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Posts Tagged ‘ramen noodles’

Belly Shack has been open for, I don’t know, a little more than a year now. I remember freezing my nads off with my buddy Nick early last winter walking 2 blocks from his place for our first taste. I’ve been there at least a half-dozen times since. But this weekend Yuki and I met up with one of our friends there and they both wondered why I haven’t blogged about it yet. So ladies, here it is, my blog about Belly Shack.

Located right under the Western “L” stop this is Chef Bill Kim’s second joint. Like its counterpart, Urban Belly, Chef Kim fuses Asian and Latin seamlessly. It’s also similar to Urban Belly in that it is counter service, communal dining, and recycled fixtures. They differ in that Urban Belly is based on ramen noodles while Belly Shack is sandwiches.

During this trip I ordered the special that they had running, a pulled pork sandwich with pickles. I’m not a big pickle guy, so Yuki polished those off for me. The sandwich was fantastic though. Pulled pork served with sautéed mushrooms, bean sprouts, melted cheese, cilantro, salsa verde, and Korean chili paste. My only problem with it was that they cut the pita bread and served it like a Western-style sandwich. With all of the juice it was a sloppy sandwich. It would have been better served Middle Eastern-style stuffed into the pita. Oh well, still a delicious sandwich well worth gorging on.

Yuki ordered our favorite sandwich on their menu and one of the best sandwiches in all of Chicago, the Asian Meatball. Juicy, tender meatballs of pork and beef served inside a pita with somen noodles, bean sprouts, mint, and Korean chili paste. Just thinking about this sandwich makes my mouth water.

Our friend ordered the Korean BBQ Beef. Extremely tender beef that just falls apart. The beef has sliced scallions and fried garlic chips on top along with some ssam paste. Next to it is kimchi and some flat bread. For this dish you make your own little sandwiches, much more Asian in presentation. I have no beef with this dish, it was outstanding.

She also ordered the Togarashi Fries. French fries topped with togarashi and lime zest served with a curry mayonnaise.

Belly Shack isn’t the cheapest sandwich in town at $9 a pop, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more flavorful, well prepared one. This place is definitely worth the visit.

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I’m just not as young as I used to be. I can tell that I was at an izakaya last night because all of that sake floating around my liver is taking its toll. However, slow-moving Saturdays usually mean fun Friday nights.

A group of Yuki’s co-workers got together last night for food and drinks at Chizakaya, a newly opened izakaya here in Chicago. Actually, it’s probably the only real izakaya in town. While there are a few places claiming to be izakayas, they’re really just sushi places. Chizakaya doesn’t serve any sushi at all. I first heard of Chizakaya a few months ago when my mom sent me an article in the Huffington Post about the very fact that there aren’t any real izakaya’s in Chicago, until now. It also mentioned that the group that opened Chizakaya came from L2O, arguably Chicago’s finest seafood restaurant. Naturally, it made the list of places I wanted to go. With Yuki’s group meeting there last night I took the opportunity and ran with it.

I got there before the rest of the group, except for the two white guys in her work team (everyone else is Japanese). We sat at the bar and had a glass of sake while waiting for everyone else. I will say that the bartender knows his sake! It’s not a huge sake list, but a very well put together one with a good variety at all price points. He also gave us each a sample of sweet potato shochu, something none of us have ever had. It’s actually quite good.

Once everyone showed up they took us to the back room at one of the two big tables. I like it much better back there because the kitchen is open and the atmosphere is a little more izakaya-like.

Our waitress was also well-trained in the art of sake flavors as well as their menu. True to being an izakaya, the menu is based on small plates and nibbles to go along with drinking. We ordered a bunch of things and just grabbed and ate as we went, along with numerous bottles of sake. Since I’m drinking for 3, I’m struggling to keep my eyes focused as I write this.

As we sat they brought out little bowls of miso soup. Really good miso, they got the ratio of miso-to-dashi right. Instead of wakame which is typically put in miso soup they used hijiki.

Japanese sweet potato fries with spiced mayo.

Puffed pig ears with togarashi soy dipping sauce. Move over potato chips, these little cracklins are fantastic!

Crispy pork with a slow poached egg.

Pork shoulder gyoza. The gyoza could have been a little bit crispier, but the braised pork shoulder filling more than made up for that shortcoming.

Oysters with bacon and shishito. I don’t know if the bacon was over smoked or if they added a little liquid smoke, but there was a bit too much smokiness to this one. The natural sweetness of the beautiful little oysters was lost. Cut back on the smoke and this one is a winner.

Grilled ika togarashi with a yuzu vinaigrette. This was some of the most tender squid I’ve had in Chicago.

This was one of the night’s specials, duck liver karaage with scallions. Little deep-fried nuggets of ducky deliciousness!

Home-made basket tofu with bonito flakes, scallions, ginger, and soy sauce. You haven’t had tofu until you’ve had a really good home-made tofu. This was a really good home-made tofu. Totally different beast than the store-bought packaged tofu. Very clean, very light, very tasty.

Crispy-braised lamb belly with chopped edamame. This one was another of the night’s specials and quite honestly, one of the most special dishes I’ve ever eaten! I’ve never had lamb belly before and after eating it am wondering why. You see pork belly everywhere as it’s one of the more trendy cuts of meat these days. As much as I love pork belly, and I do love pork belly, I’d drop it in a heartbeat to sink my teeth into some lamb belly. That layer of belly fat may be the most lamby of all lamb flavors that animal has. I absolutely luz it! The only thing that would have made this dish better would be to puree the edamame into a thick sauce instead of leaving it chunky. Otherwise it was perfect.

Now, I’ll show you all of the kushi-yaki (grilled skewers of meat) that we had.

Chicken skin, mother of schmaltz how I love thee!

Chicken meatballs.

Chicken gizzards, next to liver and sweetbreads my favorite offal.

Beef heart, surprisingly tender and juicy for such a hard-working and lean muscle.

Beets with shiso, both red and golden.

We also ordered a the ramen and oden. Both of which were, quite honestly, very disappointing.

The ramen came with braised pork, fish balls, a slow poached egg, radish, bamboo shoot, shredded scallions, and some nori. The ingredients were all top-notch, but the noodles were overcooked and soft while the broth wasn’t quite were it needed to be. With everything else so high quality I wonder why they’re using regular old store-bought quality noodles. This bowl of ramen just wasn’t up to standards. If it’s ramen you want, head over to Arami instead.

The oden wasn’t even close to what oden is. Oden should be a dashi broth filled with various fish cakes, potato, hard-boiled eggs, konyakku, etc. It’s something that we make at home a couple of times every winter. This was nowhere near oden. This was a soy-based dashi with overcooked soba noodles, a few spinach leaves, a couple of pieces of potato, some slices of radish, and a few adzuki beans. It wasn’t a terrible noodle soup, but they shouldn’t call it oden and they should be more careful with the noodles.

Now, on to desserts, which were all very creative and well-prepared.

Yuzu cake with green tea ice cream.

Tofu cheese cake with kuro mitsu (black honey) and adzuki bean sorbet. Usually you see adzuki bean ice cream, making it a sorbet was a nice touch.

Chocolate ganache with puffed barley and black sesame ice cream.

I will say, that all three desserts are among the best desserts I’ve ever had at a Japanese restaurant.

Overall, Chizakaya is a fun atmosphere with great food. There were a couple of lows, oversmoked bacon and poor noodle soups, but the rest of the food was outstanding. Don’t come here expecting a substantial sit-down meal. Come here expecting a great list of sake, beer, and cocktails with delicious small plates and skewers to match. In that sense, this is a true izakaya. They also use top quality ingredients from local sustainable farms, and you can taste the difference. I will definitely go back, I just have to be more mindful of the amount of sake that I guzzle.

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We spent an afternoon at Himeji Castle before exploring some of the Nara Prefecture. If you only see one castle in Japan, you’d better make it Himeji. It is absolutely pristine. Easily the best preserved structure built in the 1300’s that I’ve ever been to. It is the quintessential Japanese Castle.

At any rate, it’s located about a 10 minute walk down the main street from the Shinkansen. We arrived about lunch time figuring that there’d be plenty fo food options along that 10 minute walk. Right we were. We decided to veer off onto a side street where a retail arcade was as there’s always cheap delicious food options a plenty in retail arcades. Instead of eating at one of those establishments we wandered into a typical hole-in-the-wall Japanese staple, their alter-ego of Chicago’s taquerias. We filled ourselves with Ramen Noodles.

This was a very typical ma and pa ramen shop that you find everywhere in Japan. You walk in and are greeted by ma and pa themselves, “Irrashaemase!” There’s a vending-like machine near the door with the menu on it. It basically consists of a few different Ramen broths with a handful of different additions to choose if you so desire. Put your money in, press the buttons for what you want, and out comes your little order ticket.

Then, you walk in to see that there’s only 8-10 chairs along the bar. Grab a seat. Every few seats are trays of condiments, things like soy sauce, togarashi, toothpicks, boxes of tissue for the runny nose the hot ramen will give you. There’s also little spickets of hot water with tea cups and green tea for you to make as you like along with a cold water dispenser. Hand the ticket across the bar and ma and pa make your food.

I ordered the Bakabuta Ramen and Yuki got the Miso Ramen with mushrooms. Both were miso broth with loads of bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, green onions, and black woodear mushrooms. Both came with a slice of roasted pork. “Buta” in Japanese means pig, so mine had extra pork. Two big pieces of fall off the bone sweet fatty pork. Each bite coated your lips with fatty goodness. Yuki’s had extra woodear mushrooms as well as what I think were eryngii mushrooms. If I’m wrong Yuki will correct me after she reads this and I’ll correct the blog.

Since we both love pork and mushrooms we arranged a deal. I gave her some pork, she gave me a few more mushrooms. A fair trade I think.

It’s too bad that 25 cent packages of dried ramen noodles killed the idea here in America. A nice big bowl of fresh ramen like this is fast, cheap, filling but not overly heavy, and healthy. In fact, just thinking about it makes me crave some ramen. I think I’ll make some for dinner tonight.

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