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Monthly Archives: February 2007

Gung Hei Faat Choi!

Another view of the Furama bannerMango Mama was in Chicago last week during Chinese New Year. If there’s one thing Mango Mama loves, it’s a good parade. Empanada Boy and I decided to take her down to the one in Chinatown that afternoon. And what better way to prepare oneself for a parade than with a breakfast of dim sum? I briefly considered trying a few places in Chinatown before I realized the wait would be far too long to make it worthwhile. EB and I decided to stick a little closer to home with Furama in Uptown.

Furama’s upper level had been rented out by a private party, so the lower level was filled to the gills with people enjoying dim sum. But they were herding people through quickly: we put our names down on the waiting list and were seated soon after. Our table was directly inside the door in front of the hosts’ booth, a fact which we would later come to regret.

Chinese BroccoliThe food was fine, but not exceptional— just like most dim sum places outside of San Francisco and China itself. Chinese broccoli, spinach and shrimp dumplings, steamed barbecue pork buns, and sticky rice were among the numerous dishes delivered to our plastic-coated table. (After each set of diners leaves, bussers just peel away a layer of plastic tablecloth to reveal another clean sheet below.)

But as we sat there, people waiting in the foyer gradually started coming into the dining room to wait. A substantial crowd soon gathered near the door and started winding its way between the tables. Empanada Boy and Mango Mama were repeatedly bumped by hungry diners literally breathing down their necks. To make matters worse, the carts had to continue to squeeze through the crowds to deliver food to the various tables in our area. The manager feebly tried to tell the crowd that the room was at capacity, but no one seemed to think he was talking to them. Parents, children, grandparents, friends, all stood in eager anticipation directly around our table. No one left.

Spinach dumplingsHalf amused, half annoyed, we tried to ignore them as we finished up our meal. Then something happened that tipped the scales toward the totally absurd and ridiculous. A water pitcher had been placed on our table by a server. Another server passed by our table with a glass of water and poured the water from the glass into the pitcher, leaving the pitcher on our table without saying a word! Then, yet another server saw the pitcher on the table and came to reclaim it, pouring in another glass of water before he did so. By this time we were all laughing uncontrollably.

Chinese New Year paradeWe took the train south to Chinatown for the parade. There were a few distinctly Chinese displays in the parade, including a couple dragons, some children from a Chinese school playing drums and some women dressed in elegant, traditional garb. There were also a few commendable high school marching bands. But a good part of the parade was taken up by politicians running in Chicago’s upcoming municipal elections. Oh, Chicago, you and your blatantly pandering politicians! At least some of them were waiving Taiwanese flags to help them blend in.

After the parade, we walked over to a wonderful outdoor Chinese mall, filled with shops selling everything from dried fish products, to housewares, to traditional herbal remedies. We stopped in at a magnificent store, which sold some of all of these things. We looked at the dried skate and fish cartilage and then bought a variety of candies. Among these were tomato and cucumber flavored chews.

Bubble Tea from Saint Anna'sFinally, unable to resist the call of the bubble tea, Empanada Boy braved the line at the wonderful Saint Anna Bakery to get himself an avocado bubble tea. For those of you who have never tried bubble tea, it’s like a milkshake or smoothie with round globes of gummy black pearl tapioca at the bottom. EB loves the avocado because the fruit’s creaminess adds extra richness to the drink. St. Anna’s version was sweetened with honey instead of sugar, making it lighter and a bit more savory that others we’ve tried.

EB and I will be back to sample more of St. Anna’s delectable-looking baked goods. But until then, have a wonderful year of the boar. Gung hei faat choi— congratulations and be prosperous!

4936 N. Broadway St.
Chicago, IL 60640

Saint Anna Bakery

2158 S. Archer Ave.
Chicago, IL 60616

Mountain Top Meal

Sign at Iron DoorI thought I had found sanctuary from the snow by coming to Arizona, but a trip to the top of nearby Mt. Lemmon in the Santa Catalina mountain range proved me wrong. About three days into our trip, Empanada Boy and I piled into the rental mini-van with Popover, Tofutti Cutie, and Sushi Sister and Croque Monsieur (EB’s sister and brother-in-law) who had joined us from Portland.

As we wound up the mountain, we passed through four different ecological zones, and the desert landscape faded away to forests. We tried to stop at the Mt. Lemmon Cafe, but the place was crowded even at 2 pm, and most diners seemed to have waiting for quite some time. Undaunted and famished after an earlier hike, we made our way to a ski resort at the top of the mountain with a restaurant called the Iron Door.

The interior of the restaurant is dark with wooden walls, heavy doors and a hunting lodge feeling. We sat outside on a back deck that looks out onto the ski slope.

Chili and Cornbread at the Iron DoorAfter a long day of hiking, I could think of nothing more appetizing than a nice hearty bowl of chili. The Iron Door’s version is made with a variety of beans, carrots and onions and contains sizeable chunks of beef roast. It comes with cheddar cheese and white onions to sprinkle on top and a massive piece of cornbread. The cornbread was coarse in texture, but suprisingly light in density. It had a touch of sweetness, which often comes from adding sweet corn, but no kernels were detectable. Both cornbread and chili were exceptional.

After lunch, we returned to the take out window at the Mt. Lemmon Cafe where about 15 different homemade pies are being served on any given day. These range from cherry to Mississippi Mud. A slice is large and a bit pricey at $6.50 each. I tried the blackberry pie, which, like the cherry pie, was filled with a jellied version of the fruit. The bakers probably can the berries when they are fresh and then pour the pre-made filling into the crust. The result is a too-sweet concoction without much of the essence of the original fruit. The bottom crust was fairly flaky, although I wasn’t that impressed. Instead of a top crust, there were crumbly clusters of brown sugar and butter (or lard or shortening, depending on the restaurant’s fat of choice).

I liked the crumbly crust, but the fillings just weren’t tart enough. When I think of good blackberry pie, I think of the ones I make with my Mango Mama with berries we pick from the beach or the trail behind my house in Portland. Even frozen berries maintain the same texture and flavor of the fresh ones, but both are lost in the jellied version. Still, the view from the mountain top is stunning, and the chili at the Iron Door is another reason to make the climb.

Iron Door Restaurant
10300 E. Ski Run Rd.
Mt. Lemmon, AZ 85619

Mt. Lemmon Cafe
Village of Summerhaven (first building on the left)
Mt. Lemmon, AZ 85619

Fishy Tacos in Tucson

Sign at Chuy'sEmpanada Boy and I were freezing in sub-zero Chicago last week, but this week we’re sunning ourselves in 80-degree weather. How have we accomplished such a transformation, you might ask?

We hopped on a plane Wednesday evening after work and flew down to Tucson where Empanada Boy’s parents have a home. It’s on the edge of a ridge looking down into a beautiful canyon filled with prickly pear and majestic saguaro cacti. Tofutti Cutie and Popover, as EB’s parents are known, are frequent restaurant visitors and were well prepared to show us around the culinary landscape.

For our first lunch in town we stopped at Chuy’s Mesquite Broiler, an Arizona-style Southwestern joint with a number of locations around Tucson. There is another chain called Chuy’s that I’ve eaten at in Austin, Texas, but the two appear to be unrelated both in terms of menu and management. The interior decor is a fun mix: part diner, part surf shop, part rodeo. Still, we sat outside on the patio in order to soak up some much needed rays.

Salsa assortment at Chuy'sThe meal started with some nice thin chips and a sampling of Chuy’s four salsas. There was a green tomatillo, spicier serrano and black pepper, a mild salsa fresca and a thin, vinegary, Tabasco-esque variety. I preferred the tomatillo because it was fresh and tangy with a little bite. The black pepper was too overwhelming in the spicier salsa, and the others were not as distinctive. All things considered, I prefer Empanada Boy’s homemade salsa to any of those. I was perhaps most impressed by the pickled carrots, onions and jalapeños that Chuy’s offers as another topping for the chips. My love for all things strong and pungent means I adore everything pickled, and these were no exception.

Whitefish Taco at Chuy'sAt the recommendation of Tofutti Cutie we all ordered fish tacos. Tofutti Cutie, Popover and I ordered the whitefish tacos. Tofutti and Popover got theirs on flour tortillas, and mine came on corn. The fish was nicely charred on the mesquite broiler and laid upon a bed of cabbage. There was a creamy, vinegar sauce to put on top. Each plate came with a large portion of tasty rice and beans.

Mahi Mahi taco at Chuy'sEver the diversifier, EB ordered the mahi-mahi taco, also on corn tortillas. His taco looked very similar, but the mahi- mahi had a meatier taste. EB described the texture as almost chicken-like. The mesquite flavor gave this dish a Cajun touch.

It was a simple and delicious meal that gave us the power we needed for our hike through Saguaro National Park. Tucson may be far from the sea, but the fish tastes fine.

Chuy’s Mesquite Broiler
6310 E. Tanque Verde Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85715

Friend and Phò

Neon Sign at Phò 777In case you don’t live in the Midwest and haven’t heard, it has been freezing cold here for the past week. And by freezing, I don’t just mean below 32 degrees. My online weather tracker currently says it’s -3 degrees outside. We are not expected to see highs in the 20s again until Thursday.

When it gets this cold outside, there is nothing better than a nice, hot bowl of soup. It helps if the soup is spicy too, because then it warms you from the inside. That’s why Empanada Boy and I decided to stop in at one of his old Uptown stomping grounds— Phò 777 on Argyle Street.

Argyle is like a mini, Northside, Chinatown, including plenty of dim sum, markets, bakeries and bubble tea outlets. But there are also a fair number of places specializing in phò (pronounced “fuh”), the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Perhaps a better name for this neighborhood would be “Little Saigon.”

Empanada Boy ate phò all the time before he moved in with me because it was nearby, cheap and delicious. For a total of about $11, we got two meals which included noodles, meat and vegetables. Phò 777 (as opposed to Phò 888, just down the street) was the place EB pinpointed early on as his favorite, although I’m not sure why. There are plenty of other things on the menu there, but we really haven’t tried much beyond the soup and an occasional bubble tea. The truth is, once you finish a bowl of phò— even the small size— there is little room in your stomach for anything else.

Toppings for phòPhò is made with a flavorful beef broth, which includes spices like Saigon cinnamon, star anise, ginger, and cloves. There is undoubtedly plenty of MSG in the mix as well. But that’s what makes it taste so good. In the broth are vermicelli noodles, green onions, white onions, cilantro, ngo gai (“saw leaf herb”) and mint, along with various meat products, depending on which option you select. There is also a side plate of condiments that come with each bowl. This usually includes Thai basil, lime, bean sprouts and chili peppers.

Number 2 at Phò 777Being the resident fan of offal, Empanada Boy ordered a large bowl of the Number 2, which comes with well-done flank steak, fatty brisket, soft tendon and the requisite bible tripe, the latter being made from one of the many stomachs of a cow. The meat comes out exactly as it sounds: the flank a little tougher, the brisket falling apart, the tendon rich and tender and the spongy tripe tasting tough and chewy.

Number 7 at Phò 777I am not a huge fan of tripe, so I ordered a small bowl of the Number 7, which comes with well-done flank streak and soft tendon. As I mentioned above, a small bowl is not really very small. It is still enough to fill me up completely, and that is saying something. I wanted to add fatty brisket to my order, so I asked the waiter if he could put some in. He agreed, but when I got my dish, there was one large piece of flank and a cluster of soft tendon. I thought there was too little meat in my dish altogether, and EB seemed to concur. Still, I’m not sure if this reflects on the restaurant so much as the person who happened to serve up our soup. I have been to Phò 777 in the past an received a healthier portion of meat.

Phò with saucesIn addition to adding the vegetable condiments, I always add sweet hoisin sauce and spicy Thai Sriracha sauce. Along with the thick slices of chili peppers, these give the dish some powerful spice, which clears out my sinuses nicely. EB chooses to administer his sauces a bit more sparingly, adding a little to a piece of meat here and there. My broth looked about five shades darker than his by the time we called it quits.

Feeling full, we ran from the restaurant back to the car. The icy wind whipped us around, but, thanks to my friend phò, the insides of our stomachs were warm and toasty.

Phò 777
1065 W. Argyle St.
Chicago, IL 60640