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 Enter the cramped, outdated interior and you'll see only three small stools and extensive menus lacking descriptions.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