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Monthly Archives: May 2007

So-called “Restaurant of Restaurants”

babaghanoujeI had planned to go to a Lebanese restaurant last night, but it was decidedly closed when Empanada Boy and I rolled up at the late hour of 9:15 pm. Instead of driving away, we opted to examine the spots nearby, most of which are Middle Eastern. That’s how we found Mataam Al-Mataam, a traditional Iraqi restaurant, which has become a local hangout for refugees. I later found out that Mataam Al-Mataam translates into “restaurant of all restaurants.” Unfortunately, the food fell short of the koranic magnitude of its name.

Three of the eight or ten tables in the dark and somewhat dingy room were filled with men talking, smoking and alternately watching the basketball game and what appeared to be Al-Jazeera news, which was playing on another, large screen TV. All heads turned briefly when we walked in, but then went back to their business when we sat down at a sunken leather booth.

The waitress, who was the only woman in the room, seemed glad to see us when she came to bring us menus. I asked if we were allowed to drink alcohol in the restaurant, and she said no. She later offered to bring us plastic cups to drink the beer we had brought with us, but not wanting to upset any of the other customers, I said we were fine with water.

We started off well with an order of baba ghanouj (see photo above). It arrived speckled with paprika and cupping a pool of olive oil. The tahini and lemon juice flavors were bright and vibrant, but I wanted a little more smoky depth from the eggplant. The accompanying basket of pita was warm and toasted straight off the grill.

schwarmaEmpanada Boy ordered schwarma, which came with soup and a salad. The potato soup in a tomato based broth was nicely spiced with cumin, but the salad was a dismal failure. Wilted pieces of iceberg lettuce were topped with sad, under ripe tomatoes an clumsily cut, thick slices of partially peeled cucumbers. Neither EB nor I felt an urge to touch that one. The schwarma itself was too dry and lacked the fattiness that usually gives this meat flavor. It improved to some degree when eaten with the buttery rice and when sauced with some of the tahini that came with my dish.

falafilI opted to sample Mataam Al-Mataam’s falafel, or “falafil” as they spell it. I got a large plate with six balls. They were nicely spiced with coriander, cumin and parsley, and their breadiness was brightened by the addition of the tahini. EB says he prefers them crispier, and I think I agree. In order to achieve that, the balls need to be smaller with a greater surface area to volume ratio. The major downfall of this dish was another tragic “salad” that came on the side. I picked out the tomatoes to add a little acidity to my falafel, but I wouldn’t go near the lettuce.

All things considered, I enjoyed the cultural experience of dining at Mataam Al-Mataam far more than I enjoyed the food. The waitress described the food as homemade, but to me, it tasted dry and kind of thrown together. Fresh produce would vastly improve some of the dishes we tried. Tragically, fresh produce is not to be found in war-torn Iraq. But it would not be less authentic if the cooks here stopped in at the grocery store just across the street.

Mataam Al-Mataam
3200 W Lawrence Ave
Chicago, IL 60625

Mataam Al-Mataam in Chicago

Not in Kansas Anymore

Grits angleI went to Los Angeles for Flava Flav’s graduation this weekend. Truth be told, L.A. is a haven for cheap eats. With its burger joints and taco stands, it is a veritable playground for the likes of me. Unfortunately, graduation also means lots of free campus boxed lunches and eating in large family gatherings, two factors that worked against me trying all the cheap eateries Flava Flav recommends.

Luckily Flav lives in a house in the back half of a used car lot that is literally next door to Auntie Em’s Kitchen, one of the greatest breakfast cafes I have tried. We took Mango Mama there on Saturday morning for a late Mother’s Day and sat out on the back patio. From there, we had a perfect view of Flav’s used car lot front yard.

Sweets 2Auntie Em’s is a funky cafe and bakery with a small gourmet market next door. The pastries, including wafer thin cookies, blueberry coffee cake, raspberry muffins and currant scones, are delectable. The cupcakes are so well respected that they earned owner Terri Wahl a place on “Throwdown With Bobby Flay,” the Food Network program where celebrity chef Flay competes against a respected maker of a given item. The cafe also serves lunch including seasonal salads, sandwiches and quiches. The hipsters, artists, Hollywood celebrities and Occidental College students who eat there reflect the up-and-coming demographic makeup of the Eagle Rock neighborhood. It’s also great because most of the dishes it serves are items I wouldn’t make myself.

That tendency toward unique breakfast items is exemplified by my delightful bowl of grits with sausage. With its thick creamy texture and the salty, smoky, spice of cubed sausage, this hearty meal sustained me all the way up until dinnertime. The grits came with a fresh bowl of fruit, which provided an elegant color contrast to the grayish grits.

Steak and eggsMango Mama and Flava Flav both ordered Auntie Em’s famous open-faced breakfast sandwiches. These all involve scrambled egg and a variety of other ingredients atop a thick slice of crusty grilled ciabbata. For example, Mango Mama’s steak and eggs included bread, gruyere, slices of grilled steak and a piled of scrambled eggs. Flava Flav’s was basically the same but with smoked turkey sausage. Other options include avocado and tomato, portobello mushrooms and roasted red peppers or applewood smoked bacon.

Auntie Em’s is a great restaurant, and it is rapidly gaining popularity. The line to order at the counter routinely winds into the next room. Hopefully the modest, fun-loving crew at Em’s won’t let the popularity go to its head. It would be a shame to see such a rare treasure of a cafe lose its independent spirit. I will be disappointed not to have an excuse to go there now that Flava Flav is leaving L.A. Maybe I can figure out how to get back by clicking my ruby slippered heels a few times. In the meantime, I urge any of you who find yourselves in L.A. to give Auntie Em’s a try.

Auntie Em’s Kitchen
4616 Eagle Rock Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90041

Auntie Em's Kitchen in Los Angeles

A Touch of Silver in the Chinese Sea

Clams at Silver SeafoodI’ve been wondering about Silver Seafood ever since I first saw it. That was probably right around the time I started dating Empanada Boy because it’s just across the street from the Broadway bus stop where I would wait on my way back from his house. Since then, I’ve heard a number of positive reviews from reliable sources, so Empanada Boy and I finally decided to check it out on Thursday night.

Silver Seafood stands out from other Chinese restaurants because it focuses on fresh seafood. It’s also distinctive because it’s one of the few Chinese restaurants located in Chicago’s “new Chinatown,” which is actually mostly Vietnamese. If that was too confusing, here’s the bottom line: This is a great restaurant with friendly service and distinctive seafood dishes, as well as many other options. It uses fresh ingredients— at least on its encyclopedic, Chinese menu— and avoids most of the the gelatinous pitfalls of bad Chinese food . Most importantly, it manages to keep the vast majority of entrees below my $12 price limit.

fried intestinesFeeling adventurous as usual, Empanada Boy and I ordered an appetizer of fried intestines from the Chinese menu. (The other menu features Chinese-American options like pot stickers and fried rice, but it also includes more interesting options like crab with ginger and onion and braised red snapper.) These ended up coming after both entrees, but that didn’t matter much. Unappealing though they may sound, fried intestines are delicious in just the way that things you know are bad for you often are. Their texture is similar to the crackly skin of a Chinese fried duck. We dipped the rings into a slightly sweet sauce for the perfect, decadent treat.

For our entrees, we stuck to seafood and to the Chinese menu. I saw someone at the next table eating the clams in black bean sauce (pictured above) and knew I had to try them. This was a phenomenal dish— tender clams coated in the smoky sauce made of fermented black beans, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and a few other ingredients. Thin slices of hot pepper gave it an extra kick.

Mixed seafoodThere were even more of these hot peppers in the seafood medley that Empanada Boy selected. This dish included shrimp, squid and large tender scallops, along with snow peas and thinly sliced cucumbers in a spicy oyster sauce. Luckily we had two cold Tsingtao beers to de-spice our palates. EB and I both enjoyed this dish, but we were more impressed with the clams, which we devoured.

We left the restaurant feeling like we had made a great discovery and eager to come back and bring some friends to help us sample some of the myriad other dishes on the voluminous menu. I, for one, am looking forward to sampling one of the lobster dishes, if only for the chance to see my dinner snatched live out of the dining room’s tank.

Silver Seafood

4829 N. Broadway Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640

Silver Seafood in Chicago

Chicago’s Best Kept Secret

SevicheThe subtitle, painted on the window and typed onto the menus below the name Taste of Peru, reads “Best Kept Secret in Chicago.” Indeed, this unassuming little hole-in-the-wall is tucked into a small strip mall set off from the street. And from the looks of the place, an outside observer would never guess that the food would be excellent. But excellent it is.

Empanada Boy and I arrived at Taste of Peru at around 8:30 pm on a Saturday night with no reservation. There was no way a restaurant like that would be full after the normal Midwestern dinner hour, I told myself. Of course, every single table was packed with people, including two parties of about eight people each. EB and I resigned ourselves to waiting and exchanged humorous remarks with the buoyant owner Cesar Izquierdo, who would later prove to be our primary source of dinner entertainment and the generous donor of the delicious ceviche made with chunks of the white Corvina fish, onions and vinegar (pictured above).

PaellaThis gave us plenty of time to peruse what the other diners, including a number of Peruvians, were eating. When we sat down, we ordered a plate of the paella, which we had seen on nearly every table in the restaurant. We also ordered a plate of slow-cooked lamb, with vegetables and sides of rice and beans. While we waited, we dipped pieces of airy, white pieces of very South American bread into a creamy habañero sauce.

07-05taste-of-peru-lamb.jpg Unlike Spanish-style paella, the Peruvian version is made with only seafood. Ours came with a delicious blend of clams, mussels, crab, shrimp, squid and tiny scallops. The rice may not have seen much saffron, but it certainly had the color and the deep, rich flavor that comes from being slowly cooked in broth. As if that huge plate of food weren’t enough, a massive portion of lamb arrived falling tenderly off the bone after being braised in wine. The menu said the sauce that coated it was made with beer and pumpkin, in addition to the apparent peppers and onions.

Flan and AlfajorWe ate until we could eat no more, chatting intermittently with the friendly people sitting next to us and with the gregarious Mr. Izquierdo. He chided us for having brought German beer and insisted on having all of us sample his Concord grape Peruvian wine and his Peruvian beer. Despite our fullness, he also insisted we try his desserts. Empanada Boy and I managed to eat quite a bit of the dense smoky wedge of flan and the delicious alfajor, a powdered sugar coated cookie filled with dulce de leche.

If it’s not clear already, EB and I loved this restaurant. We are definitely coming back soon. It looks like Taste of Peru is “Chicago’s Best Kept Secret” no longer.

Taste of Peru
6545 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL 60626

Taste of Peru in Chicago