo shoots), but with each broth you can can choose from assorted vegetables, Cha-Shu pork, spicy and kimchi varieties ($9-$13 depending on the toppings).

There are also a few special varieties of ramen including the creamier, richer Tokyo miso pork tonkatsu ($9.50) and the Kyoto miso tan-tan sesame ramen (above – $9.90). One of the best part of the ramen is that you get to customize your bowl with extra toppings including tonkotsu fried pork, extra noodles, nori sheets a, miso egg, or even a pat of butter (all for small extra charges). We like to start out with a small assortment of appetizers including a tasty gyoza dumplings ($4.5) and chicken kaarage (fried chicken, $3.50 small, $7 large).

We have tried all of the different broths, and each one has been delicious, though we think our favorite may be the special sesame broth, which you can not get at many other ramen places. Ramen Misoya excels at everything from start to finish: the noodles are also delicious – toothsome and springy – a perfect complement to the broth. The portion size is pretty big, too, and one bowl of ramen usually lasts us two meals. As an added plus, you can also get one of our favorite Japanese desserts there – taiyaki – a fish shaped waffle-like treat filled with sweet red bean paste. If you are looking for great ramen at the place that kicked off the ramen craze in Chicago, definitely visit Ramen Misoya.

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Taqueria El Mezquite: our go-to tacos in Pilsen

Mexico Flag Sometimes, we go to a place so often, we just start to assume we have written about it on ETW. This tends to happen with our most favorite restaurants, many of which do not end up getting a review until years after we first go there (thinking of you Greenbush Bar). In that vein, we are finally getting around to reviewing our favorite taqueria in Pilsen. We have eaten our way around Pilsen, and our favorite go-to place is still Taqueria El Mezquite (1756 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608).TacosMezquite

El Mezquite is a classic mom and pop place, with simple red booths and an expansive menu of Mexican favorites. Our classic order at El Mezquite is tacos. The tacos are a reasonable $2.25 and come on delicious corn tortillas with the classic onion and cilantro. The taco menu is huge and you can get chorizo, carne asada, chicken and all the typical varieties. But what also sets Mezquite apart is that you can get harder-to-find fillings like nopal (cactus), tripe, and specific types and cuts of beef like lomo encebolloado (ribeye with onions), suadero (flank steak) and cecina (dried beef). They also excel at our favorite taco variety: pork al pastor. Even though they don’t have a trompo for Al Pastor, these are some of Matt’s favorites – the flavor is good, with a nice char.

Enchilada

Though the tacos are our starting point, we have also eaten through a bit more of El Mezquite’s menu, and have liked everything we’ve tried so far. Other favorites include the huaraches $7.95 (thick corn tortillas with a variety of toppings – we like the squash blossoms), and the chicken mole enchiladas ($7.25).  On the weekends they also have the traditional stews like menudo (beef stomach stew) and pozole (pork and hominy stew) – which you can get by the plate or even by the gallon. We also recently tried their hearty migas soup, a pork bone soup with bread and epazote native to the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City, something we have not seen on any other Chicago menus.

Migas

However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg – you can also get freshly squeezed juices (like the vampiro, with oranges, beet and carrot), milkshakes, great horchata and tepache. If you have your own favorites we haven’t mentioned, it is definitely worth checking out Mezquite’s full menu of burritos, tortas, and dinner specials. Everything we have ever tried at El Mezquite has been good, and the prices are so reasonable. If you are in the hood and looking for a good place for tacos (and some Mexico City specialties) definitely make your way to El Mezquite.

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Honeydoe catering brings a taste of Syria to Chicago

syriaUSA-flagPreviously, we highlighted a burgeoning Syrian restaurant in Tennessee, and today we are pleased to share another Syrian food success story. Today, Fooditor [via 90 Days, 90 Voices project] did a feature about Honeydoe catering, a business started by Syrian immigrants to Chicago in 2015. Honeydoe is run by a mother-daughter team, Rana and Siham Jebran, and focuses on recipes from Damascus and Aleppo. Honeydoe makes both sweet and savory dishes, and we think everything – including their Maamoul cookies – looks phenomenal!

Maamoul

Honeydoe’s Maamoul Cookies

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Wood-fired Baja Californian cuisine at Leña Brava

Mexico FlagBy now, it is pretty much common knowledge by now that Rick Bayless has something of a Mexican food empire in Chicago. In 2016, that empire grew by two more – Leña Brava (900 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL) and Cruz Blanca. These two restaurants are more modern, updated spots in the always-buzzing Randolph Street corridor in the West Loop. Cruz Blanca’s is a brewery with a taco bar, and Leña Brava is all about the wood-fire grilled seafood, Baja California-style. When choosing between the two we knew we had to go with the wood fire! In any case, they are basically connected, so you don’t necessarily have to choose -if you want to grab an after-dinner drink at one or the other.

laminado The interior of Leña Brava is sleek and stylish, and seems to draw a similar crowd, fitting with the location. The massive wood-fire grill is one of the features of the restaurant, and it is in full view of diners on the first floor. Not everything is wood-fired, though. The menu is divided into both hot and cold items – in sections called “ice” and “fire.” The cold menu is composed of oysters, ceviches, seafood cocktails, aguachiles (similar to a ceviche, but with a super-spicy broth) and laminados (raw sashimi-style fish – above). On the hot side of the menu, you can get grilled fish, pork belly, scallops or even roast chicken for two. We decided to sample items from both the hot and cold sides.lenapastor

From the cold side we knew we had to start with a ceviche – there were 3 versions ($15-16) – classic Lena with albacore, lime and ginger; spicy Verde with yellowtail and green chiles; and the Asian-inspired Maki with nori, sushi rice and avocado. We tried the verde version, we were also intrigued by the laminado, so we picked the Hiramasa, with yellowtail, chamoy and papaya ($15). From the hot side we tried the scallops in salsa macha, these were oven-grilled with pasilla-almond salsa and mashed plantains ($25). Finally, we couldn’t resist the wood oven-roasted black cod with “al pastor”-style marinade and a sweet pineapple salsa ($27), inspired by our favorite tacos al pastor with a bright-red chile and achiote marinade. The fish in each of the dishes was extremely fresh. The raw preparations highlighted the unique flavor combinations of sweet, sour, spicy and acidic really well, and we especially loved the unique flavor combinations of the laminado. We were also impressed by the surprisingly delicate “salsa macha” and we just may have to steal the idea of an almond-based salsa for ourselves. Both of the hot seafood dishes were cooked perfectly, and we felt that the wood fire definitely imparted a little extra flavor to the sear.

scallopslena

We also appreciated the variety of unique desserts (prickly pear ice cream with grilled pineapple, for example)  and the selection of teas from the Rare Tea Cellar (we sampled the hibiscus mango). On the beverage side, there are also a large amount of specialty cocktails, rarely-seen Mexican wines and over 100 Mezcals, one of the biggest lists anywhere. We finished our meal with creamy horchata custard topped with puffed hibiscus-scented rice and blueberry preserves – a flavor combo we never knew we needed in our lives. We really enjoyed our meal at Leña Brava – everything was fresh and the flavor combinations were memorably innovative. Leña Brava felt very different from the more buttoned-up Topolombampo and the more casual Frontera Grill, and was definitely modern and accessible. We can’t wait to go back and try more off of the menu. Maybe next time we will get a grill-side seat!

lenabrava

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Chai and Momo at Chiya Chai Cafe

Nepal FlagWho would have thought that Logan Square in Chicago would be home to a cafe with amazing hommade Chai and Nepalese food? We wouldn’t have either, until we came across the eclectic Chiya Chai Cafe (2770 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL). The main draw for the Chiya is the amazing array of Chai teas. One of my pet peeves is when you go to cafe, order a chai, and they don’t even hide the fact that they are just pouring your drink out of a box of Oregon Chai concentrate…and then charging $4.50 for it. Not so at Chiya, the brainchild of longtime tea importers, where all of the chai is brewed in-house. Along with their signature masala and spicy masala chais, you can get a variety of interesting non-traditional chais in flavors like Salted Caramel, Vanilla & Nutmeg and Orange & Ginger. Each flavor profile I have tried has been delectable, but my favorite is Pistachio & Cardamon. It is also nice that you can choose between black, green and rooibos teas, though on my last visit, the server gave me black tea twice when I had asked for rooibos.

chiyacafe

The vibe at Chiya is bright and airy, with large windows overlooking Milwaukee Ave. Going with the coffeehouse vibe, Chiya also serves coffee and continental pastries like cookies, muffins and croissants if you happen to be in that mood. However, it was the mango lassi that most caught our eye for dessert. Though you will see people tapping away on laptops with mugs of tea while utilizing the free Wifi, don’t think it is just a coffeehouse. With a compact food menu alongside its teas, Chiya is actually a legitimate Nepalese restaurant. We are always glad to see Nepali food, which is only available at few places in Chicagoland, including Mt. Everest in Evanston.momoc

At Chiya, you can get a basket of steamed Nepali dumplings, momo, in a variety of flavors (pork, veggie and even bison, $8). There is also an interesting range of side dishes (many of which are gluten free, $3-6) including a green apple raita, samosas, and curry fries. For the bigger appetite, you can get curry bowls ($9 small, $12.50 large) and savory pie in flavors like chicken balti and spicy minced pork ($8.50). We ordered the vegetable momo and spicy pork vindaloo curry bowl. The momo dumplings were made in house, steamed to order, and came out perfectly formed. The kale, bell pepper and mushroom filling was delicious, as were the two spicy dipping sauces. The pork vindaloo had some nice heat, and a slightly different flavor with the addition of fenugreek and mustard seed.  Despite all this, the creamy, yougurt-y green apple raita just may have been our favorite dish of all. currycAt first glance, it may seem that Chiya Cafe is trying to be too many things at once. As if the current options were not enough, for dinner, they also open up the larger dining room in the back and serve more substantial meals and alcohol. However, somehow it all works. The Nepali small plates and the chai work well together, and we were happy with everything we sampled. If you are a tea fan, make sure you sample some of the real stuff at Chiya Chai cafe. You’ll never be able to drink boxed chai again.

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