February 26, 2006

one more way chicago is DIFFERENT

i saved up all the beer bottles from the deep-fry party so i could return them and get the deposits back. So this morning I looked on line to find out where to take them, and couldn't find anything. I looked up Whole Foods, figuring they're all crunchy-granola and will undoubtedly take them, and nothing. So I called them up, and they acted all confused, and put me on hold to go find an eco-focused dude in the beer department -- at which point the lightbulb went on and I went to check the labels on the bottles, and lo, ILLINOIS DOESN'T HAVE A BOTTLE BILL.


It never occurred to me that a place wouldn't have a bottle bill, even though for 35 years I've been reading the list on bottle labels of the tiny handful of states that DO have them. Oy -- you can take the girl out of the east coast, but you can't take the east coast out of the girl, at least not so easily. Dang. Now I have to put them all in the trash, bah.

Posted by foodnerd at 12:18 PM | Comments (2)

February 25, 2006

universal laws of korean restaurants

My favorite place to eat Korean in Boston is Wu Chon House in Somerville. That is where i first encountered my favorite food, their version of tofu kimchi bokum. So you can imagine the shrieking and jumping up and down that occurred when I drove past a place called Woo Chon Restaurant here in Chicago.

I had to try it, just for the amusement value alone. I'd been twice to Hai Woon Dae, just because that was the only one I could remember both times I was called on to get a group of people to a Korean BBQ. So when tallasiandude was in town recently and had a yen for kalbi & soju, we decided to try Woo Chon. (particularly appropriate since he knows and loves the Somerville Wu Chon also) All we needed was adequate eats and we would have been happy, but Woo Chon smacked it out of the park -- it was WAY better than the already-good Hai Woon Dae. There must be a law in the universe that all restaurants called Woo Chon totally rule.

Chicago Woo Chon

We tried to order kalbi and some crazy black-pepper dish I forget exactly, but we couldn't have that because it wasn't cooked on the coals like the kalbi, so we ended up with kalbi and giant prawns for the grill, and a dish of kimchi bokum to start. We had barely ordered and gotten some very nice barley tea before the best scallion pancake I've ever had arrived at the table for no charge. (free! crunchy! eggy! oh yeah!)

Chicago Woo Chon

The kimchi bokum is my second favorite version -- my heart still belongs to Wu Chon's back home, but this version is very fresh and light in flavor, tangy and bright and full of lovely fatty pork and spicy vegetables. Quite different in style from my beloved, but very definitely yummy. Very happy to have found a worthy version of this here in Chicago.

And then the main course arrived. I don't usually post really big photos here, but behold the glory of a Woo Chon bbq spread:

Chicago Woo Chon

Head-on prawns. Glorious kalbi. More fucking pan chan than I have ever seen in one place, and ALL OF THEM freaking amazing. Holy crap. YUM. They use the inside leaves of the lettuce that can't be used as bbq wraps in a salad topped with fabulous dressing. They make a couple awesome kimchi styles. Two kinds of sweet daikon pickle (be still my heart). An insanely good pickled oyster mushroom, of which they kindly brought us a refill dish when we'd demolished the first one. Spectacular cucumber pickle slices. Bean sprouts, garlic, fish cake, dried silver fishies, the ubiquitous potato salad. Crazy good sweet red dried squid. A sesame oil + black pepper dipping sauce for the prawns, and a spicy bean paste for the kalbi. Dear god, we ate until we couldn't eat no more, and then we ate more. And knocked back a bottle of soju, 'cause that always seems like the right thing to do.

Chicago Woo Chon

Very late in the meal, tallasiandude (a self-proclaimed "damn rice eater") recovered enough from the kalbi euphoria to crave some rice, and asked the waitress for a bowl. She looked mildly confused and told us it was already coming, and moments later a bowl of pretty purple rice arrived along with another bowl of spicy miso stew. We had no idea it was coming (free, again) or we might have considered a) not letting our gluttony run completely amok, or b) not ordering that kimchi bokum. We tried valiantly to eat it all, it was so good, but we just couldn't. But since we are totally going back there, we can do it right next time.

To top off an already perfect meal, they brought us the little tiny bottles of fruity yogurt drink that we love so much, that seem only to appear in Korean restaurants, and that are the most perfect thing after a big spicy meal.

Random afternote: LTHForum has a recent thread about korean bbq, and says there's a kalbi special at Kang Nam through end of February - I guess i will have to try it, but after that I am going straight back to Woo Chon.

Posted by foodnerd at 11:50 AM | Comments (3)

February 24, 2006

care and feeding

Back from a 2-day bidness trip to Toledo, and though it went just fine, spending that much time in on-mode pretty well knocked me on my ass. Feeling sniffly and vaguely queasy from the flight, I staggered into the house and made instant tom yum ramen spiked with extra carrots, cabbage, zucchini, fish cake & thai meatballs. And then I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, flipping channels to What Not To Wear during the commercials. Which helped, but I still felt el-crapola. And I have no herbal tea in the house. And no lemons with which to make a hot toddy. What I did have, though, is some Rose's Lime Juice, some fancy German honey, some Gosling's Spiced Rum, and a kettleful of hot water. The half-assed homemaker's last-minute toddy - yum yum.

Posted by foodnerd at 10:31 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2006

crack sandwich

[This post has been languishing unpublished for months -- I decided to set it free even without its photo.] Went to a lovely dinner party at friends of friends the other day, which by the way consisted of a lamb-greenbean-tomato stew that I'd actually been eyeing for years in the New York Cookbook (yummy, it turns out) served with mashed potatoes and parsnips, and a prune/rum bread pudding. Delish. However, the thing I found completely irresistable was a packet of cookies labeled "Crack Sandwich" in big letters, brought as a gift by one of the other guests. I sneaked it out into the hallway to snap a camera-phone image of it, so i could share with you all on the interweb. I am such a nerd. (Update: And I should be stripped of my nerd credentials, since i appear to have deleted the photo before uploading it. AAAGGHH! Try this link to a photo of a similar product: http://www.nocommercialpotential.net/failagain/2005/09/crack_sandwich.html)

Posted by foodnerd at 07:00 PM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2006

cafe ciao - find it, know it, support it

There's a new cafe very near my office called Cafe Ciao, and I've pretty much assumed it wasn't open yet, but apparently it has been since September. There are restrictions on the signage, the owner says, and so she's having trouble generating traffic. So here's my little bit to help:

For lunch today I had a very delicious, extremely crunchy and light grilled chicken pesto panini, with hot-spicy Jay's chips on the side. The place is comfortable and full of light, a very nice spot for a business or social lunch, or a drink after work perhaps, since there's a full bar.

Julie, the owner, is very nice (and drop-dead gorgeous, my goodness) and does a great job with the food and the service. She's also got some clever ideas to build good-will, like a raffle (each customer gets an entry) and a grab-bag of freebie coupons on the way out the door. I have "won" a free beer, so I will return -- which means her ideas are working.

So if you live or work in the West Loop, get yourself over to the corner of Madison & Sangamon, and have something to eat or drink at Cafe Ciao.

Posted by foodnerd at 02:50 PM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2006

ass over teakettle down that slippery slope

My mom just called to tell me she found an apparently-never-used Oster deep fryer in a Salvation Army in Connecticut. She's buying it for me. Bahahahahahaha! We're all in trouble now.

Posted by foodnerd at 01:53 PM | Comments (1)

February 10, 2006

Pho disappointment

Fan Si Pan
Originally uploaded by tallasiandude.

As FoodNerd has mentioned, I'm visiting Chicago for a few days between classes, and as such, I'm working from her place during the day. When we got to her neighborhood last night after picking me up at the Ashland train stop, she mentioned that the local Vietnamese fresh roll / bahn mi store had started offering pho (pronounced "fuh") -- the vietnamese style beef noodle soup that I've learned to appreciate as something wholly different from my beloved nu ro mian, but just as delightful (and far more available in the New England area). I love me all manner of soup noodles, so I had pretty much decided last night what I was going to get for lunch today.

Fan Si Pan is a sort of upscale hippie/hipster joint, a bright space decked out in spring green and light wood with colorful highlights, and it seems to be trying to cater to a different clientele than the Pho shops I'm used to visiting in the Boston area. (I do wonder what kind of traffic they get in this largely Hispanic neighborhood: around 12:45pm there was a signle group of four sitting at the table in the window and a lone woman waiting for takeout.)

I definitely got the impression that they specialized in the sandwich/roll-up market with their bahn mi and spring roll menu, but I couldn't tell you how they measure up since that's never really been my thing. (Perhaps FoodNerd has an opinion.) The Pho, which was recently added to the menu (ideal, really, for this time of year), comes in small, medium and large; I got the large for six and change after tax.

Frankly, I was a bit disappointed.

I was already a little disappointed that even ordering in, the soup came in a 32 oz. disposable styrofoam cup/bowl. I want my soup in a real bowl, but I guess it's a testament to their focus on quick, takeout, eat-with-your-hands sandwiches and spring rolls that they appear to specialize in. They used the skinny rice noodle that is more common to bun (vermicelli) and, of course, which you find in Bahn Mi. There wasn't much beef to speak of (unsurprisingly, no tripe, but also none of the yummy tendon that I love so much), and only a few bits of beansprout mixed in, nothing like the pile of beansprouts and basil that I've come to expect to accompany my soup. Also missing was the plum sauce that adds an extra layer of richness to the soup, although they did have a bottle of Sriracha chili sauce on the table along with... soy and wasabi? Weird, but I knew going in that this wasn't going to be a traditional Vietnamese dining experience. The broth was actually quite good -- good hearty beefiness but seemingly without the MSG that is common to this dish (perhaps one positive in its less traditional style).

Ah well, live and learn. On the one hand, I need to curb my expectations, but on the other, I need to be more cognizant of where I'm going and try to play to their strengths. The soup was still a good thing on a cold winter day, but maybe I should take a page out of FoodNerd's book and pick up some Mexican soup next time around.

Posted by tallasiandude at 05:09 PM | Comments (2)

February 09, 2006

Al's #1 Italian Beef

The tallasiandude is in town for a visit, and he arrived hungry. Since last time he was here we were thwarted in our attempts to get him an Italian beef sandwich, we thought that might be a nice little snack. Man-Jo-Vin was our first thought, but the phone's been disconnected and it seems like it's closed; dunno what happened there. Plan B was Al's on Taylor St.

I've had a couple of mass-market Italian beefs (*cough* Portillo's *cough*) since my initiation into the joys of that fine Chicago sammich at Johnnie's, and they were sad, dry, polite, pathetic echoes of the real thing. I was psyched about finally getting another sandwich from one of the acknowledged masters, and I was not disappointed. It's quite different from Johnnie's -- spicier, pepperier, fattier gravy, a heftier meatiness of flavor, and a finer chop on the giardiniera -- but just as good in its own way. It's kind of comforting, actually, that the stylistic difference is so pronounced, rather than one just being simply better.

Good homemade fries, good lemonade, and completely dumpy atmosphere. Perfect for huddling over the steel sandwich ledge, licking beef gravy off your hands as you make short work of that soggy, savory pile of bread and beef. And someone has a good sense of humor: look closely at the photo. Ha!

Posted by foodnerd at 09:37 PM | Comments (0)

i love persian food

Check out these photos: http://www.iranian.com/PhotoDay/2004/November/m1.html

Each one a drool-worthy snapshot of some of the most delectable cuisine on the planet. Yum.

Posted by foodnerd at 06:01 PM | Comments (0)

February 08, 2006

frontera grill, again

C is in town again, and we both had fairly stressful workdays, so we went to Frontera again to get some cocktails with our dinner (and so C could have another try matching wines to spicy mexican foods).

The mezcal margarita remains spectacular. We tried a special also, of reposado tequila, lime, pear nectar, and a bit of oloroso sherry, which was rich and nutty, like a pear tart in hazelnut crust. I always thought the celebrity bartender concept was kind of bogus, but whoever is concocting these drink recipes knows what they are doing, for sure.

Then we had enchiladas nortenas, beef in a warm tomatoey sauce covered with melty cheese, utterly comforting and delicious, and a plate of empanadas filled with huitlacoche and served with peppery tomatillo salsa and some shredded radishes. Very nice indeed. For mains we dawdled too long and missed out on the sablefish, but we drowned our sorrow in pork loin atop stewed pork and potatoes in a tinga poblano sauce, and in lamb stewed in guajillo chile sauce topped with charcoal grilled green beans. Jill the fabulous sommelier helped us pick out a spanish wine, which god damn it, i've forgotten already, but C wrote it down so i'm sure he'll help me out.

And then we went a little batshit, ordering kaffir lime goat cheese flan and chocolate cheesecake, plus mezcal hot chocolate and cafe de olla. Chocolate cheesecake = good, but the flan was awesome, very rich and thick from the goat cheese, and then after the cheese dissipated on the tongue, fabulous kaffir lime flavor. When eaten with the mint garnish, even better, a sort of thai flan. YUM.

We had a great waiter, who picked up immediately on the fact that we were sharing the starters, and brought us the mains split into two dishes each, and also let us have a "split" order of the two dessert drinks (which was really one drink apiece of each) -- and he brought us some rolls of the spiced-sugar they use to make the cafe de olla, because C was only planning on having a sip of the coffee (so he wouldn't be up all night) but it was so delicious he actually had nearly a whole cupful, and asked the waiter how it was made. Needless to say, BIG FAT TIP.

Another fine meal at Frontera, and another evening in which I roll home stuffed to the eyeballs, groaning from the pleasure and pain of it all. :-)

(I have a photo on my phone of the nummy and photogenic lamb stew, but who knows when I'll manage to get it downloaded and onto the net.)

Posted by foodnerd at 12:15 PM | Comments (2)

February 06, 2006

bombon cafe

Ate lunch at Bombon Cafe today after a client meeting. Had a chicken adobado torta, with caramelized onions and chihuahua cheese and mesclun, on a crunchy but featherlight round bun. Very yum. Perhaps a bit foofy, and definitely expensive ($7), but still yum.

Got some mini quesadillas to go for dinner later -- bacalao (surprisingly boring), chorizo & bean (yum), and huitlacoche & squash blossom (best of the 3). Also spendy but tasty. The pastry I got for dessert was pretty good too -- bland in that mexican-pastry way, but interesting and tasty: it was some soft lemony yellow cake, wrapped in a girdle of crispy pie pastry topped with sugar crystals. Good coffee (i stopped in on the way TO the meeting also, i am such a nerd).

Bombon Cafe
36 S. Ashland
Chicago, IL 60607

Posted by foodnerd at 08:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 05, 2006

arise, chicken!

My coworker's mom quit her job a few weeks ago and started cleaning out the closets, and so he ended up with a fabulous old deepfryer.

Which of course got the two of us thinking... about just what exactly we could fry. And then it spiraled out of control, and we ended up with two deep fryers and a fridge full of beer and a house full of very happy people.

We started with pickles, little tiny dill ones and bread & butter slices, dipped into spiced up egg wash and flour a few times and fried. MMMM, crunchy! Then we made some hushpuppies (from the recipe off the bag of cornmeal) -- next time I might put a little sugar into the batter, so they taste more like the amazing ones I had down in North Carolina. (Update a few days later: I just tried this for dinner, and a couple tablespoons of sugar does make a great improvement.)

Deepfrying is a lot easier than I thought. Though some of that certainly is due to the plug-and-go nature of an electric deepfryer. And on that note, the old-skool fryer is way better than the the newer model we also had going, because it has a temperature gauge... a remarkably accurate one, and quick to respond, too. Got to keep my eye peeled for a good old fryer in the thrift stores.

Then my coworker G got rolling on his special recipe for "best chicken fingers ever," involving flour, egg, and breadcrumbs flavored within an inch of their lives with oregano and garlic powder and chili powder and who knows what else. We did a little tempura broccoli & zucchini while chicken was coming together in the kitchen. Nummy. The chicken came out AWESOME. Crunchy, spicy coating around super moist chicken -- because the deep fry cooked them so quickly, they were done in about a minute, and stayed moist & yummy. I could get used to this.

Seriously. The whole point of deep frying is the crunchy, and the whole key is getting the goods to your mouth fast enough to enjoy the full extent of the Golden Crunchy Goodness. And you can only do that if you're doing the frying yourself. We're going to have to do this again sometime.

Then N got going on the onion rings. He improvised a little batter recipe out of a cup of flour, a cup of beer, and some spicy indonesian sambal. Yum, yum. Another recipe we need to use again sometime. I shaved a potato down with a vegetable peeler, and made chips -- i think the oil was a little too hot, because they got awfully brown awfully fast, but still, not too bad.

And because too much is never enough, I had some chicken drumsticks marinating in buttermilk, which I then rubbed with old bay seasoning and hungarian paprika, dredged in flour, and deep fried. We had to lower the temperature a lot, because the first batch nearly burned but was quite raw inside, and even then we didn't get them quite cooked enough, though they were still delicious. N was cooking them, and kept crooning over them "Arise, chicken!' as he pulled the basket out full of golden crunchy chicky-chick. Awesome. Old Bay is what they use on the chicken down in Baltimore, and I've been dying to try doing it myself, and it's all I'd hoped it would be. I do think that pan frying helps moderate the temperature even more, so that the innards get cooked by the time the crust is done. Gonna do that again soon too. :-)

There were some string cheese sticks that got battered and fried somewhere in there too. By this time I'd relinquished the fryers to my guests, who got well into the spirit of things while I made a closer acquaintance with the 2005 Unibroue getting busted out in the kitchen. Then we did some catfish chunks in the same breading G used on the chicken fingers. Mmmmmm....

Then it was time for dessert. Bananas turned out to be the theme: HH brought a thai banana-in-coconut-batter recipe, and N wrapped bananas in biscuit dough, fried 'em and served 'em with a sauce made from blackberry Manischewitz wine, fancy bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup, molasses & vanilla. Both yummy, and somehow we managed to find room for them after all the savories (and the belgian beers, mmmm). I tried to deep fry a reese's peanut butter cup, but it melted and leached out of the batter -- the batter showed the pleats of the cup's shape, but it was empty except for a little sad puddle of sugary brown goop. Then JG got going on the most anticipated treat of the night, the deep fried twinkie. You freeze them, then make a very thick batter, then skewer them, dip them, and let 'em swim in the oil. They puff up right away, which is hilarious. And they really are good -- crunchy coating around a meltier, less-fake-tasting cake and gooey center. Buttery and rich. Damn, they're good.

Posted by foodnerd at 04:23 PM | Comments (4)