I know it seems crazy, but I've been known to frequent a restaurant for the goodies doled out before the actual meal. There's the shaved carrot salad, creamy beet spread and homemade sesame bread that Turquoise Cafe serves. There's the parmesan cheese, crushed red pepper, olive oil and chunks of rustic bread that Caro Mio lavishes upon every table. My new favorite? Andalous Moroccan Restaurant brings out bowls of marinated black olives (in an oily red sauce) and cups full of spicy harissa sauce with warmed pita bread while you wait. And, it's pretty much all you can eat, which is a huge plus.
Here's a recent article I did for centerstage. While researching, I discovered some of the best treats in the city in little neighborhood grocery stores....My favorite? Grandma's Chinese Spare Ribs in the back of the Thai Grocery. I almost died when I tasted them~
There's nothing worse than having a bone-empty refrigerator with barren cupboards to match. All take out gets you is one semi-hot meal; straggling to the grocery store leaves you with a bunch of stuff you have to actually cook; and all eating out gets you is one super-stuffed belly and an empty wallet. So go smart and keep a roster of ethnic grocery stores that house restaurants churning out hot food in the back. While you pick up a jar of jam, someone is whipping you up a batch of Swedish pancakes with lingonberries. Or while you decide between laundry detergents, a Cuban sandwich is being lovingly pressed for you to enjoy on site. With groceries and a hot meal, how could these not be a win-win deal?
You've probably blown past it a hundred times. The dirty exterior of Moon's Sandwich Shop, 16 S. Western Ave., isn't the prettiest thing to look at, with chipped metal gates splayed across the front and a grimy sign that's barely readable. It may look like it closed for good in 1985, but this is one book you don't want to judge by its cover.
Moon's is one of the best diners in Chicago, hands down. Usually packed to the brim with saucy characters, it's a bona fide chop shop in a city full of dinky imposters. I stumbled across this mecca of all things greasy and delicious some time last year in one of my infamous blaze-about-the-city-and-see-what-I-find foraging trips.
This past Saturday, I spent the day getting lost at the Field Museum. I haven't been there in over five years and just wanted to see what I'd been missing. I wandered in and out of every country, it seems, as they were featuring exhibits on everywhere from Kenya to the South Pacific to Egypt. My favorite exhibit to hide out in was on the upper level and was called: Plants of the World. I was totally fascinated by all of the species of plants (it all goes back to food) that they had out, especially one on my favorite tea from South America, mate. I also really dug the miniature exhibit they had on a tea plantation in Sri Lanka...it was so thorough and real, all the way down to fingernail sized people hauling bags of tea leaves way out in the fields. I just ambled about and munched on my tofurky (spicy Italian is my favorite) sandwich and Chilean grapes that I'd smuggled in and imagined what life would be like sippin' some tea in Sri Lanka. Guess I just gotta go now~
Intertwining certain foods can cause my taste buds to go berserk, like the sassy little appetizer known as goi cuon.
I’ve had an infatuation with these Vietnamese spring rolls since I first tasted them years ago at Le Colonial, but a short time ago, I stumbled across the mother of all goi cuons at Ba Le French Bakery, 5018 N. Broadway.
The epitome of freshness, goi cuons are like a delicious little soft-sandwich, served tidy and exotic like the Vietnamese, but with the class of the French thrown in for good measure.
Yet another reason I love Chicago and where I live in the city is my proximity to Chinatown. It's really like a little village just south of the city and I can wander around for hours into store after store and happen upon something new (almost astonishing) every time (and I don't even have to go to Asia~). I'm going down there later to get my mom some tea and they have so many varieties--literally dozens of green tea alone, all housed in these giant glass jars (which I love). They also have my favorite dried mango slices which I chow on by the handful--and want to make a homemade granola recipe with. It's so funny, those sweet little strips of dried mango are jumbled right beside the jars of prepared squid and various dried fishes. I'm going to Asia soon and I can't wait to learn what do do with all of this stuff. And, to have some mountain tea. That just sounds so good to me right now. They have some mountain tea that is picked only by little monkeys that I simply must try.
Since I blew through the islands of Greece on a solo-backpacking trip a few years ago, the sinful tastes of Greek village food have haunted me. I always conjure up images of wizened elders churning out big slabs of cheese, wild greens being picked from nearby fields, just-caught octopus being fire-grilled and doused with fresh lemon, and still-warm wedges of thick sesame bread generously slathered with various garlic-infused spreads.
Try as I might, it's near impossible to bring those memories alive in the concrete jungle we call home, but I've happened upon a place that's the next best thing: Venus Greek-Cypriot Cuisine.
My very first Raving Dish ever was about Angel Food Bakeries mind-blowing drink called The Barthelona. Their Spanish version of hot chocolate is like liquid gold capped off by an insanely thick dollop of homemade whipped cream with little specks on vanilla peppered throughout. I first tasted it back in Nov. of 04 and literally, it prompted me to hop on a flight and spend weeks in Spain, just to make sure the hot chocolate was legitimate (it was). I was daydreaming about this drink on Sat. (after a fascinating day spent at the Field Museum, $10, if you're a Chicago resident) and hauled up to Montrose to make sure she was still alive and kicking. Yep! She was right there and even though the drink is still expensive (almost $4), it is bar-none one of the best things I've ever put into my mouth. So rich, so dense, so creamy, so Spanish. You will never be able to have regular hot chocolate again after tasting this wildly delicious version.
I'm always on the mad hunt for the perfect veggie burrito and I had the opportunity the other day to photograph the inside of Irazu's veggie burrito (usually I like mine served el suiza--covered in melted cheese--but there is no need for that with this special Costa Rican-style burrito). I would say, in my humble opinion, that this football-size burrito is absolutely the best veggie offering in the city as far as burritos go. It comes chock full of whole beans, rice, carrots, sour cream, avocado, and tomatoes and what makes it really stand out (re: blistered into your memory) is the smattering of earthy sauteed mushrooms...they're so thick and remind the taste buds of the texture of meat. It's a little on the pricey side (almost $6), but this thing can easily be split between two people and if you do find your way over to Irazu, you must order an oatmeal shake (made with horchata)--which is yet again, one of the best things I've ever slurped down. They also have great sweet plantains and chips & salsa.
1865 N. Milwaukee Ave.
I've been on a Cuban whirl lately, devouring pressed Cuban sandwiches, firm Cuban tamales and delicious Cuban coffees with wild abandon. My new favorite place to slurp down a richly potent Cuban coffee is a charming little grocery store/restaurant up on Devon called La Unica. For less than a buck, you get an awesome (and super-strong), piping hot Cuban coffee and I'm also very fond of their just-firm-enough pork stuffed Cuban tamales (also less than a buck)...they come bathed in a bunch of oily pork drippings and it's hard to just have one (usually two does the trick). Everyone here in this little makeshift cafeteria is so happy and just delighted when they see you again (weren't you just here yesterday?) and as I've said time and time again, something about folks from south of the border just makes me smile!