Archive for February, 2009




Those of you who watched the episode of CheckPlease that I was on know that I ripped Eleven City Diner apart. Well, actually, I ripped everything apart except for my beloved Café Hoang. But hey, it makes for good TV. Anyway, about a week prior to the episode airing a couple of my dear friends threw a little wedding party for Yuki and me since we got hitched in Japan and none of our American friends find us important enough to have made the journey to the land of the rising sun (Just kidding, you know I love you all, well, at least some of you). So, they had a little party for us here in Chicago. Not knowing that I reviewed Eleven City Diner, one of my friends had gotten Yuki and me some gift certificates there as a gift. I asked him if it was a joke and his response was, “It’s Jew food, I thought you’d like it.” He’s of Persian decent (He claims Persia not Iran) so there’s an ongoing racial joke exchange between us. He didn’t know, it was a very nice gesture and much appreciated. Ashkan, love ya babe!


So, Yuki and I invited a couple of friends to join us there for lunch today in order to utilize the gift certificates. I was a little excited/nervous to see what kind of reaction I’d get from Brad, the owner, when he saw me walk through his doors. Much to my dismay, he’s out of town. I was looking forward to kibbutzing with him, oh well.


Funny thing is that we got the same waitress from when I went there for CheckPlease. She had a weird look on her face when she saw me. I think she recognized me from the episode. Needless to say, the service was impeccable! The food, well, the food was pretty much the same from my last visit.


Yuki and each ordered the Schwartzy sandwich, brisket piled high on a challah bun. The challah was great! They don’t make the bread though, so I can only compliment them for purchasing a good piece of leavened dough and not making it. The brisket on the other hand was absolutely butchered! They sliced it thin and served it with au jus. What Jew in their right mind would do that to a perfectly good brisket, slice it thin? Poor piece of brisket. That took away all of the characteristics of the piece of meat. Brisket should be sliced thick to showcase the wonderful texture it gets when slowly cooked allowing that nice layer of fat to melt into every little microscopic crevice of the meat. My mouth is watering just typing that sentence. The way it was served it could have been any old roast beef. I’m beginning to wonder if Brad really is Jewish or if it’s just a marketing scheme to push large sandwiches on people.


Our friends shared a large cobb salad and a pastrami sandwich. The salad was, well, it was a large cobb salad. Nice fresh ingredients, but nothing special. We found a hair in it, but that was only after we divided it onto different plates so that hair could have been one of ours (not Peter’s, mother-nature made sure of that). No real complaints there. The pastrami was about the same as it was on my CheckPlease review, really good quality meat, but lacking that brininess and thick coating of pepper that pastrami should have. Not bad, just not really good.


When the check came that’s when I remembered exactly why I don’t eat here. Three sandwiches, one salad, one side of fries, and two orange juices……$60! Brad, come on man, you’re not serving food in an airport terminal. The prices are way too high for what is served. I say that, but the place is always full, so I guess he doesn’t need to lower the prices. It’s just not good value in my humble opinion (yeah right, my opinion is anything but humble). I mean, he has a Chicago-style Vienna dog on his menu for $8.95! At that price all wieners should be satisfied. Potato Latkes for $7.95, I’m sorry, but no potato costs eight bucks.


It was funny, when we left one of the servers came up to me and asked, “Was anything good?” He had a big smile on his face when he asked. I can definitely appreciate the sense of humor.


This may be the last time I ever go back to Eleven City Diner. There isn’t too much wrong with the food aside from improper seasoning and weird utilization of various cuts (not to mention his rather large, flavorless balls….matza balls that is). For the money however, I just can’t fathom spending what it takes to eat there, especially when Manny’s is just down the street serving properly seasoned pastrami as well as latkes for a buck. Good thing I had the gift certificates.


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Wow! Holidays always seem to disappoint to the nth degree. Valentine’s Day is no exception. I typically don’t care whatsoever about any national holidays as to me they are nothing but capitalist commercial rag. However, my wife and I do like to dine out on Valentine’s since many restaurants whip up sexy dishes special for the occasion. This year we decided to check out Piccolo Sogno, 464 N Halstead.


I’ve never been to Coco Pazzo, but Yuki has. She and everyone else I talk to about it have given it nothing but rave reviews. Since Chef Priolo was the executive chef there we were sure that his Piccolo Sogno would deliver the goods. Man, were we wrong!


I was going to post my review last night after dinner, but I wanted to wait and see how everything digested. So far so good, no uncomfortable trips in the foreseeable future either. Waiting until today also let me replay last night’s experience in my head over and over again, slowly simmering over low heat.


We had a 7pm reservation and were promptly seated. They walked us past this tiny little bar area, through a dining room with sort of a grayish-blue color (kind of a hip dining room), past antipasto items lined up in front of the kitchen out in the open (no sneeze-guard or anything keeping it away from the public, as well as no refrigeration) and into a backroom that was nothing like the rest of the restaurant. The room we were in was small and cramped. They had way too many 2-top tables in that place. Maybe it was to get more Valentine’s couples in, I’m not sure, but they definitely killed any romance whatsoever by having everyone sit on top of each other. Conversation was awkward since it was like we were seated at a table with strangers on all sides instead of at our own table. The space between tables was so small my petite wife had trouble slipping through the crack to get to her seat. I’m glad I’m not married to Aretha Franklin, no way would she make it through! The wallpaper in that room was terrible as well and didn’t match the rest of the restaurant at all. It has this horrible yellowish-beige color with different fruits on it. I thought I was in an old woman’s dining room in a Wisconsin farmhouse, not a hip new Italian place in Chicago. The one good thing I did notice was that all of us men in the room were gentlemen and let our women sit with their backs against the wall. Chivalry is not dead!


Our server showed up after about 5 minutes and wanted to take our orders immediately. I got the feeling that we weren’t really wanted there. I told him that we’d order our drinks once we figured out what we were going to order to eat and he said he’d come back in a couple of minutes. Well, that turned out to be about 15-20 minutes. So, here Yuki and I are, sitting with no drinks, no food, and very little conversation due to how uncomfortably close we were to other patrons on both sides. It was definitely not an ideal situation. We couldn’t even flag the waiter down the few times he came into the room since he paid zero attention to us. Also, I noticed toward the end of our meal when a new couple sat next to us they were given some sort of amuse bouche. We weren’t. The table on the other side of us was told about the fish of the day and other specials. Why weren’t we?


Once the waiter decided to make a little time for us we ordered a really nice bottle of Sangiovese, easily the best part of our meal. We ordered two salads, the Insalata Mista and the Insalata Barbabietole. The Mista was basically a mixed green salad with a few cherry tomatoes, fennel grissini (bread sticks), and vinaigrette. I really expected more from it. I could have bought some bread sticks and made my own vinaigrette to toss on some greens for much less than the $7 this salad cost. The Barbabietole (beet salad) was also sub par. You put a beet salad on the menu and I’m going to order it. I absolutely love beets! I’m not sure if it’s the sweetness, texture, or the fact that the next day everything that comes out of you is red (actually, I know this last reason is why), but I will always order it. I guess sometimes I shouldn’t, as in this case. The beats were fine, the shaved fennel on top was great, but the ricotta cheese had no place on the dish. Chef Priolo tried to be different by not using a salty goat cheese with beets. You know what Chef? There’s a reason everyone else uses a salty goat cheese and not bland ricotta. There was no balance in the overall flavor of the salad. No textural difference either. The addition of toasted pine nuts would have also made this salad fantastic. The dish stopped short.


Our entrees were even worse than the salads. Yuki ordered the Anatra Arrosto (slow roasted duck with fennel sausage and farro polenta) while I ordered the special entrée, Abbraccio di Quaglia (house-cured pancetta wrapped quail stuffed with black truffles and mushrooms over a pillow of soft polenta). Chef Priolo did get the skin nice and crispy on the duck, probably the best part of the entire line-up of food that we ordered. It was really crisp and tasty. The meat however was overcooked and a little dry. The flavor was good, but once duck is overcooked, no matter how great the flavor is, all is lost.


I’m putting the review of my quail in its own paragraph because there were many many many things wrong with this dish. Read my description of the dish in the paragraph above. That’s exactly how the dish is described on the website and that’s how it was written on the menu. That’s not what was served. I did get quail, let me make that clear, but wrapped in house-cured pancetta? Where’s the pancetta? How come I didn’t get the pancetta? Why no pancetta? It also said “stuffed with black truffles and mushrooms”. The quail wasn’t stuffed with anything let alone black truffles and mushrooms. There were mushrooms in the balsamic sauce drizzled around the quail, but nothing inside the quail. I couldn’t taste truffles to save my life either. How can you mention something like black truffles and then not use them? Without a single trace of pancetta or black truffles on my plate, what did I pay $26 for? Why not sucker punch me in the gut while you’re at it? Well, they did. On top of missing two of the main ingredients my quail was way overcooked and dry. I love quail to be a little rare in the middle so it’s nice and tender, but this was cooked like a piece of microwaved chicken.  Maybe because there was no pig fat wrapped around this lean little bird to keep it moist. Maybe Chef Priolo just isn’t a very good chef. I don’t care who was back there cooking that thing, it is Priolo’s (I’m going to stop using the term Chef for him as he doesn’t deserve that title.) responsibility to make sure everything’s cooked properly. Since nothing was, I’m convinced he’s a fraud.


I wanted to complain to the waiter about this, but he didn’t come by to see how things were for at least 20 minutes after we were served. I also didn’t want to bother our fellow diners who were on top of us and ruin their meals with our complaints. I did call once we got home and told Ciro Longobardo (Priolo’s biz partner in the deal) about that quail dish. All he could do was say that he was sorry. I guess I didn’t expect him to do anything since we were already at home, but I still wanted him to know that there was a major disconnect from what was advertised to what was served.


Anyway, on to dessert. We were given two strawberries covered in white chocolate with dark chocolate drizzles and two half-glasses of Santero Fragolino, a sparkling rose to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Wow, what cheapskates! You can get Fragolino retail for about $10 a bottle, meaning that they probably paid $7 a bottle from a distributor. Come on guys, it’s Valentine’s Day and your restaurant is full of couples wanting a romantic dinner, show a little class and serve us something good! Yuki made the comment that the sparkling tasted like Fanta. You know what? She was absolutely right. It was the worst sparkling rose I’ve ever passed through my liver and I drink my fair share of sparkling rose as it’s a perfect partner for grilled meat (Without my grill I’m nothing!). I do have to say that the strawberries were fantastico! I don’t know where they got them, but to find nice big sweet strawberries in February? Not enough to save the meal, but very delicious.


We ordered the Valentine’s dessert to accompany the strawberries. It was a chocolate cup filled with three mousses, white chocolate, chocolate, and pistachio. The pistachio was outstanding, the chocolate was good, but the white chocolate I could have done without. The chocolate cup was made that afternoon and was not refrigerated properly. It should have been nice and hard, but it was almost melting and we had trouble breaking it apart to eat. Overall it was a good dessert, not a great one, and definitely not a special Valentine’s-worthy one.


On our way out the door, while putting on our jackets, one of the hostesses very awkwardly handed me a rose. I guess it was for Yuki. We definitely appreciate fresh flowers, but it was given to me in such a weird fashion it felt really odd.


I have to say that I do not understand the hype surrounding this place. I know it has one of the best outdoor seating gardens in the city, but the two restaurants I know of that occupied that space previously couldn’t hack it even with that space. If not for Priolo’s undeserved reputation this place would be doomed as the food was not buona da mangiare, while the service and atmosphere were both severely lacking. I mean really, it’s not like there aren’t other options for Italian food in Chicago! I, for one, will never go back to Piccolo Sogno.

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I had a discussion with a buddy of mine the other day regarding El Barco Mariscos, the Mexican fish house on 1035 N. Ashland. You see, I live about a half block down the street on Cortez from El Barco and, as such, I know the restaurant well. While the food has always tasted good my wife and I have stopped dining there and will probably never be back. My buddy thinks it’s the beans.


El Barco is one of the most fun dining experiences you can have at a restaurant. Sure, the top-40 Mexican hits being played on the TV monitors are pretty cheesy, but the rest of the atmosphere is fantastic. Built to look like a wooden boat, there are stuffed fish hanging from all over the ceiling. It’s open, bright, friendly, and loud, but not too loud. It’s like a fiesta. There are always families and large groups and the line to get in sometimes starts as early as 5pm, especially on summer weekends when they have the outdoor seating open.


Margarita pitchers always set the mood right. Along with tortillas, lime wedges, and three different salsas you can’t help but start to loosen up and take it easy.


The menu is huge. I mean that literally. It used to come out in an enormous laminate that must have been 1.5 x 3 feet! They’ve since folded them, but they’re still pretty large. Lots of selections as well. All sorts of apps such as different ceviche, seafood cocktails, salads, bacon wrapped cheese stuffed shrimp (also available as a dinner), and so on. There are different grilled items available, beef, chicken, seafood, mixed. Crab legs are always on hand. Numerous fish preparations are offered, the most popular being their snapper.








They serve their snapper deep fried and then propped up on its belly atop a bed of rice with grilled veggies (usually potatoes, carrots, broccoli, corn, and onions; comes will all dinners), guacamole, and refried beans (also comes with every meal). It comes out and you just pull the meat right off the bones. When the fish is fresh it’s absolutely delicious!


El Barco sounds great, right? So why won’t my wife or I go back? Very good question. The answer lies in the internal damage done shortly after ingesting a meal of El Barco. I can recall only one time when El Barco didn’t send me in a cheek-clenching, stiff-legged mad dash directly to the latrine (Yuki and  I only have one bathroom in our place, imagine the difficulty after we’ve both eaten El Barco!). That night we ate crab legs, for some reason they were very gentle on my stomach. Otherwise, I’m sure there’s been some irreparable damage done from about a dozen journeys to El Barco over the years. A hole burned somewhere along my entrails or something.


My buddy seems to think it’s the refried beans. Apparently he shares a similar history with El Barco except that the one night he was high and dry he claims to have passed over the beans. I ate beans the night we had crab legs, I know this for a fact. You mash that magical fruit with some lard and I’m in heaven! There’s no way I can pass a good refried bean. Eating the beans on top of everything else is more like throwing water on an oil fire. They don’t help matters, but they’re not the root cause. I think the answer is a short hop across Cortez.


On the south side of Cortez, next to their parking lot is a little run-down shack. I think that’s where El Barco keeps meat and other ingredients. I’m not 100% positive about this, but judging by the smells that come out of that place (especially in the hot and humid summer) and seeing the cooks going in and out, there’s meat kept at warmer than should be temperatures inside. Sometimes it smells so rotten I want to instantly heave all over the street. It has completely turned me off of ever going back. I, for one, prefer my food to be fresh as opposed to road kill left on the side of the road for a few days before making it my plate.


El Barco Mariscos ought to change their name to “Montezuma’s Revenge.”





(Snapper photo courtesy of Brady)

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This past Saturday was date night with the wife. I know, Yuki and I are one of those cute couples everyone hates to see. We hold hands and all of that crap. But hey, she’s cute as hell, what am I supposed to do? Anyway, we decided that it was time to catch Slumdog Millionaire. Looking in The Reader I saw that the three closest theaters playing it were the one on E. Illinois downtown, the one on Clark in Lincoln Park, and The Davis Theater on N. Lincoln in Lincoln Square. Not wanting to pay $20 to park while having dinner and eating we headed up to Lincoln Square where I knew there would be free street parking close to the theater. Sorry for not calling you Scotty and Brenna as we parked by your place, but I was on a date.


There are tons of great eats on that strip of Lincoln, but since we were going to see a movie that takes place in India we decided to stop in at Essence of India at 4601 N. Lincoln, right on the NE corner of Lincoln and Wilson.


It’s a nice little restaurant, clean with Indian art hanging on all of the walls. Nothing fancy, but not bare and sterile either. We sat at a four-top near the window and were quite comfortable.


The menu looks like just about any Indian joint in the states. It’s broken down into apps, tandoori items, chicken, lamb, etc. So far everything seemed to be right in line.


We order samosas whenever we eat Indian. I guess it’s kind of like Crab Rangoon for me at Chinese restaurants, I gotta have ‘em. However, I was feeling kind of crazy that night, my friends (sorry, don’t mean to sound like McCain). I don’t know if it was that sexy Japanese woman I was dining with, or something I smoked prior to dinner, but I was definitely feeling a bit antsy, ready to go against the grains of my reality. We didn’t order samosas, instead, are you ready for this? We ordered the Vegetable Pakoras. Mmmmm, am I glad we did!


Fresh vegetables coated in a lentil batter and deep fried into golden bliss. That night’s offerings were potato slices, onions, and cauliflower (a vastly underused vegetable in my humble opinion). The coriander sauce had a shtickle of spice behind it that really kept the deep fried flavors clean going down, and a little spicy going out.


After that we decided to keep dinner simple and shared the Tandoori Chicken and Seekh Kabob. I think the true test of an Americanized Indian restaurant is how well prepared the Tandoori Chicken is. Out of the numerous Chicago contenders I’ve digested, Essence of India’s ranks right up there with the best! It was absolutely cooked to perfection. The outside had that nice almost-caramelized crust while the inside stayed moist and juicy. There was a touch more lemon in their marinade, but I like that, I like that a lot!


The Seekh Kabob was also very good. It didn’t quite rank up there with the best of them like the chicken did, but it was a tasty dish. I love a tasty dish. Very well flavored and also cooked nicely, keeping the meat juice encapsulated. There could have been a few more vegetables on the dish such as grilled peppers, a natural marriage with lamb. Grilled cherry tomatoes also would have been lovely with their little bursts of acid (don’t get too excited Mark, not that kind of acid). However, it was a satisfying dish on the molecular as well as the spiritual level.


The Naan was, well, it was Naan. My mom loves Naan so much she could make a meal out of it all by itself! And she tells us this every time we have Indian food with her.


Service was very attentive without being overbearing. Food came out on cue, water was filled as soon as our glasses became half-empty. The front house is very well run.


My only gripe with Essence of India was the cost of my Mango Lassi. For $3.50 they could have given me twice as much. My narrow Collins glass was so full of ice that there was hardly any Lassi in it. I have a buddy who would never put ice in his cup at self serve machines because he didn’t want to waste room that could be used for drink. Well, I always thought that he was just being stingy (which he is), but I understand his thinking now. I would have much rather forked over $3.50 for Mango Lassi than for a glass of ice.


All in all Essence of India is a better-than-average, typical Americanized Indian restaurant. Food and service are top-notch while the prices are consistent with other Indian joints in Chicago. While I wouldn’t go out of my way for it, I would definitely go back if ever in the mood for Indian while in Lincoln Square. It’s a great place to have in the neighborhood and actually made me jealous that there isn’t any Indian in my neighborhood. Come on Wicker Park restaurateurs, aren’t any of you Indian?

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I didn’t eat too much for lunch yesterday so by the time 5:00pm rolled around my stomach was rumbling! My wife had plans for dinner with some coworkers so I was on my own for dinner. I work from home most of the time, devoid of human contact, so I felt like grabbing some dinner with a couple of friends. I called up my buddy Ed and his girlfriend Becky (I know, I wonder myself how he has been able to keep the same girl for 2 years! It truly boggles the mind.). They were down for joining me to the recently opened Chickpea at 2018 W. Chicago, a place I’ve wanted to check out since it opened.


You have to pay attention to addresses since there isn’t a noticeable sign for Chickpea. It’s located directly across the street from the Dominick’s on Chicago and Damen. When we walked in we immediately got the feel of a typical family run joint in the Middle East. I lived in Israel and Egypt for a year so I have a pretty good idea of what’s authentic and what’s not.


The décor was interesting with a large painted Coca-cola sign on part of the wall and Arabic movie posters filling the rest of the walls. Light fixtures were clearly of Arab design as were the table tops. I also love how they polished the copper ceilings, something which too many establishments choose to paint over and which I think is criminal.


Anyway, we were a little unsure of how service worked as there was a line of people at the counter to order as well as some people waiting for a table. We figured that the line was for carryout and decided to wait for a table. While we were waiting, the old guy who’s helping to run the place (Jerry’s father maybe?) took us to the pinball machine in the back and said, “Come, play while you wait, the price is right”. It’s free, so I guess the price is right. I felt a little awkward playing pinball right next to people gorging on falafel and hummus. Oh well, we played a couple of games before our table opened up.


We didn’t realize that there wasn’t full table service until after we sat down. I felt like an ass sitting down before ordering while a bunch of people who had already ordered were waiting to sit. Oh well, I am an ass, so I guess it’s ok.


I held down fort while Ed and Becky went up to order. Ed screwed up my order, no surprise, so Becky had to go back up to fix it. I tell ya, men would be lost without good women by our sides. Thanks for straightening that out Becky.


We started with the trio of dips which consists of a dish of hummus, one of baba ghanooj (I guess that how Palestinians spell it), and the koosa ma laban which is yogurt, zucchini and mint puree. I’ve never had koosa ma laban before, and to honest, it wasn’t my favorite of the three. It was good, really fresh and clean, it just wasn’t my preferred flavor. The hummus was outstanding, definitely some of the best the Chicagoland area has to offer. The baba ghanooj was really good as well. I think I prefer the baba at The Pita Inn, but this baba more closely resembles what you get in the Middle East. You can tell that it’s a family recipe and it had a really nice lemony zing to it.


For entrees Ed got the Kufta Mihshew, ground lamb and beef kebabs with peppers and rice. Becky got the Fasoolya, braised lamb with green beans and tomato with rice. I got the Laham ma Hummus, a plate with hummus smeared around the sides and minced beef sautéed with pine nuts in olive oil in the middle that you eat with pita. I have to say, WOW! Absolutely delicious food. The Kufta was grilled just right so that the meat stayed nice and juicy while the seasoning was spot on. The braised lamb just fell apart off the bone, extremely tender. My laham was awesome. Little morsels of beef I think seasoned with a little cumin, maybe a touch of sumac but I’m not completely sure.


I was so hungry that I ate way too fast and didn’t leave any room for dessert. Oh how I love a good baklava. I’ll have to try it next time.


The one thing we didn’t try that I definitely need to is the falafel. I’ve been on the eternal search for a really good falafel ever since my year in the Middle East. So far, I have yet to find one that’s even close. The Pita Inn is closest, but nothing else I’ve had is. I know a lot of you are going to say, “what about Sultans on North?” I went there once a few years ago to try their falafel. While I don’t remember exactly how good or bad it was, the fact that I haven’t been back tells me that it didn’t impress me too much. I seem to remember it being more like an American falafel sandwich as opposed to a real authentic one. It’s really tricky to get the texture just right as well as the flavors. The best ones I ate in Israel all came from outdoor stands where the guy making them probably hasn’t changed his oil in 20 years. The oil really makes a difference. I’ll definitely try Chickpea’s falafel on my next visit. I mean really, I should have tried it last night as their name implies. What kind of an idiot am I?


I was also a little disappointed that they don’t have schwarma. I’ll take a good schwarma over just about anything in the world and I would love to have a good one in my neighborhood. I guess I’ll have to keep waiting.


The Suqi’s are also some of the most genuinely nice and hospitable people running a restaurant that I’ve come across in a long time. They definitely come from the old world. Amni, the mother whose recipes we ate, is such a nice woman. She was constantly stopping over and telling us about her grandma’s recipes that she uses and how good the food is. I couldn’t argue one bit as I had a mouth full of delicious bits every time she stopped by. I think she has the hots for me too as she kept touching my shoulder and talking to me instead of Ed or Becky. Frankly, I can’t blame her….I’m a stud!


In all seriousness though, I found Chickpea to be a real asset for this neighborhood. With prices all below $12 it’s a great value for the weakening US Dollar. Portions are nice too as there was plenty of dip for us to split up and take home. It did leave me a little gassy, but hey, most things worth their while do. I have a very good feeling that I will become a regular devourer of their food.



Photo courtesy of www.stevenjohnsonphotography.com

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My buddy Tony over at Gimme A Bite! recently wrote about an experience he and his wife had over at Zed451. While I’ve never been there, it brought up hunger pangs craving Fogo de Chao, a gluttony full of meat-eating sin I have had the pleasure of enjoying.


I went for a buddy’s bachelor party and there were 20 of us meeting up there. If you knew my buddy Mark, you’d know that there really is no other place to start his bachelor party. I think he got more aroused from all of the skewers of food than from watching the strippers later. We waited at the bar for everyone to show up. Nothing wrong with meeting new people while enjoying a few caparhinas with old friends who are all about to partake of the ancient rituals of carnal devouring with you. I gotta say, keep those caparhinas coming, Fogo makes a mean drink!


With a nice buzz kicking in we were seated at our table and were explained the rules of turning the card over from red (no meat at this particular moment in time) to green (get that sumptuous skewer of dead animal flesh over here!). We placed our drink orders, more caparhinas and some Argentinean Malbec, not typically my favorite style of vino, but, when in Fogo…stick with South America.


They immediately brought out a bunch of side dishes. Some of the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever consumed, fried plantains and cheese bread. I had to make a stop at the salad bar before turning my card to green because I knew that once the meat started falling on my plate I wouldn’t get up any time soon. Best to have my vegetables sitting there ready and waiting to help my kitchen sink bits push all of the meat through safe and sound.




What a salad bar! I think any vegetarian would be satisfied perusing this thing. There were all kinds of crudités, greens, salad condiments, sliced salamis (even vegetarians would have to admit that they looked damn tasty!), etc. Really, it was quite a spread. I chose to keep it simple with some greens and raw veggies for I knew what lay ahead.


Now comes the part I’ve been waiting for, my carnivorous dreams are about to become a reality. I just need to be careful of what I wish for. Ok, take a deep breath……GREEN!


Skewers seemingly start coming out of the woodwork. I haven’t seen this much meat since a Russ Myers film (thanks for the analogy Seinfeld). Animals from all walks of life grilled to perfect bliss. Lamb chops, pork ribs, beef ribs, chicken wrapped in bacon (I usually don’t order chicken, but hey, it was wrapped in bacon, I was clearly given an offer I can’t refuse), about 5 different cuts of beef…..it was truly heaven on a stick!


The star of the show was hands down the Picanha, a cut of sirloin with a layer of fat about a half inch thick along the meat. All it’s flavored with is salt and garlic, very simple. However, and I don’t quite know how they’re so successful at this, but that strip of fat absorbed every last molecule of flavor that garlic once possessed. Emeril would crap his pants instantly with that garlic flavor. I must have eaten three or four chunks of that stuff throughout my gorging. I used it much like pickled ginger at a sushi bar, to cleanse my palette between other flavors.




I ate myself sick. There was clearly no way I would be able to stomach any dessert unless it came wrapped in garlic fat bacon on skewer. I morphed into my grandpa after a Passover Seder, my belt unfastened and the top button undone in a complete meat coma. Good thing my natural laxatives (fibrous veggies) were sitting in front of me or I’d have some serious problems lying ahead.


At $50 a pop (not including drinks) for that unbelievable parade of grilled flesh it’s definitely not the kind of place that I will frequent often. It is, however, a great spot for the rare occasion when all you want is to be naughty. Just be sure not to drag your anti-animal cruelty vegetarian who denies him/herself one of life’s most innate desires as it will surely end all relations. I, myself, am clearly not one of those veggies and will definitely be back at some point in my life.

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Those of you who haven’t journeyed up to Andy’s Deli on 5442 N. Milwaukee are a bunch of idiots! I say that with a touch of humor, but also a lot of truth as there are very few reasons to grocery shop at Jewel, Dominicks or Whole Foods when there are gems like Andy’s in our beautiful city. A Polish Deli/Grocery store, Andy’s is a one-stop shop for almost all of your digestive needs.



They have a counter with freshly prepared foods such as goulash, various roasted and braised shanks, cabbage rolls, ground chicken balls (some in dill sauces), pork loins, numerous vegetables and salads. The menu changes daily, but there are always selections of each major food group: cow, pig, chicken, and fish. They also make 2-3 different soups every day with their barley soup ranking as one of the best bowls (of soup) in all of Chicago.



On the other side of the U-shaped deli counter are their deli meat and cheese selections. Most of the meats they slice are homemade. My two favorites are the ham-off-the-bone and their smoked turkey. I don’t know how, but they manage to keep that turkey as wet as….well, I have a sick mind so I’ll keep that one blank and let you use your imagination. They also have this delicious havarti cheese with dill speckled around inside of it. Not to mention the usual offerings of butchered dead animal carcass found in most grocery stores.



Behind the deli counter lining a wall that must be at least 15-20 feet hang all sorts of home smoked sausages (I luv me sum kielbasa) and bacons. That right there is enough to get my stomach rumbling (It starts by rumbling in a good way, the next day it’s rumbling for other reasons).



Andy’s also carries some perishables, some of which are imported from the motherland. Local Polish bakeries bring in breads every morning. There are frozen items like different pierogies and homemade tripe. An aisle of chocolates and candies, fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, eggs, etc. They also carry liquor and some pharmaceuticals. Sausage, beer, and drugs, what more do you need?



To top it all off, their prices are much cheaper than the larger chain stores. I can walk out of Andy’s with four or five bags full of fresh and prepared food for well under $40! Where else can you buy food for 2 that lasts at least a week for that price?



The only two things missing from Andy’s are bagels and Asian ingredients. While they should carry bagels seeing as there used to be a large Jewish population in Poland, I don’t think too many Polish grew up eating Mao Po Tofu.



Andy’s is definitely one of my two favorite grocery stores in the Greater Chicagoland area, the other being Mitsuwa (my review for them is forthcoming). Next time you need a good piece of meat to take home, whether it be smoked, roasted, braised, cured, or freshly butchered, make the trek out to Andy’s.

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I went to Vermilion, 10 W. Hubbard, a while back and have to let you all know about the horrible experience I had there as the bitter taste still lingers on (from the night I tried to make her stay. Bob Dylan, “If you see her say hello”, Blood on the Tracks, 1975).


The fact that the vermilion is a highly toxic red dye is really the only thing the people behind the restaurant got correct as my experience there was emotionally toxic. I have yet, to this date, experienced such a poorly run restaurant that served such bland and uninspiring food. Excitement was running high as the concept of fusing Indian and Latin cuisine seems like a homerun to me. Both use similar fruits, coriander, tamarind, chilis, and whatnot. There has to be a ton of possibilities when blending these two, but Vermilion didn’t really fuse anything. It was mostly Indian food, that is, poorly spiced Indian food, with the rare cameo from the chipotle. It wasn’t just the poor attempt at a hip new fusion, Vermilion failed to deliver on all aspects of restaurant dining.


I was with a party of 13 (yeah, I know, the “lucky” number that the superstitious would claim is the reason for my poor experience) for an 8pm reservation on a Friday night. We walked in and I couldn’t believe how boring the interior was. When I think of Indian and Latin cultures I think of vibrant colors and sensuality. Well, they sort of covered the sensuality with some photos of hot women on the walls, but everything was white! White walls, white tablecloths. There were black accents with red napkins and candles. That’s it, no other colors. To me it just looked like your typical minimalist upscale restaurant wannabe hip club. I never got the sense from the décor that this was a spicy place.



The restaurant was pretty full in the dining area while the bar was relatively empty. We went up to the host who said that our table wasn’t quite ready, just a few minutes. Ok, no big deal. Restaurants run behind sometimes, it happens. Might as well grab a cocktail while waiting. Little did I know at the time that later in the evening the cocktail I would want in hand is a Molotov ready to be tossed into that poor excuse of a host’s britches. On top of that, their “specialty” cocktails were mostly putrid! Some of those Indian spices used in cooking should stay in the sauté pan and stay out of the martini glass.



A half hour goes by and it doesn’t look like there’s any table even remotely close to leaving for us to sit down. I go to the host to see what the story is. “It’ll be just a little bit longer, I’m very sorry.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s obvious to me at this point that Vermilion has no idea how to book its seatings. 15 minutes late, it happens. 20 minutes late, I can understand some people eat a little slower. Once you hit 30 minutes late on a reservation there’s something wrong. I’m starting to get pissed now. We wait a little longer and order another round of drinks.



15 more minutes go by and no table ready. Now, if you have a reservation and you don’t get seated for 45 minutes it’s up to the manager to come out and smooth the situation over. Buy us a round of drinks, send us a few bites to tide us over….something! Not a thing. The manager didn’t even have the balls to walk his horrible checkered tie wearing self over to us and explain what the problem was. Instead, he kept his lowly host in the line of fire. Poor host. He had no idea the likes of who he was dealing with.



So, now an hour has gone by. I go back to the host and am noticeably upset with him. He tells me, “We’re very busy tonight, we’ll get you a table as soon as we can.” WOW! Did he really just tell this to a customer with a reservation. I know you guys are busy on a Friday night, that’s why we made a RESERVATION! You know, that thing that holds a table for us. I felt like I was in a Seinfeld episode. Furthermore, I’ve worked downtown in busy restaurants, I know what a busy restaurant looks like. A busy restaurant is 3-4 people deep at the bar with people who don’t have reservations waiting for tables. Vermilion didn’t even have a full bar, so there were no walk-ins to contend with. This was just pure and simple bad restaurant management.



I was ready to start yelling out “THERE’S A RAT, THERE’S A RAT”, get out of there and head over to Bin36 where I know I’ll get a seat, good food, and good wine, but everyone else I was with wanted to stay and try what was supposed to be interesting food. 1 to 12, yeah, I’m clearly outnumbered. Since dinner was a business expense and I’m Jewish (Free food baby!) I sucked it up.



Finally, an hour and a half after our reservation time we finally get seated. We’ve already had plenty of time to digest the menu (which would digest much better than the food did) so we were ready to go. We’re sitting, waiting, waiting, waiting. It took another 15 minutes after we sat down for our server to even come by and greet us. This is just ridiculous! He says hi, takes our drink order, and walks away before we can order our food. GET BACK HERE YOU SON OF A BITCH! He comes back and we order our food. We thought it’d be fun to share a bunch of small plates so we could each try a bunch of new flavors. I gotta be honest, I don’t know why they call their small plates Tapas. That’s a pet peeve of mine, when restaurants serve small plates and automatically call them Tapas. Tapas are Spanish appetizers meant to be eaten with drinks at a bar. I have no problem with Tapas restaurants branching out beyond that, but if it’s not Spanish cuisine then don’t call them Tapas! Call them small plates! And don’t give me that whole tapasya BS which in Sanskrit means heat or spiritual suffering. Although, come to think of it, my experience at Vermilion was a spiritual suffering of sorts, so maybe it is accurate after all.



With our orders in we wait some more for our food and drink to show up. About 20 minutes later some of the plates start arriving, but still no drinks. We ordered a bunch of sangria (again, what is it with the Spanish theme here, I thought it was Indian and Latin, not Spanish…and no, the conquistadors pillaging and plundering of Latin America doesn’t make it right) that should take no more than a few minutes to prepare and send out. Furthermore, in fine dining you always serve drinks first. If there are no drinks on the table yet you don’t serve the food.



Here we are with overcooked, rubbery shrimp with mung bean (a southeast Asian ingredient, not Indian or Latin) and daikon (a Japanese ingredient). Mussels in a coconut chili broth that tasted just like Mussels in a coconut broth at any restaurant and was nothing exciting or creative. Artichoke Pakoras, they say it’s Spain’s favorite (again with Spain), that were already starting to discolor due to the lentil batter not covering the entire artichoke (artichokes discolor if left out in open air for too long, how fresh were these artichokes?). Duck Vindaloo that was cooked like chicken and not medium rare like duck should be. Etc, etc, etc.



There was not one saving grace for this meal. The flavors were not fusion at all! The dishes tasted like half-assed Indian food. There was a lot more Spanish influence than Latin. Why can’t people understand the difference between Spanish and Latin? Just because they both speak Spanish doesn’t make them the same. Extremely disappointing.



If I didn’t have a conscience I would have dined and ditched. The fact that we never once got an apology or a comped drink from the manager compounded with the lack of flavor and creativity of the food with some lacksadaisical service thrown in for good measure ensures that I will never ever ever come back to this sorry excuse for an establishment. I wouldn’t even come back for free food! You could pay me to come back, but that’s only because I can be bought.



I can’t comment on dessert because at that point we were all so upset with this place that everyone finally decided to listen to me. We went to Bin36 for dessert and wine, so the entire evening was not all loss.



All in all, I couldn’t wait to process all of those tasteless morsels and pass them through my intestines and into Chicago’s sewer systems, exactly where Vermilion belongs.




(cartoon courtesy of Toothpaste for Dinner)



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As some of you may know, I am the obnoxious dude from the Checkplease episode that featured ElevenCity Diner, Atwood Cafe and Cafe Hoang. I thought it appropriate to start off my blog on food with a shout out to my homeboy Jason Tran at Cafe Hoang on 232 W. Cermak. I’m not going to go into huge detail about the restaurant, you can watch Checkplease for that (royalties please David). I do want to tell you about my last experience there however, as it was the first time I got to meet Jason, the chef/owner of Chicago’s best value in dining.

It was Thursday night and my wife’s and my stomachs were pining for Hoang’s vittles. We stopped in there and were glad to see that even after the hoopla from the Checkplease episode died down they still had more business than before. I hope that continues so that Hoang stays put and doesn’t leave my restaurant rotation.

At any rate, we ordered a typical meal for us. Spring rolls, crab rangoon (I know, it’s not a Vietnamese dish, but they’re so friggin good there’s no way I can resist the sweet allure of smooth cream cheese and luscious crab meat with scallions deep fried to perfection), followed by #26 (vermicelli noodles with grilled beef, shrimp, an eggroll, lettuce, sprouts, basil, cucumber and carrots with nuac cham sauce) and ginger beef. We usually order two apps with two entrees and still have enough for us each to have leftovers for lunch the next day.

Well, we’re sitting there eating and out walks Jason. “Dan, it’s great to finally meet you”. “Yeah, you as well Jason”. We chitchat for a few minutes, he’s a super nice guy, real genuine. Turns out, we couldn’t have picked a better day to have stopped in for some grub. He had just made that morning some Bahn Tet, a traditional Vietnamese dish served on Tet, the Vietnamese new years holiday (as in the Tet Offensive in ’68). It’s sticky rice with pork and sprouts rolled up, wrapped in banana leaves and then slow cooked for hours on end. Sounds delicious to me! So he brings out this thing and puts it on our table. I couldn’t believe it’s size! He gave us a friggin Duraflame log of sticky rice! That thing must have weighed damn near 10 pounds. I no longer use weights, I work out by lifting Bahn Tet. I’m gettin buff! That stuff is so heavy, you can only eat a little at a time as it expands in your stomach. Too much in one sitting and it’s constipation time!

But I digress. We rap a little more. He tells me, “Next time you stop in call me first, I know you love to drink and I want to have a drink with you.” Eh? He knows I love to drink? Where did he get that idea? I mean, I do, but is it that obvious?

Anyway, it was another fantastic meal at Cafe Hoang. When all is said and done my wife and I each got dinner and enough for lunch the next day for $25 total, or about $6.25 per meal. You can’t beat that for fresh flavorful food. Col. Sanders eat your hormone and anti-bacterially pumped (and rather decomposed at this point) heart out! Not to mention all of the Bahn Tet. I still have some left if any of you want some. It’s damn good, but shit he gave me a lot of it!

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