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Monthly Archives: March 2007

Over Easy, and Overpriced

Business cardWhen Empanada Boy and I first moved to Ravenswood, I was excited to try Over Easy, a hip-looking breakfast joint just down the street. Unfortunately, a fire at the restaurant meant its closure just a few weeks before our arrival.

Now it’s open again, so we decided to try it with our friends Short Stack and Sir Cheesealot. It was just as hip and popular as I thought it would be, although the wait was only ten minutes or so. There are long mirrors along each wall with framed pictures at each end. The decor is egg-dominated; the bar is painted yellow, and strings of faux eggs hang in the window and along one wall.

Damen Avenue OmeletAs could be expected, the menu is also quite eggy. Sir Cheesealot and I ordered the Damen Avenue Omelet with portobellos, spinach and goat cheese from the Sunday brunch menu. These came with potatoes and toast. The omelets were something of a letdown because they didn’t contain enough mushroom or goat cheese and also because they were listed at a steep $10 apiece. These omelets were worth about $7-$8 tops, and I could make a better one for $3 or less. It crossed my mind that perhaps the fire insurance and rebuilding costs were trickling down to us.

Tiramisu French ToastThe same $10 price tag overshadowed EB’s tiramisu French toast. This dish sounded a little too decadent for my taste, but delicious, nontheless. It was indeed tasty— made with two slices of thick Texas Toast and filled with almond-infused mascarpone. There was no liquor detectable, as in a normal tiramisu, but some diners probably can’t take their liquor for breakfast. Still, no matter how delicious the dish was, it was not worth $10. EB called it “underwhelming.”

Emily's DreamShort Stack lived up to her newly endowed name and ordered “Emily’s Dream,” two pancakes filled with blackberries and topped with dots of whipped cream a ball of orange butter. The citrus in the butter made a nice complement for the sweeter berries. The pancakes were also tasty, and at a more reasonable price of $8, I might consider ordering them again.

That’s if I come back to Over Easy. It’s not that I didn’t like the restaurant. The food was fine, and the place has great decor and wonderful ambiance. But when I go out to breakfast, I want to be eating food I wouldn’t make or replicate at home. I didn’t find that to be true here. My omelets are just as good as those, and EB’s chorizo and eggs or his waffles could take Over Easy any day. Most importantly, we could get all the joy of a great breakfast without the $20 investment.

Over Easy
4943 N. Damen Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625

Thai One On

Banana blossom salad I ate a lot of Thai food while I was in college at Wesleyan University. Two of the more popular restaurants in Middletown, Connecticut were Thai spots, and neither was particularly remarkable. My grandmother, Trader Joanna, has long frequented another fairly run-of-the-mill Thai place near her house in Portland, and I’ve joined her there for dinner many a time. These restaurants are all fine, but they serve the same dishes as the majority of Thai restaurants in this country. Pad Thai, green curry and satay chicken have become ubiquitous and unexciting.

There are other restaurants, like Portland’s Sweet Basil Thai, that use fresher ingredients and more varied preparations to move beyond the greasy, ho-hum standards. But this restaurant still aims toward the American palate by dressing up and improving familiar dishes.

Chicago’s Spoon Thai is in Lincoln Square, an area where many Thai people live and own businesses. The restaurant has a menu filled with all the standard dishes, but it also has a special Thai menu that contains more authentic dishes. These seem exotic to American diners, but they are the items the restaurant’s Thai customers order. In fact, the menu was only printed in Thai until a foodie blogger translated it into English for the rest of us.

Mudfish curry soupMango Mama, Empanada Boy and I stopped in at Spoon to sample some of these dishes. Armed with my printed copy of the menu, I had already sought recommendations from other bloggers on dishes to order. We started with the delicious banana blossom salad (pictured above), made with strips of banana blossoms, poached chicken, shrimp, coconut milk and chile jam. This thin, sour curry had large chunks of tender Mudfish floating in it, along with onions green, beans and coconut. It was deeply flavorful with an almost fermented pungency to it, and it was very spicy, a sure sign that the dish was not altered for the bland Midwest palate.

Thai-style fried chickenWe also tried two meat dishes. The first was a Thai-style fried chicken with sweet tamarind dipping sauce. The meat was nicely browned and crusty, but Mango Mama thought it was too hard to enjoy it because there wasn’t much of it on each piece of bone. That was not the case with the grilled Issan-style pork and rice sausages, which came topped with chile, ginger and peanuts. These had a similar fermented pungency to what I noticed in the soup. Each piece varied in texture and composition because some parts of the sausage had more meat and some had more rice, making for uneven, but interesting, cooking results.

Sticky riceAt the insistence of Empanada Boy, we finished the meal with some banana sticky rice. The little patties of sweet rice came wrapped in a banana leaf. In addition to banana, each was also speckled with fermented black beans. This is a good example of the wonderful Thai tradition of sweet and savory dessert combinations.

These dishes were interesting, complex, and in most cases, unlike anything I had ever tried before. Empanada Boy and I will surely be back soon to sample dishes like dried “jerky” beef and catfish, coconut milk “custard” and “sweet liver” salad.

Spoon Thai
4806 N. Western Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625

México Auténtico

Never before has the difference between authentic Mexican food and Mexican food made for gringos been more apparent to me. I attribute this to the growing availability, especially in Chicago, of Mexican food made by Mexican people for the enjoyment of their fellow Mexicans.

Tacos at Erick'sEmpanada Boy and I live in Ravenswood, a neighborhood that is heavily populated by immigrants from Mexico, so we are lucky enough to have some of the best restaurants and grocery stores in the city just steps from our doorstep. Erick’s Tacos is our favorite taqueria, and it is literally across the street from our house. EB sometimes looks out the window and dreams of his favorite chorizo tacos. These are made with very crisply cooked meat, which gives them an amazing texture. Other favorites include the succulent al pastor and the tasty carne asada. To top it off, it’s BYOB!

Sometimes we take our easy access to simple, cheap and delicious Mexican food for granted. We realized this when we crossed the border from Tucson into Nogales, Mexico with EB’s parents, sister and brother-in-law. Both of us were eager to try some Mexican flavors not readily available on the U.S. side of the border. But despite the fact that we were in the very country whose cuisine we sought, it proved surprisingly difficult to find a restaurant that didn’t serve bland, food made with gringos in mind.

PozoleWe ended up eating at a place called La Hacienda del Caballo Rojo, which was packed with American tourists looking for something familiar. There were chips and margaritas, just like back in Arizona. The food was boring and under-spiced without distinctive flair. EB and I shared the chiles rellenos, which tasted so much of their fried casings (and little else), that I only ate a few bites. We also shared a huge bowl of pozole, a Mexican stew made with pork and hominy and garnished with cabbage and radishes. Although still fairly ho-hum, the pozole was the only dish on the table that I would consider ordering again.

The experience at La Hacienda del Caballo Rojo provided an interesting juxtaposition with the food available in our my neighborhood in Chicago. It felt strange to have to leave the country to reinforce the quality and affordability of a place like Erick’s.

Grilling MeatA little stand selling ribs, just a few blocks away from La Hacienda in Nogales served as another interesting point of comparison. The owner had a small tent with tables set up behind his open air grill, which faced the sidewalk. Huge beef ribs were cooking away, along with beautiful, fresh green and white onions.

It was the smell and site of that grill that first drew our attention to the stand as we passed by before lunch. Croque Monsieur, who has the metabolism of the gods, decided to stop for a pre-lunch snack. He got his rib and administered some of the beautiful array of sauces and other condiments available next to the grill. EB and I gladly volunteered to sample the meat. It was tender and fatty with a ton of flavor, and the sauces were spicy, fresh and lively.

Sauces for RibsEB, Croque Monsieur and I would have happily advocated sitting down at one of the tables and eating our fill of ribs for lunch, but EB’s parents, Tofutti Cutie and Popover, weren’t quite up for the adventure.

As for EB and myself, we now know that our adventures in search of the high quality, authentic, Mexican flavors we love need not take us quite so far from Chicago. Of course, we’re still eager to travel further into the heart of the real Mexico for more true and unique flavors. But next time we want real Mexican food, EB and I will probably cross the street before we cross the border.

Erick’s Tacos
1969 W. Lawrence Ave
Chicago, IL 60640

La Hacienda del Caballo Rojo
Just across the border
Nogales, Sonora, Mexico

Ribs Stand
Just across the border
Nogales, Sonora, Mexico

Steamed Meat

07-02teds-sign.jpgI was visiting my alma mater, Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut for some alumni meetings last weekend. These were largely catered affairs with food that, though not bad, wasn’t at all remarkable.

Empanada Boy’s brother-in-law, Slim McDinner, was also attending the meetings. He and I decided to make time for a stop at Ted’s Restaurant in neighboring Meriden. Ted’s is known for one thing: steamed cheeseburgers. And for that, the restaurant is famous. Housed in a little shack by the side of the road, Ted’s has been in business since 1959. It has since grown into a cult classic with help from features in Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood and in the documentary “Hamburger America.”

07-02teds-assembly.jpgThe local teenagers who run the joint pack ground beef into little square metal tins, which are then placed in a small, metal, closet-like steamer. When they emerge, the patties are moist and well-done. Slabs of white cheddar are placed in the same tins and steamed and then allowed to melt over the patties.

07-02teds-steamedburger.jpgThe result is a cheeseburger that breaks the boundaries of the normal greasy mold. The juices in these burgers are mostly water that comes from the steaming process, and the meat is so soft, it literally crumbles away in your mouth. The cheese is of good quality— sharp, flavorful and cut thick to maximize its chewy goodness. Buns are big and fluffy, without the smashed- down look, so common in fast food fare. The condiments offered here make a good thing even better. In addition to mustard and ketchup, Slim McDinner and I tried the special sauce, grilled onions and salt and pepper. The latter made a much bigger impact on the flavor of the burger than I would have expected. As a mustard devotee, I was also impressed to find a nice Dijon on the table along with the basic deli-style stuff.

07-02teds-cheesepotatoes.jpgAt Ted’s, the side dish of choice is homestyle potatoes, cooked to crisp, savory perfection on a grill top just behind the counter. In keeping with the steamed cheese mentality, the potatoes can also be ordered with gooey steamed cheddar melted on top. These are not to be missed! Between the two of us, Slim and I ate about a plate and a half of potatoes— one cheesy and one plain.

We left feeling very full, which was a good thing because we ended up being stranded at the Hartford airport that night, due to bad weather back home in Chicago. Slim and I were glad that we didn’t have to add the bad food of Bradley International Airport to our list of negative aspects about the evening.

07-02cloudnine-sign.jpgAfter checking in to the Sheraton Hotel inside the airport, we decided there was nothing left to do but drink our sorrows away. There could be nothing more appropriate that Saturday night than stopping in at the hotel’s Cloud Nine Lounge. Slim and I sat at the bar of this restaurant, which was closer to a T.G.I Friday’s atmosphere than my vision of cloud nine. The drinks were over-priced, but the chatty bartender kept our spirits up. Besides, those drinks served the important purpose of expediting sleep.

And sleep we did, dreaming of Ted’s burgers, tall and dripping with steamy cheddar— at least until 5 a.m. when the wake-up call came. It was time to head back to Chicago.

Ted’s Restaurant
1044 Broad St.
Meriden, CT 06450

Cloud Nine Lounge
1 Bradley International Airport
Windsor Locks, CT 06096