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February 2006

El Nuevo Mexicano (Coconut Shrimp Memories)

Dscf0050Some meals haunt me for years. I can remember every succulent twirl of pasta laced with garlicky pesto that I had in a tiny trattoria perched high above the choppy Amalfi Coast; I can envision each fingerlickin' tear off of a whole spit-roasted chicken I devoured while gazing up at the clouds in a tiny village in France; and I can conjure up visions of every last forkful of wild nettles I inhaled at a cozy, lesbian-run vegetarian restaurant in the mountains of Switzerland.

Meals like these follow me around the city with reckless abandon. I've come close to finding a relative of them all in Chicago (save for the wild nettles), and my most delightful new quest was matching the fresh coconut-coated jumbo shrimp of a quaint, seaside shack on the azure Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico. Where'd I find it? Practically in my own backyard, of all places.

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Breakfast at terragusto: RV's new Italian Cafe

Dscf0119I have to admit, I couldn't wait to try the food at terragusto, the new Italian market and cafe in Roscoe Village--I've been by there a number of times since they opened about six weeks ago, and I finally rounded up a few friends and went in for b'fast this weekend.  Ummmm, yeah.....Actually, the food was pretty delicious, but the prices were just ludicrous(especially since the portions were tiny).  $9 oatmeal?  $9 french toast?  And, for my little, itty-bitty bowl of eggs, potatoes and ONLY 1/2 piece of toast (what the?), $6.50.  Just plain 'ole silly.  The potatoes were delish, though...because they were fried up in bacon fat and  magically no grease anywhere to be found.  The eggs were great, too, but the toast was cold and not buttered, as promised on the menu (these little promises matter, you know?).  I think they still have a few kinks to work out for b'fast--but, they seem to do much better at dinnertime with homemade pastas and  salty, perfumed half-chickens for the table to share (cooked in a cast iron skillet, no less).  Plus, they serve up that awesome organic carrot cake made by Maude, the permanent fixture at the Green City farmers market.  I'd say, slam the prices way down and jack the portion size way up or you just might go the way of La Bodega and eno, the two not-so-lucky restaurants in that space before ya!  We dropped almost $40 for b'fast (three people) and I left starving and needing a drink immediately (problem solved at neighboring Four Moon Tavern--which, by the way, has AWESOME brunch...with all portion sizes huge)!

Farm Peace and Love: Italian Food on Little Corn Island, Nicarauga

Dscf3663The most delicious panna cotta I've ever had was in the  jungles of Nicaragua.  There's a tiny restaurant just on the fringe of the Caribbean called Farm Peace and Love ran by a lovely Italian woman named Paola.  She's a one-time journalist that discovered Little Corn Island (47 miles off the coast of Nicaragua) close to a decade ago and has built herself a little business on the far north side of the island.  Every day she whips up lunch or dinner (three-course meal $12) for anyone who makes a reservation (reservations made at the dive shop in town).  While I was there, she churned out a delicious hand-tossed pizza (all ingredients come straight from her garden), pasta with a creamy cheese sauce and this ice-cold panna cotta.  Me and my crew drank several bottles of wine with her and enjoyed a taste of Italy on a steaming hot Nicaraguan afternoon.  I daydream about this place throughout the wintry days here in  Chicago and would love to make it back down that way to stay in one of the two charming rooms she rents out.  If you ever make it to Little Corn Island, you must trek to the north side and sit a spell with'll be wondering why you live in the States big time.  Places like hers are the EXACT reason I travel--just so off-the-beaten-path and aching to be discovered.  Here is a link to her site: Farm Peace and Love.

The Best Smoothie Ever

Dscf0026_2I've always been a smoothie addict and especially as of late.  Every morning, I whip up the most incredible smoothie; I have literally perfected the damn thing perfected (there's no room to be humble here).  From the banana/peanut butter/honey smoothie that tastes like the most awesome banana milkshake ever, to the mixed berry smoothie that is the best way to healthfully satiate my sweet tooth, I've got the secret to smoothies down pat.  It's all about the frozen fruit.  And, you never should use ice or yogurt or ice cream---none of that jive.  Just fruit, soy milk, mango juice, and flax seed---plus, sometimes I throw in a little silken tofu for good measure (and protein).  Here's a recipe for the best smoothie ever:

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Greek Mountain Tea: My Drink of the Moment

Greek_tea_2I've totally become a tea addict--if I'm not chugging caramely roobios, I'm going out of my way to find a decent loose-leaf chocolaty mate. But, I've recently discovered the pure pleasure of Greek mountain tea.  When I first spied it at the City Fresh Market (a great international market on Devon and Kedzie), I was a little wary of the long-stemmed leaves that looked slightly molded--plus the cost threw me for a loop (one big bag is about $1.50).  I'm used to dropping top dollar for my already crushed tea leaves, so you can see why I was suspicious.  But, those feelings usually result in the best surprises, yeah?   When I got home with the crinkly plastic bag, I ripped it open and was immediately confused.  Do I use the whole stem (it looks like a full-on branch) or just pull the tiny flowers off?  In a moment of panic, I went balls out and crunched the whole pile up (stems included) and dumped a big fistful into my tea press.  I  was delighted when the most magical scent wafted up as I poured on piping hot water.  Sort of like a woodsy/lemony smell--I could instantly imagine an old sheepherder in the mountains of Greece taking a break from plowing a field (with trusty mule by his side, of course)...and whipping up a kettle of this delicate (but so earthy) tea.  Plus, the best part about this find is: I can now afford to drink tea again!

Guanajuato #3--Delicious Steak Tacos

Dscf4053_3I always blame my belly rumbles and wild, have-to-be-fulfilled-right-now cravings on the weather and right now it's totally freezing (not as bad as it has been the past week, but's just not friggin' normal).  When the temp. drops to this level, I'm always on the hunt for Mexican--and not just the delicious/but standard quesadilla I always get from Tony's Burrito Mex (on Belmont and Damen--they also have killer cheese fries), but a carne asada taco (this taco just reeks of Mexico through and through).  That being said, there are a sprinkling of grocery stores around the city called Guanajuato and most of them have a tiny restaurant in the back doling out perfect steak tacos (I like Guanajuato #3 on California).  They're laden with just enough bits of chewy pure-flavored fat to make the meat still totally edible. They're plain and simple little tacos ans come piled with charred meat, cold sour crema and a fistful of fresh cilantro.  Each one can easily become two and with a big shake of the house made spicy salsa, each bite transforms the mirage of Mexico into total reality.  Well, sorta.

Heading South of the Equator at Mi Ciudad {From The Raving Dish}

Dscf2862When winter really kicks in and my tolerance begins to expire, I start chasing the equatorial sun. Not literally, of course, but via the most affordable way I know: my belly. I traipse about the city on the hunt for restaurants that whip up food from any country south of the equator. If I can't be there in person, soaking up the food, drink, culture and personality of countries like Brazil, Argentina and Peru is the next best thing. My proudest find is a wildly simple Ecuadorian establishment, Mi Ciudad, 3041 W. Irving Park Rd.

This blissfully deserted home-style restaurant is one of my favorite haunts. I discovered it years ago when I lived on the fringe of Albany Park, and spotting it was one of those drive-by, slam-on-the-breaks moments. Me and a team of my compadres wandered in to an empty dining room and proceeded to get crazy with Ecuadorian wine and deliciously simple, made-from-scratch food.

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Zephyr Ice Cream Desserts

Dscf4272Since I talked about it so much in my past few postings, I think I have to actually do a post about it.  This is the insanely delicious brownie dessert at Zephyr called The Pyramid.   When I am truly craving gooey, chocolaty, mad-rich dessert, this is the one I'm craving.  I feel like Zephyr makes their own ice cream and it's always perfectly ice-flaked and sooooo cold (you know how some ice cream just tastes warm?).  The Pyramid is layered with a lightly warm, nut-filled brownie, thick hot fudge, a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream, big squirts of whipped cream and a cherry, of course.  I will also say that the warm apple pie with ice cream is homemade and delicious and in the summertime, they have the best strawberry shortcake around---with loads of super-sweet strawberries.
***Off topic, the kitchen also whips out some killer vegetarian chili cheese fries (which are almost as good as the ones at Pick Me Up).

Anna Maria Pastaria {From The Raving Dish}

Dscf4128 I've always known that Chicago is totally different from Los Angeles. There's the weather, the traffic, the ocean, the attitude, the architecture, the year-round farmer's markets and as my frequent dining buddy, Chezne, recently discovered, there's the BYOB policy.

In LA (where she lived most of her adult life), most restaurants have a rule: Even if they have a full bar and liquor license, you can still bring in your beloved bottle of vino for a small corkage fee. Not so in Chicago. She brazenly attempted to convince me that that policy was true here, and I watched her boldly give it a go at neighborhood favorite Anna Maria Pasteria, 4400 N. Clark St.

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Milkfish: The Other White Fish

Dscf4268Last week, I got an email from one of my food editors suggesting that I try a great little dive of a restaurant called Jim's Grill (1429 W. Irving Park Rd.)  It used to be a chop-shop diner, but is now a mix between a diner and a Filipino/Korean joint, with a weird twist of Mexican thrown in for good measure--I credit the steak tacos on the global menu to the quiet Mexican cook.  It's really super rare for me to give fish a go in a restaurant, but for some reason, I was coerced by Joey, the friendly owner ("I'm Joey" is what he belts out to everyone who walks in the door) into trying milkfish--a light (but strong) fish that he proudly dubs "the other white fish."  The menu claimed it would be deep fried and I guess I was expecting something like tempura, but instead it came out sorta pan-fried and covered in sweet sauce (like the sauce that covers unagi).  I have to admit, it was an odd taste, but after I doused the filet in lemon and plopped it onto a mound of steamed rice, it was pretty dang good.  Apparently milkfish is along the lines of carp and catfish and had I known that, I probably wouldn't have ordered it...the best part was the fatty layer of flesh covering the top of the fish--very melt-in-your-mouth.  I will say though, after eating milkfish, noodles, fried rice, and a bizarre take on kimchi---I headed straight to Zephyr to slam down a mammoth brownie hot fudge sundae.  I needed something to get that crazy fish taste out of my mouth, you know?