Thursday, December 31, 2009

Birchwood Kitchen

In Buenos Aires, people often talk about something called onda (vibe(s)). Mala onda means bad vibes and buena onda means good vibes. Birchwood Kitchen is a perfect example of a place that has buena onda. Right when I walked in, I felt it. The neighborhood, the space, the employees - all of it = buena onda.

The food at Birchwood Kitchen ain't bad, but it ain't great either. Mining the menu for delicious eats shouldn't prove too difficult, yet it's probably not going to be an effortless task either. I ordered a mushroom sandwich and a side of chipotle chickpeas and went one for two. Batting .500? Not spread-the-word worthy.

The mushroom sandwich with its creamy mozzarella, red bell pepper puree, basil and sourdough reminded me of a tasty margherita pizza. The shrooms saved it from blandness and the toasty bread gave it a crispy, crunchy texture.

The chipotle chickpea salad cleared my sinuses. There were too many red onions and the powerful chunks would've benefited from finer chopping. The cilantro, on the other hand, was subtle and nice and complimented the chipotle element quite well without overpowering its smokiness. In the end, the abundance of mayo killed the dish for me and reminded me of a potato salad made with chickpeas.

Birchwood Kitchen is a fine option for people in the immediate vicinity, but, for those who have the ability to travel a bit further, I just cannot give it an enthusiastic recommendation. And unfortunately, due to the format of this blog, I have to give it a forth rating.

Birchwood Kitchen - Wicker Park- (773)276-2100 - 2211 W. North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 - Public transportation: bus 72 or the Damen stop of the Blue Line.

mushroom sandwich - $7.25
chipotle chickpea side - $2.50

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Irazú made a good first impression. Walking in from the cold, I loved how its holiday jazz and colorful interior provided warmth and nostalgic comfort. It was kind of weird. I knew the meal would be satisfying even before I saw a menu.

The people behind Irazú are casual about the decor and, unfortunately, about the food as well. That's not to say that the Costa Rican cuisine is bad - it's just that it could be better. The dishes I sampled were strong for the most part, but would've benefited from some refinement.

The shake above clearly illustrates an exception to my "No Artistic Photo Edits" rule and there's good reason: it's truly as good as the reviews say it is. You can have it made with regular milk, soy, or water and I'm sure each way is delicious. It's like an incredible horchata smoothie with oatmeal and everything about it seems to be in perfect harmony. Its thickness won't clog your straw, but it won't rush through it. It won't give you a sugar headache, but it won't disappoint your sweet tooth. It's so well balanced; it's like no shake you've ever had.

Ah, the deceptive chifrijo. It looks like a moderately sized appetizer from the picture, but I assure you, this is a coy beast of a dish. Beneath the dark sauce and avocado slices lie tasty fried pork chunks, rice, black beans, and a variation of pico de gallo. Add the chips and you've got yourself something that is not light. The dish starts off excellently, but once you make it through the pico de gallo and crispy lardons (aka the top layer), you're left with more black beans and rice. If there were a smaller quantity of these two things instead of an abundance, the dish would be much better and less filling...

My meal ended with a single taco tico, which is a "crispy tortilla filled with skirt steak topped with cabbage, mayo, ketchup and Lizano sauce". To me, this was just a microwaved frozen taquito buried in cabbage and way too much sauce. Perhaps if the sauce had been reduced along with the cabbage, it would've been fine, but c'mon, look at the picture!

Though imperfect, Irazú is a place I can recommend without reluctance. The menu has options for everyone (including an entire vegetarian section), delightful flavors, and it's cozy and Costa Rican to boot. Look, the squeeze bottle salsas are weak and some culinary areas could use more effort, but having said that, I will still be back.

Irazú - Bucktown - (773)252-5687 - 1865 N. Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 - Public transportation: bus 56 or the Western stop of the Blue Line.

oatmeal (avena) shake - $3.00
chifrijo - $6.50
taco tico - $1.95

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Delightful Pastries

Delightful Pastries? Ha.

Let's do this in as few words as possible, from the beginning to end. One sentence per line.

Painfully slow service just to buy a single cookie when there weren't many customers present.
Inattentive employee working behind the counter.
"One chocolate chip cookie, please."
Was given a chocolate chip cookie with nuts.
Oh, awesome, it's pre-packaged.

Aren't the cookies supposed to be fresh at a bakery?
"Four dollars and fourteen cents."
For a single, pre-packaged cookie?
Are they crazy?
Maybe the cookie is amazing.
Don't judge too early, Dantaniel.
I take the first bite.
Oh, okay, this is sweet and chewy, but wait, what the-
The middle is raw.
How could I, in good conscience, return when there are so many better cookies out there?
I will go forth.

Delightful Pastries,
Sure, you have a great location, but even that, paired with your attractive aesthetic, is not enough to overcome your high prices and gross product.

Delightful Pastries - Lincoln Park - 1710 N. Wells St, Chicago, IL 60614 - Public transportation: bus 72 or the Sedgwick stop of the Brown Line.

chocolate chip cookie w/ nuts - $3.75 (w/o tax)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


Cipollina may blend easily into its neighborhood, but remember that its neighborhood is Wicker Park and the only way to truly blend in is to be different. To me, it evokes nearby Lucia's albeit with a less traditional style and a more contemporary space. It's a fresh take on the Italian deli format with more interesting sandwich choices, gelato, baked goods, artisanal Italian products, and an espresso bar.

The half café, half deli setup works aesthetically, but the food could be better. I've been twice at this point and nothing I've had has been close to flawless. A cold side of brussels sprouts was overdressed and far too bacon heavy, and both an Italian sub and a prosciutto sandwich fell on the dry side. That's not to say any of this food was bad though; it just wasn't incredible.

The prosciutto, parmesan truffle butter, arugula, calabrean pepper sandwich (pictured above) stood out on the short menu because the combination of ingredients seemed interesting to me. I loved each individual component (especially prosciutto and arugula) and wondered how they would play together when placed between bread. I cannot say the combined flavors were an absolute success - the prosciutto clashed with the truffle - and yet, the result was fresh and spicy and tasty. More moisture would've been appreciated as well as something to tone down the super salty prosciutto; I mean, serving salty Vitner's potato chips is just overkill. I wonder how far over my daily sodium allowance I went...

Back or Forth? I will be going back.

Cipollina - Wicker Park - (773)227-6300 - 1543 N. Damen St, Chicago, IL 60622 - Public transportation: bus 72, 50 or the Damen stop of the Blue Line.

prosciutto - $7.25 (w/o tax)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Susie's Drive Thru

Is the customer service great? No. Is Susie's über clean? No. But is the food delicious? Yes.

Susie's Drive Thru has been around for over 35 years and luck has nothing to do with it. It's situated on a noisy stretch of Montrose Ave replete with burnt rubber and fuel smells and it ain't pretty by any means. Enter the cramped, outdated interior and you'll see only three small stools and extensive menus lacking descriptions. It's hard to tell if they even want you in there, but honestly, they're going to survive with or without your business.

A moody woman asked for my order and while I wasn't ready (there are so many options!), my eyes must've been on the garlic Italian sandwich, for that is exactly what I requested after a short stalling period. I immediately regretted my decision though, thinking that I was going to get something akin to an Italian sub. But then, I was asked if I wanted it dipped and I knew things were looking up. I said "yes ma'am" and waited. Meanwhile, at the ice cream station, another employee made my caramel milkshake, another item I ordered without enough thought. I mean, when there are 65 milkshakes with names like Bermuda Triangle, Oreo River, and Summer Blast, it's hard to make up your mind.

When my order was up, I walked outside to a cheap, wobbly table. I unwrapped my damp, steaming sandwich and was thrilled to see that it was just a garlicky version of an Italian beef.

The beef was tender, thinly sliced, buttery, moist, well seasoned, messy, and heavenly. The sandwich seemed so plain, but it was truly so flavorful. I knew after the first bite that I'd be returning, even if it meant I would have to endure rude service.

The super sweet caramel shake was satisfactory. It tasted like soft serve ice cream blended with a few caramel syrup squirts. The whipped cream on top added a good creaminess, but something in the milkshake equation left a funky aftertaste in my mouth which could only be killed by more milkshake. Twas a vicious cycle. I also would like the option of whipped cream; I don't think it should be mandatory.

Back or Forth? I will be going back. But, because Susie's food list goes on and on with supplemental flyers too, I'd like to have some kind of explanation of the items made available...

Susie's Drive Thru - Irving Park - (773)395-9434 - 4126 W. Montrose Ave, Chicago, IL 60641 - Public transportation: bus 78 or the Montrose/Irving Park stops of the Blue Line.

garlic Italian (beef) - $4.78 (w/o tax)
caramel milkshake - $3.67 (w/o tax)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Milk & Honey Café

What starts with bad service does not always end with bad food. And yet, Milk & Honey Café was no exception to this general rule.

After the clean retrochic decor lured me in, I was greeted by a grumpy woman behind the counter who couldn't have cared less about my presence. I hate to break it to ya, but bad service and mediocre food do not inspire return visits... Milk & Honey breathes an indifferent air and provides little else other than a cool facade and a decent selection of baked goods (both in jars and behind glass). Don't expect to be amazed; its ambitions are not too great and its execution ain't either. It's a basic counter-based place with dull food and some insipid twists haphazardly placed throughout the menu.

I ordered the BLT on toasted Italian bread for $7.25. The menu claimed "thick-cut" bacon, yet I was served thin - and narrow - slices. The mealy, pulpy tomatoes lacked their typical moisture and the crunchy, fresh romaine wasn't enough to redeem them. I found the bread to be excellently crisp and tasty even if there was an unappealing abundance of it. The triple-decker sandwich was more of a BLT club than a BLT. In the end, it was too thick and too dry and forgettable.

The highlights of my visit, aside from the Steely Dan music that flowed out of the speakers, were the salty, kettle-cooked potato chips that accompanied my sandwich and a sizable chocolate chip cookie that I got for $1.75. It was thick with a good amount of chocolate, chewy in the middle, and brittle on the outside. Its wrinkled edges - with cool concentric circles - evoked skipping rocks on water and though it wasn't a life-altering treat, it shined in comparison to the BLT.

Back or Forth? I will be going forth; there are just too many better cafés like this in the city... But, I do think props are in order for the success of their granola.

Milk & Honey Café - Wicker Park - (773)395-9434 - 1920 W. Division St, Chicago, IL 60622 - Public transportation: buses 50/70 or the Division/Damen stops of the Blue Line.

BLT - $7.25 (they're doing a cookbook soon and they shouldn't include this...)
chocolate chip cookie - $1.75

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Don Churro

If Don Churro isn't the hidden heart of Pilsen's food scene, then it's most definitely its sweet tooth. It's tucked away on a very quiet street off of 18th and its 67-year-old owner, Maria Molina de Celaya, has been churning out churros in Chicago for over 28 years with a warm smile and comforting kindness.

The modest, dimly lit interior dipped my expectations a bit, but the beautiful flavor of the churro smashed my doubts to pieces. I got a gooey caramel-filled, sugar-and-cinnamon-dusted, crispy churro for a buck and the first bite could've been the single best bite of anything I've ever had. I actually whispered a profanity to myself - the way a person eating alone does when something truly astonishes - and almost bowed down to Ms. Celaya. The woman has a gift.

The other available flavors were strawberry, vanilla, chocolate, bavarian cream, and plain and I probably should've tried them all. Damn you, self-restraint, they were only a dollar apiece! Oh, one more thing: Maria Molina de Celaya speaks very little English, so if you have a Spanish-speaking cap, wear it. She'll be sweet to you no matter what, but I just felt I should include that tidbit...

Back or Forth? I will definitely be back.

Don Churro El Moro De Letran - Pilsen - (312)733-3173 - 1626 S. Blue Island Ave, Chicago, IL 60608 - Public transportation: bus X9/9, 18 or the 18th stop of the Pink Line.

caramel churro - $1 (look at pic below to see it in its entirety)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Taqueria Iguala

Following the trend of my rainy taco exploration day in Pilsen, Taqueria Iguala was pretty empty when I entered. My expectations were low as were my spirits - I hadn't eaten anything mind-blowing and this place, with its tacky hanging Halloween decorations and hard fixed booths, didn't look promising.

And yet, Taqueria Iguala delivered the best taco al pastor I've had in Chicago. For $1.80, I tasted amazingly tasty, moist pork with finely chopped cilantro and onions on a good pair of soft corn tortillas. The juicy lemon wedge on the side proved to be a vast improvement over the dry limes I had gotten at the other two Pilsen joints. Come to think of it, why don't all the taquerias give lemons instead of limes? For me, the lemon works much better as a compliment than the usual lime...

The taco's pork was fattier than Los Comales's, but it made sense in that it provided more flavor and didn't throw off the texture in an offputting way. The taco as a whole needed no additional flavoring (aside from the juice of the lemon wedge) but it is worth noting that their green tomatillo was the first sauce of the day that wasn't tasteless...

Back or Forth? I will be going back. The third and final taco stop of my Pilsen adventure wowed me with a nicely seasoned, perfectly balanced taco al pastor that came out fresh and hot. I guess I unintentionally saved the best for last.

Taqueria Iguala - Pilsen - (312)226-0566 - 1131 W. 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608 - Public transportation: bus X9/9, 18 or the 18th stop of the Pink Line.

taco al pastor - $1.80

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan

Apparently, Rick Bayless loves Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan. I, on the other hand, do not. The fact that it specializes in birria tacos (ones derived from meat stew) intrigued me, but after visiting, I just don't get it.

Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan offers interesting meat-derived taco options, but little else. From the central counter in the small shop, you can choose from birria de res (beef), chivo (goat), lengua (tongue), cabeza (head), and higado (liver), I ordered the birria de res and the birria de chivo, though in retrospect, I wish I had been more adventurous.

After the first bite I took of the birria de chivo, a molar of mine struck a piece of bone chip. That was definitely not awesome and I fear that it killed my appetite and sunk my rating of BRO (ha - another funny taqueria acronym). Once I got past that though, I found the taco to be just okay. The cilantro, onions, and lime were fine, but the meat was dry, bland, chewy, and rough. The bit of sauce on top helped add some spice and moisture, but it didn't do enough.

The birria de res was better with fattier and more succulent meat. I have no idea why this taco didn't come with any of the red sauce, but to be honest, it didn't need the sauce as much. The concept of birria - with its pepper broth base - leads me to believe that the tacos should be automatically flavorful, but the ones at BRO simply weren't.

The second taco stop of my Pilsen adventure left me unimpressed. I will go forth.

Birrieria Reyes de Ocotlan - Pilsen - (312)733-2613 - 1322 W. 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608 - Public transportation: bus X9/9, 18 or the 18th stop of the Pink Line.

birria de res - $1.75
birria de chivo - $1.75

Taqueria Los Comales

With a free rainy day stretching out ahead of me, I decided to explore some Pilsen taquerias. I guess you could call it part of my neverending taco al pastor quest, but that's neither here nor there...

Taqueria Los Comales has over 15 locations, so they must be doing something right. Right? Right. I tried to venture out into Pilsen with no prior knowledge of its taquerias and I guess that's how I ended up walking into a chain. Wa wa waaaa.

The setup was nothing extravagant. In fact, its simple layout of cheap bolted-into-the-ground deep-hued furniture reminded me very much of Arturo's. Each table though at TLC (ha - just realized that was the abbreviation) boasts its own personal bota, which is essentially a container of pickled and spiced veggies like cauliflowers, carrots, and jalapeños. I found that to be a nice touch even if I didn't think its contents were of the highest quality (the bota on my table had some suspicious carrots).

Once you sit at a table and indicate that you'll be dining in, a basket of chips and salsas hits the table and you'll have a little something to munch on before your order gets made. I was happy to see the free chips and salsas, but the chips were stale and the two squeeze bottled salsas were a let down. The green and red tomatillos were both bland; the red was oily and salty and the green was vaguely spicy, but ultimately tasted like nothing.

The tacos - priced @ 1.50ea - picked me up. As soon as they were put in front of me, I could smell the cilantro and the fantastically seasoned pork. I could've eaten them both without anything at all, but the lime added a nice bright flavor and illuminated the other ingredients. I have to say, the tacos were a perfect mix of sweet and savory and the fresh cilantro and onions were chopped just right. The only criticism I have is that the tacos tasted too onion heavy.

Unfortunately, I have to follow the rules of my blog and since these were not the best tacos al pastor in Pilsen, I will be going forth.

Taqueria Los Comales - Pilsen - (312)666-2251 - 1544 W. 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608 - Public transportation: bus X9/9, 18 or the 18th stop of the Pink Line.

taco al pastor - $1.50

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Le's Pho

The only thing that shined about Le's Pho was its overhead florescent lighting. The cheap cafeteria style dining hall with its teal vinyl seats was made even less pleasant by the slow, hostile service. To be honest, this was my first stop on a bánh- eating mission, but the sandwich I consumed here killed my appetite.

I imagined something that would top Ba Le and I couldn't've been further off the mark. I ordered the Bánh Thit Nguoi (#28) which seemed to be the most traditional bánh on the menu with BBQ pork and the usual suspects (cilantro, cucumbers, carrots, daikon, mayo). And while the free tea, the fresh veggies, and the potent green chile slices were cool, the pork most certainly was not. It ruined the sandwich with its funky, slightly metallic taste and grainy consistency. And, the "bbq'ed" skin was an unsettling translucent magenta color with a gummy plastic texture.

After struggling to finish my sandwich, it became clear why the majority of the people around me slurped down pho. They knew to avoid the bánh . I can't say that I'll return to give the pho a shot, but if you find yourself at Le's Pho, you probably should. At least promise me you'll avoid what I tried. Oh, and one last thing: the strip mall location, though not glamorous, wasn't necessarily a bad thing - at least it's off the beaten path...

Le's Pho - Uptown/Edgewater - (773)784-8723 - 4925 N. Broadway Ave, #G, Chicago, IL 60640 - Public transportation: the Argyle stop on the Red Line or buses 22, 36, 81, and 92.

bánh thit nguoi (#28) - $3.25
tea - free!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Toast (Two)

Ah yes, time to write about the delectable food served up by Toast #2. I haven't tried the first Toast location, but if it's anything like the second, it's probably a safe bet...

The pesto scramble foghorned my taste buds and left me in a daze. Its components - fresh tomato, salty prosciutto, gooey gruyere, and homemade pesto - could not have played nicer together. I actually paused after the first bite, somewhat in disbelief over how well the potent flavors complimented each other. By far, twas the most satisfying brunch dish I've had in Chicago.

The other entree on the table, the veggie egg white omelete that my eating companion ordered, was very tasty and well made. Its veggies were "perfectly sauteed, not soggy" and the portion was more than enough.

The house potatoes had a nice crispiness, were sufficiently potato-ey, and had a good saltiness. The standout component though had to be the skins, which were delicious and slightly spiced with what tasted like a steak seasoning paired with rosemary.

The short stack failed to make an impression. The pancakes weren't horrible, but they were bland and too bready. The portion size was large though and the powdered sugar on top was a good touch. Not groundbreaking, but good.

The toasted challah lacked its usual sweet egginess and seemed more or less like a thick cut of plain white bread toast. And, I don't know why it was toasted so thoroughly, especially because it's supposed to be a fluffy, delicate bread... Strange choice, Toast.

Lastly, Toast Numero Dos, and Numero Uno for that matter, should reconsider its name. The toast selection is quite impressive (they have multi-grain, cinnamon raisin, brioche, challah, sour dough, and rye), yet it isn't made in house. Their toast comes from Gonnella according to our server, though I am having trouble locating a Gonnella-made challah on their website. Anywho, the fact that at least some of the bread comes from an outside source is bizarre when their name is Toast. You should not call your establishment Toast if you do not make your toast.

Back or Forth? I will be going back.

Toast Two - Bucktown - (773)772-5600 - 2046 N. Damen Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 - Public transportation: bus 50 or 73.

pesto scramble - $8
egg white veggie omelete - $10
house potatoes - $2
short stack - $3

The Twisted Baker

The Twisted Baker sits quietly on the second floor of a charming building on Wells. Its name could not be more misleading. Once inside, you'll notice a casually elegant decor and a simple bakery layout. There are cookies and bars and tarts and eclairs and cupcakes all nicely organized within a glass display case.

I chose two of the mini cookies for 85 cents apiece - "nutless choc chip" & "chip"- and a medium-sized carrot cupcake for $2.25. I was a bit nervous ordering a cupcake though because the ones on display looked dry and dead, but thankfully, those were just for show!

I wish I could say something corny like "though the cookies were tiny in appearance, they were huge in flavor", but alas, I cannot. I would not mislead you, loyal reader. The reality is that both cookies were fine. The "chip" (on the left) had walnut and bittersweet choc chips whereas the "nutless cc" (on the right) contained only tightly-packed bittersweet choc chips. Both cookies had similar consistencies, good chewiness and a slight crunch, but the "nutless" was thinner and a bit moister.

The carrot cupcake was easily the highlight of my visit; in fact, twas phenomenal. Even now, it's hard to understand the way that it stayed simultaneously soft and fluffy with such a densely packed carrot cake. It was what other carrot cupcakes - or even carrot cakes - ought to strive for. The swirl of fantastic and smooth cream cheese frosting on top paired excellently with a tasty and complex base. Awesome notes of ginger and carrot and brown sugar lit up my tongue and the whole thing smacked of an expert baker's knowledge of balance.

Back or Forth? I will be going back.

The Twisted Baker
- Old Town - (312)932-1128 - 1543 N. Wells St, Chicago, IL 60610 - Public transportation: bus 11 or 72 or the Sedgwick stop of the Brown/Purple Line.

chip cookie - 85¢
nutless choc chip cookie - 85¢
carrot cake cupcake - $2.25

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery

Visiting Flossmoor Station Restaurant & Brewery is my favorite thing to do in Chicago; I've been three times in three months. I simply head downtown on the Blue Line, then walk to the METRA at Randolph and Michigan and, chugga chugga chugga, I'm on my way. The trip takes about an hour and half one way, but it's so completely worth it for great beers in a relaxing and charming and modest locale. I'd say it's best to do on a gloomy day though it's enjoyable in any weather condition...

Sometimes I start with the beer sampler (12 selections in all)...

Sometimes I go for the Brewery Platter (onion rings, ribs, and wings)...

And I always go for the giant plate of nachos topped with chili...

The beers (and the brewpub itself) have won numerous awards and it's easy to understand why. At the moment, the Pullman Nut Brown Ale, the Panana Limited Red, and the Collaborative Evil (seasonal Belgian-style) are my three favorites, though I'm sure after the next visit, I'll change my mind. The food definitely plays the supporting role in the brew-ruled world of Flossmoor, yet it cannot be ignored. I've tried many things on the menu, from the apps to the desserts, and everything was big and rich. It may not have been the healthiest food I've eaten, but it didn't matter - Flossmoor is where you should go to indulge.

FSRB is quaint, super mellow, and conveniently located right next to the Flossmoor Station METRA. Whenever I visit, I feel like I'm in some faraway magical land of special beers and tasty food and as soon as I leave, I try to plan out my next return.

Back or Forth? I will be going back.

Flossmoor Station - Flossmoor - (708)957-2739 - 1035 Sterling Ave, Flossmoor, IL 60422 - Public transportation: METRA University Park line from Downtown Chicago or I-80 / I-57 / Tri-State (294).

beer sampler - $10.95
Pullman Nut Brown Ale - $4.50 (pint)
Panama Limited Red Ale - $4.50 (pint)
Collaborative Evil - $6.00 (goblet)
Brewery Platter - $11.59
nachos with chili - $9.99