Friday, March 30, 2012

Las Islas Marias

If you ask someone what they think of when they think of Mexican food, almost invariably you will hear tacos, burritos, enchiladas, empanadas, and possibly tamales and if you ask about the proteins used you will probably hear pork, beef, chicken, beans, and possibly goat. While this does describe a lot of Mexican food. Mexico also has two very long coasts so they also do a lot of very good seafood. I went to an early dinner at Las Islas Marias last week. Located on Milwaukee Avenue just south of Logan Square, it is in a hot area with a lot of traffic. It is pretty small so even with the bright blue exterior it is easy to miss. The interior is pretty nondescript with tile floors and cafeteria style tables but there are a couple of nice murals on the walls showing a tropical beach/seascape. There is also a small bar at the back of the restaurant. I entered and was told to seat myself. After which, I was quickly waited on. I made my order and while I was waiting, was brought a bowl of crisp corn tortillas and the hottest salsa verde that I have ever had. It had a texture similar to relish and a nice tang but while I like my food a little on the spicy side, this was too hot to eat. My first course was a shrimp tostada or as it was called on the menu, a Tostada de Ceviche Con Camaron. While they did give me a plastic fork to assist in eating it, I really didn't need the fork. The corn tortilla base was crisp and the topping was arranged well enough that it wasn't falling all over the place when I bit into it. The ceviche topping had a lot of shrimp of course but there was also onions, cilantro, cucumber, celery, tomatoes, and peppers. It was pretty good, the one issue being that it dripped and ran down my arm while I was eating it.
For my entree, I had a grilled red snapper with a garlic sauce that was served with rice and a side salad or as they called it, "Huachinango Frito Al Ajo". It was really good. The fish was chopped and grilled to a light char. Snapper has a lightly sweet taste to it, the garlic sauce adds a salty, tart, and garlicky taste to it. The rice had some light vegetables and while the salad really didn't add much to the plate, it, at least, was fresh.

While I liked what I had here, I think that it might have helped if I had known a little more Spanish. The food is good as was the service but after asking about another dish on the menu that I was unsure about, I was still unsure about what exactly it was. I may just have to come back sometime and try it out to figure it out myself.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Whiskey Bar & Grill

When I think of a bar called Whisky, I think of the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, a bar on the Sunset Strip that has long been considered the center of the L.A. rock scene. Many bands that went on to become huge played here in their early days and there have been many songs that have been written about the Whisky (including Rolling Stones "Going to a Go Go"). While the Whisky is connected intimately with L.A., it actually started in Chicago in 1958. The original bar on Rush and Chestnut is long gone but there is another bar on Rush Street called the Whiskey Bar and Grill. It is not connected at all with the original although it seems to want to play on the apparent connection. The walls and furniture are of dark reclaimed wood and there is a big, heavy looking, hardwood bar in each of the two rooms. The booth seating is brown leather and one wall has portrait photographs of famous rock stars like Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, and Janis Joplin. There are also two big communal tables in the main dining area. The place looks to me like it's trying to be a rock star dive bar like the LA Whisky. The problem with copies is that they are just that and if the copies aren't that good, then it lowers the value that much more. While there should be some roughness expected from reclaimed wood, there seemed to be a lot of wear around the edges and on the leather upholstery. There are also depressions in the upholstery where many people have previously sat. The rock star dive is just becoming a dive.

I came here for breakfast on the morning after St. Patrick's Day because I thought coming to a place that tries to project a rock star vibe on the morning after a night of decadence would be rather entertaining. The place was fairly full when I came in and many of the people looked pretty rough. As you may have already guessed, I was pretty unimpressed with the look of the place. I was equally unimpressed with the menu. There was nothing on the menu that I wouldn't expect to see on any diner menu in Chicago. I ended up ordering the Huevos Rancheros. I could have had the choice of fried or scrambled eggs (I ordered scrambled) that were cooked with salsa verde and chorizo, and served on corn tortillas with chopped tomatoes, cilantro, and pico de gallo. Fried potatoes were served on the side. While the food wasn't bad, it just wasn't impressive and played at about diner level. The picture above, while it is huevos rancheros, is not actually the dish that I had at the Whiskey Bar and Grill. It is a placeholder trying to take the place of the original, kind of like the bar.

While it was kind of entertaining to watch people on the morning after, neither the decor nor the food will bring me back to the Whiskey Bar & Grill. If I have a desire for the type of morning food that they serve here, I will go to a diner.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Bleeding Heart Bakery and Cafe

I have written before about Bleeding Heart Bakery and said that I really liked it. In the time since I visited, they have opened two other locations and will be opening a third soon. Unfortunately, they also closed the location that I go to most frequently. One of the locations that they recently opened, in West Town, also has a cafe (actually a diner) in addition to their fantastic bakery so I decided to visit for dinner and pie on Pi day (3/14). The space looks like a twisted 50s diner with a dining bar with vinyl topped stools, tables with a semi-psychedelic design (boomerangs overlaying squares) and booths with vinyl seats that kind of look like old car seats around the walls. They call themselves a punk rock bakery so it was no surprise to hear a lot of 80s punk, mostly California and Minneapolis punk, playing as background music. It wasn't playing too loudly and I like punk rock so it was easy to eat there. As I said, the cafe is more a diner and the dinner menu was full of diner food. It had several breakfast items, some salads, chicken and some burgers. I wasn't really interested in breakfast for dinner so I decided to get a burger. I got the West Town Burger which consisted of two five ounce burgers, topped with crispy pork belly, bacon hollandaise, tomato chutney, and crispy arugula and spinach on a potato roll. This was a very good burger. It was very bacony and had the right amount of sweet, tart, and sour. I am not sure how they crisped the greens but it seemed to concentrate the flavors. The potato roll on which the burger was served was also very good. While the burger was good thogh, I do think that it would have been improved by some sharp cheese. The burger was served with some very good steak fries. The fries were well salted and also had some pepper. I think also that the fries were double fried because they were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
While the burger and fries were good and I really enjoyed it, as it was Pi day, I had come for the pie. While it is a play on words, pies are round and many people do use the pun to celebrate Pi day with pie. As Bleeding Heart Bakery is one of my favorite bakeries, I decided to use the play on words at a place that I knew made good pies. I had had a craving for a blueberry pie and they had a blueberry and lavender pie. I was actually not sure about the lavender but I trusted them so this is what I got. The pie had a graham cracker and almond topping and a nice and stiff crust. It was filled with blueberries which made for a really good pie. While I didn't see the lavender in the pie, as soon as I cut into it, I could smell it. The flavor was infused through the pie and it was incredible. While the pie would have been good without the lavender, the lavender made it one of the best pies I have ever had.

I really liked Bleeding Heart's new cafe and I will undoubtedly visit it again but I will definitely be back for the baked goods especially if there is pie.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Meatloaf Bakery

I like Meatloaf and I like cupcakes but I will admit that I felt a little leery when I first heard about The Meatloaf Bakery. Who would think of meatloaf cupcakes? There doesn't seem to really be anywhere the two could connect. Admittedly, the cupcakes made here are not a combination of the two ideas but are just individual meatloafs in the shape of cupcakes. The "cake" portion is a ground meat combination of some sort like a meatloaf and while the toppings vary, they are also savory, many using mashed potatoes, cheese, pasta, vegetables, or a combination. I had been by the place several times because it is close to a favorite record store of mine but I couldn't wrap my head around the idea so I didn't actually try any until I happened to encounter them at a local beer festival. I then found that they were just meatloafs shaped like cupcakes and decided to try them out. They have several different types of cupcakes so going there for a single cupcake seemed a bit of a waste. Cupcakes though, are good for sharing and I have a large family so I waited until a family event to buy a bunch so I would be able to try a bunch at once without having to gorge myself or letting a few sit for potentially several days. I actually did this twice although I only took pictures once because I repeated all of the cupcakes that I got the first time (adding one more the second time that actually looked a lot like one of the other cupcakes).

So on to the individual cupcakes. The first cupcake I will talk about is the Mother Loaf. It is the upper right cupcake in the picture. It's a fairly standard, albeit fancy, meatloaf. It is made with beef, pork, and veal with onions and ketchup and topped with mashed potatoes and chives. It tasted like a very good meatloaf. The texture was a little loose so it was much easier to eat with a knife and fork than to try to eat it with your hands but in any case it tasted very good and is a good gateway to introduce people to meatloaf cupcakes.

Below the Mother Loaf in the picture is the No Buns About It Burger Loaf. This is essentially a bacon cheeseburger meatloaf and it was really good! It had everything you would expect from a bacon cheeseburger: a good beef base with bacon, cheddar, onions, mustard, and pickles mixed together with it. It was topped with whipped cheddar mashed potatoes. This was actually one of my favorites.

At the bottom of the picture is the Wing and a Prayer Loaf. If you like spicy buffalo chicken wings, this one is for you. It is a spicy buffalo chicken wing loaf with ground chicken and celery with a spicy wing sauce and lots of crumbled blue cheese and topped with a buttery blue cheese crust. This was actually a little more firm than the previous two so if you really wanted to eat it with your hands you could (although I still wouldn't recommend it). Admittedly, I was a little unsure about the idea of ground chicken but it was good.

The cupcake that looks like it's topped with spaghetti is called the Loaf-A-Roma and yes, it is topped with spaghetti. The loaf is italian sausage and beef with mozzarella cheese and red wine and the spaghetti topping has more mozzarella, basil, and sun-dried tomatoes. While I like this, I like basil and think that wine can improve the flavor of some dishes. The wine flavor though, is fairly prominent so if you don't like wine, this might not be your cupcake.

The final cupcake in the picture is called the Yentl Lentl Loaf and it is a vegetarian loaf. The loaf is made of lentils and brown rice with some cheese and the topping is red, yellow, and green bell peppers. I really like this but lentils and rice brings to mind a good memory and I am not biased against vegetarian dishes. While it is flavorful, it doesn't pretend to be meat so those people that tend to be more carnivore might not like this.

The last meatloaf cupcake that I have had has the imaginative name Meatloaf #641. It is actually similar to the Mother Loaf but uses a jalapeno ketchup between the loaf and the mashed potato topping and is topped with a halved grape tomato. It is very cute, a little spicy, and a winner if you like good meatloaf.

Meatloaf cupcakes are a very imaginative and are fun to share with people. As I said, I like both meatloaf and cupcakes and these are good examples of both. I will definitely be back here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Via Carducci

As one might be able to tell, I like to eat out and despite the fact that I don't eat out at Italian restaurants often, I really like Italian food. In fact, it is one of my favorites. I went recently to an Italian trattoria in Lincoln Park called Via Carducci. I didn't make a reservation but I figured if I went a little early, I shouldn't have a problem. Surprisingly, when I got there the dining room was full and I had to wait a little while. While I thought it a little odd that the place was full so early, I thought it also boded well for the food. There is a small bar in the front room where I waited which gave me time to look at the design of the room. It was a design style that I had seen a few times before. The walls were antique brick with worn plaster and a mural of the Italian countryside. Another wall had what looked like a worn and faded advertising poster and the ceiling had a mural that looked like a big hole in the roof that showed the sky. While the restaurant had the illusion of being a ruin, it also felt welcoming.

I was seated near the "broken" wall and made my order. I started with the Salumi e Formaggi, a collection of charcuterie and cheese which included salami, pepperoni, prosciutto, mortadella, and capicola, Parmagiano, Reggiano, Fontinella, and Pecorino that was served with olives, artichokes, tomatoes, and lettuce and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. It was good but it was quite a bit bigger than I expected. The description was vague as to what exactly was included in the dish. If I had known that it was as big as it was, I may not have ordered an entree.
As for my entree, I was actually kind of glad that I didn't go with the pasta. While all of the pasta dishes looked really good, they were all pretty big and if I had gone with the pasta, I am not sure I would have been able to move. The entree that I ordered wasn't light but it was lighter than the pasta would have been. I ordered the Chicken Vesuvio which actually was a dish born in Chicago (possibly at the former Vesuvio Restaurant). It was a boneless chicken breast with peas in a garlic, rosemary, and white wine sauce and served with roasted potatoes. It was very fragrant and tasted good and between that and my appetizer, I could have easily ended my meal there.
Against my better judgement (I was full already and if I continued eating I would start heading toward uncomfortable. I was also going to have to bike home.) I decided since I was out that I should at least look at the dessert menu so I wearily asked the waiter what the desserts were and decided on the Chocolate Truffle Cake. The cake came out and I thought that if it tasted as good as it looked, I would really enjoy it. It was and I did but I was so full at the end of the night that I didn't need to eat until lunch the next day.

I really enjoyed my meal here despite stuffing myself. I do know know the serving size and will know how to order the next time I come here.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

La Casa de Samuel

While the neighborhood that I live in is pretty Hispanic and there are some Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood. There really isn't anything of note (other than the street venders that sell tamales and elotes) within walking distance of where I live. There are some pretty good Puerto Rican and Cuban places that are close but the closest Mexican place that I might mention is about a mile and a half away. When I think about going out for Mexican food, I think about the neighborhoods of Pilsen or Little Village. To that end, I went to La Casa de Samuel in Little Village for dinner recently. Located on a busy thouroughfare, from the outside it doesn't look much different than any other business in the area. It has a glass front and a glass door but as you look in, you are transported to the western desert. The place was very rustic with wooden floors and walls, exposed rafters, a fence separating the bar area from the dining area on which were mounted a couple of saddles and a couple of deer skulls above the doorway. There was a table at the front of the restaurant near the door that was used for making tortillas and an aquarium in front of the door that stood as kind of a hostess station. My first thought after seeing the tortilla station and thinking that that was kind of cool was that the place was pretty loud. There was a music area by the fence separating the bar and the restaurants and in the time that I was there, there were several different musicians that played (loudly). It seemed that they would play two or three songs and then switch off to give someone else a chance to play. There seemed to be several musicians hanging out in the bar area.

I was lucky that I came to the restaurant hungry because I was served a lot. I started out with an order of Guacamole and chips. The avocados and tomatoes tasted good and the onions tasted very fresh and crisp. There was a pronounced cilantro flavor which is fine because I like cilantro and the chips were very fresh and crisp The guacamole while very fresh tasting, could have used some spice (peppers, cayenne, or hot sauce). If it had had some spice it would have been great but as it was, I can only call it good. I like Oysters Rockefeller and when I saw that they had them on the menu, I had to order some. I could have ordered six or twelve but as there was something else on the menu that really interested me, I decided to get the smaller size. Now admittedly ordering Oysters Rockefeller at a Mexican restaurant may not have been my smartest move because while you can get oysters in Mexico, Oysters Rockefeller is most definitely is not a Mexican dish. Having said that, while they weren't bad, they also weren't great. Oysters Rockefeller consist of oysters on the half shell cooked with a green , usually parsley or spinach, a butter sauce, and topped with bread crumbs. My oysters had spinach, butter, and bread crumbs, but they also were topped with a lot of white cheese. They were pretty good if a bit wetter than I prefer and probably not technically Oysters Rockefeller.
As I mentioned, there was something on the menu that really piqued my interest. That would be the rattlesnake. I think that I have had grilled rattlesnake before but I don't really remember what it tasted like except the often referred to chicken. I could get it served just with salsa verde, salsa roja, mole, or simply grilled but I was also warned that if I ordered the rattlesnake grilled, it might be a little tough and ordering it with a sauce would probably help to tenderize it. After thinking about it, I thought that the salsa verde would match best with the white meat that is rattlesnake and would do so without really covering up the flavor of the meat so that is the way that I went. The entree was served with rice, beans, a side salad, and the house made corn tortillas which were soft and wonderful. Rattlesnake has a light flavor, kind of like chicken, and the salsa verde did provide some nice flavor and spice to the dish. I used the tortillas to build tacos with the rattlesnake, rice, and beans and to mop up the sauce when everything else was finished. It was a very good dish even if the rattlesnake was still a little tough.
I could have finished there and probably should have because I was starting to get full but I had the dessert menu there so I ordered the Fried Ice Cream. The ice cream was Neapolitan and the crust had cinnamon in it. It was also topped with sprinkles and chocolate syrup and served with whipped cream. While I generally prefer my fried ice cream topped with honey, chocolate syrup is good and the dish as a whole was good, sweet, smooth, crisp, and a little spicy from the cinnamon.

I liked my dinner here and I will come back even if it was a little on the loud side. The service was friendly, the tortillas were outstanding, and the menu was extensive. There are a few other things on the menu that I would like to try.