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Posts Tagged ‘mexican’

The other night Yuki and I met up with a bunch of her ex-coworkers who have moved back to Tokyo. They got a table at a modern, hip Yakitori joint in the Hibiya neighborhood. If you want to buy a brand new Hermes bag, Hibiya is the place for you. It’s a very swanky area filled with great food. The place they met us at is called Yakitori Akira. It’s in the basement of a large office/shopping building along with a handful of other slightly upscale food joints.

When you walk in you take your shoes off and walk past the open counter where the chefs prepare the chow. The tables are sunken. I was a little nervous at first because the tables were floor level and my knees are terrible. But, the floor was recessed making them regular table height, something that is becoming more common in newer restaurants, sort of fusion if you will.

The first dish, after a cold draft beer of course,  was a salad of raw Nappa cabbage swimming in a mayonnaise-based dressing and topped with sliced kombu.

After that came some natto topped with sliced green onions and nori seaweed. Natto is a love-hate food. You either love it or you hate it. It’s a type of fermented soy bean and has a really pungent odor, like ripe armpits. It also has a very sticky texture. It’s commonly eaten with Chinese-style mustard to mask some of the smell. Yuki loves it, I don’t prefer it. Very few Westerners can tolerate it and, these days, not so many of the younger Japanese do either. But, I had to try it since they put it in my face. Needless to say, I took one bite and the quickly proceeded to chug some beer!

Then we had some chicken karage, Japanese-style chicken nuggets. Unlike your McDonald’s variety of processed crap, this is big juicy chunks of thigh meat. I have no idea what kind of sauce this one came with, but it sure was tasty!

This here is the dish I was most looking forward to…rare chicken meat! The meat from the neck was quickly seared, almost completely raw (the pink you see in the picture is indeed raw chicken), on a hot skillet and served with some yuzu kosho. Rare chicken is extremely controversial, for obvious reasons, but given the upscale atmosphere I was certain they were using fresh, high quality birds. Since I have yet to get diarrhea or vomit profusely, I’m pretty sure the meat was clean. Flavor-wise it tasted like chicken, oddly enough. The texture was a little chewy, chicken al dente. Honestly, it’s nothing really special, it’s just chicken meat.

Avocado sautéed in some sort of shoyu sauce came next. Coming from Chicago I’m used to Mexican preparations of avocado. This was a nice change to what my taste buds are used to. The sauce carmelized a little while the avocado stayed nice and soft.

After the Avocado we spiced things up a bit with some kimchi. It was served with some chopped green onion, julienned daikon, and a shiso leaf.

Next came what is probably my favorite snack of the night, deep-fried chicken skin. Japan’s answer to chicharones. Crispy, buttery, all-around chickeny goodness! I may have to make this a staple of my future diet.

What tour around the bird would complete without some chicken wings? These were deep-fried with either basil or shiso in the batter, I couldn’t really tell. With a squirt of lemon they were delicious.

The main course of the night was the table-top charcoal grill. Instead of eating yakitori style (chicken on skewers) we ate yakiniku style (grill yourself). The first pieces we grilled were breast meat wrapped in shiso leaf.

The other pieces of chicken we got were neck meat, 2 parts of the heart (heart skin and heart meat), meat that was dangling off a piece of cartilage (I think the breastplate), and skin. We also had a few pieces of okra to grill.

Once the meat was grilled we dipped the pieces into an onsen egg. Basically it’s just an egg that’s been barely soft-boiled to the point where the whites were just set and the yolk is still runny. To me, this is natures most perfect sauce.

After all of that chicken we decided to get a few cuts of pork for shits and giggles. We got shoulder, cheek, and side meat and grilled them all the same as the chicken.

As Yuki and I were leaving due to having Otis back at grandma and grandpa’s, everyone else ordered up some soup. I really have no idea what was in the soup, but I imagine it was miso. From the pic I took here as I left I can definitely tell you it was topped with nori and had a shtickle of wasabi.

All in all, I thought Akira was a great izakaya. They call themselves Yakitori Akira because the chef’s specialty is chicken, but to me it’s not a yakitori restaurant at all, even though they do serve yakitori. The menu is much too diverse to be called yakitori. Since they serve up numerous small plates and whatnot with a nice beer and sake list, its pure izakaya to me. That said, what’s in a name? An izakaya by any other name’s chicken would taste is sweet.

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Over the weekend a couple of our friends stopped by to meet Otis. They came bearing gifts. Flowers for mommy and a Rick Bayless cookbook for daddy, an autographed one nonetheless! The in-laws haven’t really experienced Mexican flavors since there really aren’t many Mexican ingredients available in Japan. While there are a few “Mexican Restaurants”, they’re really just simple mid-scale taquerias. Combine the cookbook, their lack of Mexican food experience, and the fact that Chicago hit 90 degrees yesterday and I really had no choice but to grill up some tasty tacos with all of the fixens.

Some of the dinner was right out of the Bayless cookbook (cilantro-lime dressing, jicama salad, and roasted tomatillo salsa), some was inspired by the Bayless cookbook (grilled pork and sweet potatoes where he used ancho instead of chipotle), and some is right out of my repertoire (chilled corn soup and simmered black beans).

First thing I made was the cilantro-lime dressing. I used 1/2 cup of cilantro, the zest from 1 lime and the juice from three, 1/2 jalapeno seeded and stemmed, 1/2 cup canola oil, and 1/4 cup olive oil.

I threw it all into my little blender and whipped it up! I seasoned it with a little salt and pepper, poured it into a glass jar, and let it sit in the fridge while I prepared the rest of the dinner.

Next, I made the corn soup. I cut the kernels off of 5 ears of corn, chopped up 2 garlic cloves, and diced 1/2 onion. I put it all into a pan with 1/2 cup of milk and 1/2 cup of water and brought it up to a low boil. I covered the pot and let it simmer over med-low heat for about 20 minutes. Then I let it cool down and poured it into my blender for a good puree. I seasoned it with salt and pepper and let it sit. Since I was serving it cool I didn’t need to reheat it or anything. I did pour it back into the pot so I could clean the blender for the next item.

For the roasted tomatillo salsa I husked, rinsed, and halved 4 tomatillos, pealed 2 garlic cloves, chopped the other half of the jalapeno, small diced 1/2 a small onion, and roughly chopped 1/3 cup of cilantro. I soaked the diced onion in cold water for 30 minutes to remove some of the sharpness.

In a hot, dry skillet I put the tomatillos (cut side down) and garlic in to roast, about 5-6 minutes per side.

Then I put everything except for the onions into the blender along with 1/4 cup of cold water and pureed it up. I poured it into a glass bowl and mixed in the rinsed onion. That went into the fridge until dinner time.

I opened up a 30 ounce can of black beans, rinsed them off, and placed them in a pot with 3 diced green onions, 1 minced garlic clove, and about 1/4 cup of water. I let it simmer for about 20 minutes and then seasoned with salt and pepper.

For the spice rub I used 1 teaspoon of dried oregano, 1/4 cup of chipotle (the chipotle I have has a little sugar mixed into the blend, otherwise I would have added a little), 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons of canola oil, and 2 garlic cloves finely minced. I mixed it all together until it became a smooth paste.

I rubbed the chipotle paste all over a 1.5 pound pork loin and a large sweet potato that I had cut into 8 wedges.

I heated up the left side of my grill to med-high and the right side to med-low. I first put the pork loin over direct heat, fat-side down, for about 5 minutes to give it a nice crust. Then I moved it to the top rack, turned it over, and turned the heat down to med-low. At the same time I put the sweet potato wedges on the top rack over the right side. I closed the grill and let it go for about 15 minutes. Then I turned over the sweet potato wedges, covered the grill again, and let it go for another 10 minutes. When I took the meat off the grill I tented it with foil and let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing it up.

Look at that piece of swine! Doesn’t that just make your mouth water? I have to say, it might be the juiciest, most flavorful piece of pork I have ever grilled.

While the grill was going I put together a jicama salad. I peeled a medium jicama and then cut it into 1/4 inch width sticks. I tossed it in a large bowl with some watercress, chopped red leaf lettuce, and some of the cilantro-lime dressing.

When everything was ready I heated up some corn tortillas and laid everything out on the table. The corn soup got a drizzle of cilantro-lime dressing for garnish. We made tacos and drank beer and filled our bellies! Yuki’s parents were quite impressed with dinner. Honestly, so was I. Everything turned out fantastically! Thank you Mr. Bayless! And thank you Mr. Eirinberg!

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This past Friday night Yuki and I had dinner with our friends Nick and Andrea. I was charged with finding a place that none of us had been to before. Yuki had mentioned a taste for tamales so I thought I’d find a Mexican joint. Since Nick and Andrea have travelled extensively through Mexico I knew it wouldn’t be hard to convince them to try Don Diablo with us. I believe Nick’s response was, “you had me at tamales”. So, we headed over the former Fonda Del Mar current Don Diablo, and we’re all damn glad we did.

It’s a little out of any gentrified neighborhood so there aren’t many people who know about it yet, but I think that will all change soon. Especially since it’s BYOB, keeping costs down.

The interior is very quaint. It has an exposed kitchen and the tables aren’t to close together that you’re bumping up against strangers. Music wasn’t too loud so you don’t have to shout in order to converse. The service was also pretty good. There was only one waitress, but with only 4 tables we never got antsy waiting for service.

Of course, we started with the tamales. Chicken filled and topped with a green sauce and some melted cheese. They put a lot of whole kernels in their masa which gave a little bit more sweetness to the dish. It took a couple of bites to get used to it, but after those couple of bites I found that I really enjoyed them. With two tamales per order we got two orders so that we each got our own.

The other appetizer we tried was the Quesadillas De Huitlacoche. You almost have to order huitlacoche whenever you see it because it’s such a delicacy with a great earthy flavor. That said, I don’t think they really showcased the huitlacoche all that much in these. With chihuahua cheese, epazote, and guacamole on the side the huitlacoche almost got lost. Don’t get me wrong, they were very good, but I wanted more huitlacoche flavor.

Nick and Andrea each ordered the Enchaladas De Pollo. They did so for the mole. It had a very deep chocolate flavor, but was smooth and delicious. Not an outstanding plate, but a very very good one.

I ordered Puerco en Mole. Really soft and perfectly cooked pork loin served in a green mole with pumpkin seeds. The mole was very light which was nice because it didn’t overpower the pork flavor. It also came with garlic mashed potatoes with melted cheese. Another very very good dish.

Ah, the piece de resistance! Yuki ordered the Cochinita Pibil. Slow cooked pork shoulder cooked in a banana leaf and served with black beans, pickled onions, and a spicy habanero salsa. This was one of the best pork dishes I have ever eaten in Chicago. If it were socially acceptable I would dress myself in cochinita pibil and prance about town. The pork was fall-apart tender full of flavor. The pickled onion just explodes in your mouth. The beans add substance. The habanero salsa was the perfect level of spice, a slow burn that coats your mouth but isn’t overpowering and makes you want to come back for more. This dish was truly impressive.

We kind of shared three desserts. Coconut Flan was one of them. It was a little thick, but had a great flavor.

Mango sorbet, nice and light with a great natural sweetness.

And a Pecan Pie with vanilla ice cream, not really what I think of when I think of Mexican dessert, but a delicious one nonetheless. I’m not sure if the desserts were homemade or brought it, but they were pretty good.

Overall, I find Don Diablo to be one of the best kept secrets in Chicago Mexican dining. Every dish was cooked perfectly with nice balance and quality ingredients. Service was efficient and friendly. The price point was excellent, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better value for a Mexican meal like this. Cochinita Pibil is a true masterpiece. I would crawl on my hands and knees in the middle of January to get a taste of that again.

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Alright, I’m Jewish and not Mexican. But hey, both of our cultures were slaughtered by the Spanish so we share the same plight. Not really, but my mom lives in Mexico. To celebrate Mexican Independence I made my first attempt at a mole. Whole Foods had these fantastic lamb shoulder steaks on sale. Using a Oaxacan Red Mole recipe as my base, I altered it to fit the ingredients I could find as well as to make it more of a braise to break down the fat of the shoulder cut instead of a sauce like you typically see with a mole. While it’s usually not the best idea to screw around with a recipe you’re unfamiliar with, especially one with as many steps as mole, I’m confident enough in myself that it was no problem. The results almost couldn’t have been better!

To start, I soaked 3 ancho chiles and 4 New Mexico chiles in boiling water. I was looking for guajillo chiles, but couldn’t find any. So, I used the New Mexico ones instead. I have absolutely no idea if the two chiles are at all similar, and still don’t, but thought it was a risk worth taking.

While the chiles were soaking I heated up a skillet and, one spice at a time, toasted 1 tablespoon of sesame seeds, 1/4 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns, and 1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano. Once cooled I ground them up with my pestle and mortar.

Then I used the same hot skillet to roast two garlic cloves. Keep the skin on the cloves and just let them sit in the hot pan for about 2-3 minutes per side. When they were cool to touch I put them in the blender with a 14oz can of diced tomatoes and made a smooth puree.

I cleaned out the blender. I de-stemmed and de-seeded the chiles and pureed them with about a cup of the soaking water which had taken on a lot of the chile flavors and aromas. The recipe I was using only called for a tablespoon or so of the water, just enough to puree the chiles. Since I wanted a braising liquid instead of just a thick sauce I used a lot more of the water. I also set some aside in case I wanted to add more, but didn’t need to. After the chiles were pureed, I strained them into a bowl and set aside.

Alright, time to put the mole together. I heated up about 3 tablespoons of soy oil and added the spice mix from my mortar. After about 15 seconds I poured in the tomato sauce and then the pureed chiles. Careful though, it splatters! I mixed that all around. Once it started to boil I added 1/2 cup of sugar, 1.5oz of Mexican chocolate, and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon. I let that come to a gentle boil.

While the mole was coming up to a boil I heated up some oil in a hot skillet, cut the lamb steaks into bite-sized pieces, and seared them off in batches. As they were seared they were tossed into the mole. I let them braise in the mole for about 30 minutes then I added two chopped carrots and let it all braise for another 45 minutes. The sauce became nice and thick.

For starch I made some cilantro mashed potatoes. I took 4 good-sized russets, skinned them, quartered them, and tossed them in a pot with cold water. I added salt and three large peeled garlic cloves. Then I brought it up to a boil. Once the water started to boil I let the potatoes go for about 25 minutes.

While that was going on I took a handful of cilantro and blended it with about 2/3 cup of soy milk. I then took 4 tablespoons of butter and cut that into smaller pieces. Once the potatoes and garlic were cooked I drained them and added them back to the pan. I poured the cilantro milk in and mashed it all up real good one pat of butter at a time. Then I seasoned with salt and pepper. They might have been the best damn mashed potatoes I’ve ever made!

For a side I heated up some olive oil and threw in two cloves of crushed garlic. A few minutes later I added 1/2 of an onion chopped and let that saute down a bit. Then I threw in a jalapeno that was seeded and sliced. A few more minutes and I threw in a bunch of sliced mushrooms. I had a few shiitake left in my fridge as well as a carton of buttons. Once those were almost cooked through I tossed in 1/2 radiccio that I had thinly sliced. I let that all wilt down, seasoned and then served. For garnish I broke up some cotija cheese.

To garnish the mole I diced an avocado. I also diced a red onion and soaked it in water for most of the day to draw out the rawness. Besides those two garnishes, I laid a few cilantro sprigs on top.

I have to say, for a Jew, I make a mean mole! The ony thing I think I’d do different is cut the sugar from 1/2 cup to 1/4 quarter cup. It was slightly sweet, but not so much that it was bothersome. Soy chingon!!!

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Another Donna (from Aqua Safari) recommendation. This place is called Parrilla Mission. The Mission group has two restaurants in Cozumel. One of them is in the heart of touristville, this other one is a 10 minute walk down the street. Same food, same high quality, half the price.

We started off with just their salsa and a beer. Pretty good salsa, not too spicy at all. All of the sudden, after one particular bite, my head started to throb, my mouth went up in smoke, and I instantaneously started to hiccup. I didn’t see anything in the salsa that would suggest caliente. Maybe some jalapeño was hidden among the cilantro? Would’ve been the hottest damn jalapeño ever! Before we took another bite I explored the rest of the salsa only to find this little bugger hiding within the tomatoes…habanero! That thing was intense! I’ve eaten raw habanero before, but I was always ready for the hurt. This one snuck up on me. A few minutes, a keg of beer, the flame eventually died down.

For my entrée I ordered the shrimp shish kabob. Nice juicy shrimp perfectly grilled with slices of green pepper, onion, and tomato. Half of a baked potato with crema drizzled on top, some Mexican rice, and steamed carrots and chayote rounded out the dish. The dish wasn’t outstanding by any means, but everything was fresh, properly seasoned, and properly cooked. It was very delicious.

Yuki ordered the garlic shrimp. Same accoutrements as my dish, but her shrimp were butterflied shell-on and sautéed in butter and garlic. Those were outstanding! Seriously though, how can fresh shrimp sautéed in butter and garlic not be outstanding?

No dessert that night as the entrees filled our bellies, along with the beer. It definitely pays off to head to restaurants away from tourist traps and cruise ship docks. You’ll find more authentic food usually with fresher ingredients at a fraction of the cost. You’ll also meet more of the local characters than you will at Senior Frogs, Coconuts, The Hard Rock, or Margaritaville. Best thing to do is ask people who work at the hotel you’re staying at where they eat when they go out. They’ll usually send you to some memorable meals.

Speaking of which, I have one more from Cozumel that’ll be up soon. Then we head to Merida. Or, I may throw another Japan joint up. Or, maybe I’ll get lazy and wait for the next Meatless Monday. At any rate, keep checking back.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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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