Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at Avec

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Chorizo-stuffed medjool dates, Avec

Chorizo-stuffed medjool dates with bacon and piquillo pepper-tomato sauce

Best Bite: It’s hard to outdo the chorizo-stuffed medjool dates: they’re not only Avec’s most popular menu item, but are also among the most iconic dishes in all of Chicago. The sweet-spicy-smoky combination of dates, bacon, chorizo, and tomato sauce is just as unstoppable now as when I wrote about it in this blog’s very first week.

Brussels sprout panzanella, Avec

Brussels sprout panzanella with pickled raisins, calabrian chiles, and aged sheep’s milk cheese

Other notes: The Restaurant Week menu only had one option per course, but because it was a “greatest hits” approach, we weren’t complaining. The second course was an outstandingly balanced salad of shredded brussels sprouts, chiles, salty cheese, and raisins; the third a full pan of paella with head-on shrimp, chicken thigh, and tangerine aioli. Avec’s desserts tend to harness simplicity for maximum impact – these nutter butter squares, for example – and this evening’s creamy chocolate mousse with espresso crumble was no exception.

Chocolate cremeaux, Avec

Chocolate cremeaux with espresso cookie crumble and chicory creme fraiche

The details: Avec, 615 W. Randolph St., Chicago.

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Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Brunch at Bar Siena

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Cherry almond granola, Bar Siena

Cherry almond granola with Greek yogurt, chia seed, cherry swirl gelato, and mint

Best Bite: Bar Siena is the sister restaurant to Siena Tavern, one of my go-to recommendations, so booking their Restaurant Week brunch was a no-brainer. We were originally disappointed that the caramelized waffle was no longer available as a first course, but the remaining option turned out to be the greatest revelation of the day. Cherry almond granola suddenly became much more exciting when layered with chia seed-flecked yogurt and topped with a scoop of cherry gelato. The parfait was a bright and creative start to the meal.

Breakfast sandwich, Bar Siena

Bombo breakfast sandwich with pancetta cured bacon, pork sausage, scrambled eggs, and American cheese

Other notes: The main course had everything you need in a classic breakfast sandwich: fluffy eggs, smoky bacon, spicy sausage, and a melted slice of American cheese, all on a soft bun. And I loved looking up at the tangle of white-lit branches that stretched across the ceiling from the living tree in the middle of the restaurant.

Cocktail No. 5, Bar Siena

Cocktail No. 5, with Botanist gin, lavender honey, aperol, Lillet rose, lemon, thyme, and tonic, in front of the dining room’s two-story tree

The details: Bar Siena, 832 W. Randolph St., Chicago.

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Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at Ema

This is part of a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. View all of this year’s meal recaps, or browse all Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Honey pie, Ema

Honey pie with grilled grapes

Best Bite: This was my first time dining at Ema, featuring Top Chef alum CJ Jacobson’s Californian take on Mediterranean cuisine. I enjoyed every course, but the standout bite came at dessert. A humble slice of not-too-sweet honey pie came alive with blistered grilled grapes, sesame seeds, and thick whipped cream. I’ll definitely be saving room for a full slice on my next visit.

Local basmati & lentil salad, Ema

Local basmati & lentil salad with mizithra, rosemary, and scallion crema

Other notes: My second-course grain salad won the prize for texture, with crunchy pistachios, cucumbers, and fried shallots swirled into lentils and rice. The menu itself was an excellent value: two generous mezzes (the garlicky spread studded with green olives and toasted almonds was my favorite) plus three smaller course was well worth the four-course price.

Toasted almond & garlic spread, Ema

Toasted almond & garlic spread with house pita bread

The details: Ema, 74 W Illinois St., Chicago.

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Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: It’s back!

This is the first in a series of posts about Chicago Restaurant Week 2017, held January 27–February 9. Browse all past Restaurant Week coverage from 2013-17.

Avec Restaurant Week

Avec, one of my 2017 Restaurant Week destinations

I wasn’t able to participate in Chicago Restaurant Week last year (I was still living in Dublin), so I wasn’t sure how involved I’d be in 2017 after a year off. But I looked through the menus, started to plan a few meals – using my trusted spreadsheet, as always – and before I knew it, I was up to nine reservations. Oops. So much for taking it easy!

But, as I’ve mentioned in the past, it’s really about the people. Sharing food with the people I love is one of the greatest joys of my life, so I’m grateful for an annual excuse to do a lot of that in a short amount of time.

Looking forward to sharing highlights from this year’s meals!

2017 Reservations: Ema // Bar Siena // Avec // Table, Donkey & Stick // de Quay // Appellation // Gene & Georgetti // ZED451 // Celeste

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Best Bites

2016 in Review: 20 more of Chicago’s Best Bites

To wrap up the year, I’ve chosen 20 more Chicago dishes and drinks – some old favorites, some new discoveries – that I didn’t have the chance to blog about in 2016. View year-end recaps from 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.

BRUNCH:

Best overall brunch dish

Black pepper spaetzle, Lula Cafe

Black pepper spaetzle with winter squash, maitake mushroom, creme fraiche, gruyere, black walnut pesto, and fried egg, Lula Café

Unsurprisingly, Lula Café is showing up on my year-end list for the fourth year in a row. Of all the brunch specials that I’ve sampled there, this was one of the best, and certainly the heartiest. Earthy mushroom, sweet delicata squash, cheesy noodles, and a lacy-edged fried egg – I could have stayed tucked into that bowl all morning.

Best use of avocado

Avocado toast, Siena Tavern

Avocado toast with heirloom tomato, crispy prosciutto, watermelon radish, smoked paprika, and poached eggs, Siena Tavern

I’m always looking for great renditions of avocado toast, so I had to try Siena Tavern’s version during a late-summer patio brunch. Shards of prosciutto and thin fans of watermelon radish made it both tasty and beautiful.

Best innovation at a second location

Fancy grits and biscuit, Bang Bang Pie

Fancy grits with cheddar grits, smoked collard greens, poached egg, and hot sauce, plus biscuit with butter and jam, Bang Bang Pie

I’d been to the original Bang Bang Pie in Logan Square multiple times, but hadn’t yet tried the slightly different menu in the newer Ravenswood location. The flaky biscuit with butter and jam was just as excellent, and the grits with smoky greens were a nice surprise.

MAINS:

Most surprising favorite at a much-anticipated restaurant

Pecan-smoked ribs, Giant

Pecan-smoked baby back ribs with bbq and baked beans, Giant

Giant is Jason Vincent’s first project since closing his beloved Nightwood restaurant, so it was met with great anticipation from the Chicago food community. I knew I’d be wowed by some innovative smaller plates, which I was, but didn’t expect my favorite dish to be enormous, gleefully sticky barbecue ribs.

Best (and richest) noodles

Slap noodles, Duck Duck Goat

Slap noodles with shrimp, goat sausage, eggplant, and mushroom, Duck Duck Goat

Another one of the biggest openings this year was Stephanie Izard’s take on Chinese food, the third in her goat restaurant trilogy (after Girl & the Goat and Little Goat). We tried a lot of things during our (very late) dinner there, but these noodles stood out for their texture and the explosion of flavors that went along with them.

Most autumnal

Caramelized pork shank, Beatrix

Caramelized pork shark with cider reduction, whipped Yukon Gold potatoes, Braeburn apples, and roasted sweet potatoes, Beatrix

The hulking size of this pork shank at Beatrix in River North belied its gentle fall flavors, with cider glaze, tender apples, and two kinds of potatoes.

Comfort food with the best view

Mary P's meatballs, Cindy's

Mary P’s meatballs with baguette, whipped ricotta, and Sunday sauce, Cindy’s

Cindy’s has my favorite view in the city, so it’s an easy pick for friends visiting from out of town (Dublin, in the case of this particular evening). Before heading outside to enjoy the skyline, we shared these satisfying meatballs, served in a rich sauce with generous dollops of ricotta.

Best miniature meal

Ahi tuna poké rice bowl, Furious Spoon

Ahi poké tuna rice bowl, Furious Spoon

On my first visit to the new Logan Square location of Furious Spoon, I wasn’t quite hungry enough to commit to a full bowl of their signature ramen (plus, it was pretty warm outside). This poké bowl was just right, in both size and ratio of fish to rice to scallions to sauce.

SIDES:

Purest expression of a single vegetable

Roasted broccoli, Parachute

Roasted broccoli with yuzu kosho and nori, Parachute

My dining companion and I agreed that this roasted, seaweed-dusted pseudo-steak was the broccoliest broccoli we’ve ever eaten. Parachute won me over long ago with its bing bread, so I wasn’t surprised to see such a unique take on an usually humble vegtable.

Most indulgent workplace snack

Spicy sesame fries, The Fat Shallot

Spicy sesame fries with spicy sesame aioli and black sesame seeds, The Fat Shallot

Whenever The Fat Shallot food truck happens to be outside my workplace (which isn’t often these days), I often can’t resist running outside just for these piping hot fries drenched in creamy, spicy sauce.

DRINKS:

Prettiest garnish

Panhandle Hook cocktail, Presidio

Panhandle Hook cocktail with rye whiskey, amaro, cinnamon, honey, and lemon, Presidio

I’d been meaning to check out this California-inspired spot in Bucktown since it opened, especially for the drinks. I already loved that it combined three of my favorite cocktail ingredients – amaro, cinnamon, and whiskey – but the wheel of blood orange put it into picturesque territory.

Menu special I most wish was permanent

Dark & Stormy slushy, Parson's Chicken & Fish

Dark & Stormy slushy, Parson’s Chicken & Fish

Parson’s Chicken & Fish is most known for its negroni slushy, but a Dark & Stormy version is offered occasionally, among other rotating specials throughout the summer. The dark rum-ginger-lime concoction is so good that I really wish they’d consider serving it all year long.

Neighborhood classic

Tamarindo margarita, El Cid II

Tamarindo margarita, El Cid II

As more and more dining destinations open in Logan Square, the hidden back garden patio at El Cid II is still a go-to for a no-frills meal. A friend first recommended this tangy tamarind margarita years ago, and I’ve never strayed since.

Best birthday beverage

Concord grape julep, Spilt Milk

Concord grape julep with Ancient Age bourbon, Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, concord grape juice, and fresh mint, Spilt Milk Tavern

Spilt Milk opened on my actual birthday, so it seemed like a sign to check it out for a celebratory cocktail. I was already a julep fan, and the concord grape juice made for a lovely spin on a classic.

Most refreshing summer cocktail

Negroni, Osteria Langhe

Sbagliato negroni with cappelletti, cocchi vermouth di Torino, and sparkling wine, Osteria Langhe

After a long walk on the 606 trail with my friend on a warm evening, we landed on the Osteria Langhe patio, ready for something fizzy and Italian. We got both in this ombré beverage that had the right balance of citrus and bitterness.

Best warm-up on a snowy evening

Glyph, Ampersand Wine Bar

Glyph with dark rum, maple cider, and cajun spices (served warm), Ampersand Wine Bar

I ordered this while catching up with a friend during one of this winter’s snowfalls, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. The deep spiced aroma alone was enough to warm me up.

SWEETS:

Most beautiful (and tastiest) cake

Birthday cake, Bon Vivant Cakes

Red velvet birthday cake with cookie butter buttercream, Bon Vivant Cakes

Anyone who follows Bon Vivant Cakes on Instagram knows how jaw-droppingly gorgeous these cakes are, and I was fortunate enough to see one that a friend ordered for her birthday. It tasted as good as it looked, down to the dripped chocolate ganache and buttercream frosting made from an adored indulgence: cookie butter.

Most memorable frozen treat

Millennium Perk concrete, Shake Shack

Millennium Perk concrete with vanilla custard, Intelligentsia coffee beans, marshmallow sauce, and Glazed & Infused old-fashioned donut, Shake Shack

Shake Shack is old news for my East Coast friends, but it’s still relatively new for Chicago. Whenever I take visitors to see the many of attractions of the Chicago Athletic Association hotel (see Cindy’s above), Shake Shack is usually the final stop. One of their Chicago-specific concretes has donut and coffee beans whirled into vanilla custard with marshmallow sauce to really tie together the decadence.

Best use of summer fruit

Blueberry pie, Spinning J

Blueberry pie, Spinning J

The pies at modern soda fountain Spinning J have been on my list for a while. After much deliberation, I went with a slice of the blueberry, which kept things simple enough to let the fruit really shine.

Most symbolic bite

Cubs cake pop, The Goddess & Grocer

Cubs cake pop (with bright Cubbie blue cake inside), The Goddess & Grocer

I bought this cake pop during my lunch break the day of Game 6 of the World Series. I told myself I’d wait to eat it until the Cubs won that night. They won both that night and the next, earning their first championship in 108 years. I’d like to think my cake pop promise gave Chicago a little extra luck.

Thanks for reading in 2016, and looking forward to another delicious year!

The details: Lula Café, 2537 N. Kedzie Ave.; Beatrix, 519 N Clark St.; Ampersand Wine Bar, 4845 N. Damen Ave.; Osteria Langhe, 2824 W. Armitage Ave.; Giant, 3209 W. Armitage Ave.; Bon Vivant Cakes (order online); Parachute, 3500 N. Elston Ave.; Spinning J, 1000 N. California Ave.; Spilt Milk Tavern, 2758 W. Fullerton Ave.; Siena Tavern, 51 W. Kinzie St.; Cindy’s and Shake Shack, both at Chicago Athletic Association, 12 S. Michigan Ave.; El Cid II, 2645 N. Kedzie Ave.; Duck Duck Goat, 857 W. Fulton Market; Bang Bang Pie, 4947 N. Damen Ave.; Furious Spoon, 2410 N. Milwaukee Ave.; The Fat Shallot food truck (location varies); Presidio, 1749 N. Damen Ave.; Parson’s Chicken & Fish, 2952 W. Armitage Ave.; The Goddess & Grocer, 901 N. Larrabee St.;all Chicago.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Island flavors from a week in San Pedro, Belize

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Belize mural and frozen coconut mojito, The Truck Stop

Frozen coconut mojito in front of Belize mural at The Truck Stop

When your dad moves to an island permanently, you go visit.

That was what brought me to the town of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest island. Because it was my first trip there, I tried to sample as much local cuisine and tropical beverages as I could in one week.

Sangria and snacks, Marbucks Coffee

Sangria and snacks at Thursday night Wine Down, Marbucks Coffee House

Thursdays are a particularly good evening for dining in San Pedro: Marbucks Coffee House hosts its Wine Down event, with live music, snacks, and wine or sangria (we opted for the latter), and Casa Picasso offers its chef’s tasting menu. I loved the atmosphere at both venues, and especially loved Casa Picasso’s citrusy tuna main course with avocado and sauteed local greens. We also added the Korean barbecue tostones with steak and housemade kimchi as an extra appetizer, and they were a hit.

Korean barbecue tostones, Casa Picasso

Korean barbecue tostones with skirt steak and kimchi, Casa Picasso

Greek gyro spring rolls, Casa Picasso

Greek gyro spring rolls with Mediterranean-marinated pork tenderloin and yogurt tzatziki sauce, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Chilled tomato and honeydew melon gazpacho with poached shrimp, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Chilled tomato and honeydew melon gazpacho with poached shrimp, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Citrus tuna, Casa Picasso

Citrus-marinated local tuna with sauteed callaloo, avocado, and citrus-parsley drizzle, Casa Picasso tasting menu

Ice cream sandwich, Casa Picasso

Ice cream sandwich of devil’s food cake cookie, vanilla ice cream, and whipped cream, Casa Picasso tasting menu

My main focus at most restaurants was the seafood – San Pedro was originally founded as a fishing village, after all – and I came away impressed by the variety and freshness. At Tiki Maya, from the second story of a palapa over the ocean, I enjoyed lime-laced shrimp ceviche and a quesadilla packed with lobster and peppers.

Shrimp ceviche with chips, Tiki Maya

Shrimp ceviche with chips, Tiki Maya

Lobster quesadilla, Tiki Maya

Lobster quesadilla, Tiki Maya

After I arrived on the island via water taxi, my first meal was at Melt, known for their namesake sandwiches. My madras curry chicken version was hearty and melted to the perfect consistency. Another evening, we came upon Robin’s Kitchen, a small, one-person establishment like many of San Pedro’s eateries. Robin is known for jerk chicken, but my snapper was also expertly seasoned and grilled.

Madras curry chicken melt sandwich, Melt Cafe and Beach Bar

Madras curry chicken melt sandwich, Melt Cafe and Beach Bar

Snapper with rice and beans, Robin's Kitchen

Grilled red snapper with rice and beans, Robin’s Kitchen

At Waraguna, the specialty was Salvadorean pupusas, a griddled corn cake with fillings. I went for the mixed seafood version, which was stuffed with fish, shrimp, and lobster along with the melted cheese. I thought that was a generous portion of seafood until a lobster burrito hit our table. The tortilla was packed with lobster, with more lobster chunks around the outside and a full tail on top. Both were delicious.

Seafood pupusa, Waruguma

Seafood pupusa with shrimp, fish, and lobster, Waruguma

Lobster burrito, Waruguma

Lobster burrito, Waruguma

Belikin stout beer

Belikin stout, the beer of Belize, at Waruguma

Waruguma was also where I tried my first Belizean beer. Belikin is ubiquitous in all of Belize, and the stout variety isn’t so much a stout, but just a lager with higher alcohol. I can’t say I’d seek it out elsewhere, but it put me in the island spirit.

Other island staple was Elvi’s Kitchen, in operation for 40-plus years. I had to order more lobster, this time in a savory black bean sauce with bits of plantain and coconut rice, and also sampled conch in the form of hefty fritters dipped in spicy tartar sauce. My cocktail at Elvi’s, the Crazy Monkey, combined coconut and peanut in an unexpected but highly successful way.

Conch fritters and Crazy Monkey cocktail, Elvi's Kitchen

Conch fritters with habanero tartar sauce and Crazy Monkey cocktail with peanut, coconut cream, and rum, Elvi’s Kitchen

Lobster in black bean sauce, Elvi's Kitchen

Lobster in black bean sauce, coconut rice, and plantains, Elvi’s Kitchen

Blue Water Grill is another well-known restaurant in San Pedro. Two nights are sushi nights, and we took full advantage. All three rolls we tried were fresh and delicious, but the smoked mayo atop the tempura lobster roll really set that one apart. The calamari with togarashi spices and citrus-avocado coulis made a nice starter as well.

Spiced calamari, Blue Water Grill

Togarashi-spiced calamari with citrus-avocado coulis, pickled ginger, and cilantro, Blue Water Grill

Sushi rolls, Blue Water Grill

Jackpot roll (tempura lobster, avocado, cucumber, green onion, house-smoked mayo, eel sauce, sesame seeds), Yen Yen roll (spicy tuna, mango, cilantro, yellowtail, avocado, and jalapeno), and Spider roll (soft-shell crab, cream cheese, cucumber, avocado, sweet soy, and sesame), Blue Water Grill

Frozen dark & stormy cocktail, Blue Water Grill

Frozen dark & stormy cocktail, Blue Water Grill

Blue Water Grill also made an excellent frozen dark and stormy, one of my very favorite cocktails. Of course, tropical drinks were plentiful nearly everywhere we went. A mango mojito from the Aurora’s Grill truck served as a reward for finding Secret Beach after a long and bumpy golf cart ride. Rum punch was on every menu, but it had particular pizazz at Carlo & Ernie’s Runway Bar, where you can watch the Tropic Air planes come in as you sip your drink at the bar.

Mango mojito, Aurora's Grill at Secret Beach

Mango mojito, Aurora’s Grill at Secret Beach

Rum punch, Carlo & Ernie's Runway Bar

Rum punch, Carlo & Ernie’s Runway Bar

Banana-kiwi-lime smoothie, Izzy's Smoothies, Snacks & Juice Bar

Banana-kiwi-lime smoothie, Izzy’s Smoothies, Snacks & Juice Bar

We passed the Izzy’s Smoothies stand many times while in town, and of the smoothies I tried, this banana-kiwi-lime combination was the most flavorful and refreshing in the island heat.

I also appreciated tasting a few traditional Belizean breakfasts. They were usually anchored by scrambled eggs, either with tomatoes and peppers or more exotic mix-ins (I loved the shrimp and chorizo version at Estel’s), plus refried black beans. The local twist was the fry jacks, pockets of barely sweet fried dough served with butter and jam.

Shrimp and chorizo special eggs, Estel's Dine By the Sea

Shrimp and chorizo special eggs with fry jacks and beans, Estel’s Dine By the Sea

Belizean breakfast, Portofino Restaurant

Belizean breakfast with scrambled eggs, sausage, refried beans, and fry jacks, Portofino Restaurant

Sesame bagel and iced coconut latte, Brooklyn Brothers Bagel Company

Sesame bagel, half with sun-dried tomato-basil-olive cream cheese and half with guava-nutmeg cream cheese, and iced coconut latte, Brooklyn Brothers Bagel Company

On the other end of the breakfast spectrum, I visited Brooklyn Brothers, the only bagel shop in the country of Belize. While the bagels are fairly traditional New York-style, the cream cheeses have an island twist. I fell in love with the guava-nutmeg spread on my sesame bagel. The shop was conveniently located next to the island’s main coffee roaster, Caye Coffee.

Seafood risotto, O Restaurant

Seafood risotto, O Restaurant

Chocolate sea urchin, O Restaurant

Chocolate sea urchin dessert of Bailey’s-infused chocolate truffle wrapped with
shredded phyllo dough, O Restaurant

Another night, we dined at the restaurant closest to home at Las Terrazas Resort, O Restaurant. While I really enjoyed the seafood risotto, with saffron and lots of parmesan, I was even more wowed by the elaborate chocolate dessert that resembled a spiny sea urchin. Other impressive desserts included the lime cake at Wild Mango’s, a chilled icebox-style cake with layers of cookies, lime filling, guava sauce, and a little tequila.

Mexican Margarita Caye Lime cold cake, Wild Mango's

Mexican Margarita Caye Lime cold cake with lime filling, Maria biscuit layers, tequila, and guava sauce, Wild Mango’s

My favorite food and drink destination on the island, though, was The Truck Stop, an enclave of eclectic food stands made from shipping containers, plus a bar and lots of space for activities. Its During our Sunday visit, we participated in a corn hole tournament; on Wednesday, we watched a movie projected onto a screen over the water and enjoyed piña colada ice cream from the Cool Cone stand. The frozen coconut mojito, pictured at the top of the post in front of The Truck Stop’s beautiful mural, was another standout.

Pina colada and Oreo ice cream, The Truck Stop

Pina colada and Oreo ice creams, Cool Cone at The Truck Stop

Other noteworthy treats came from The Baker, where I savored a coconut tart, and the Belize Chocolate Company, where we tried four caramels: sea salt, ginger, chile, and, my favorite, banana. There will be plenty more to try on my next visit!

Coconut tart, The Baker

Coconut tart, The Baker

Sea salt, ginger, banana, and chile caramels, Belize Chocolate Company

Sea salt, ginger, banana, and chile caramels, Belize Chocolate Company

The details: The Truck Stop bar and Cool Cone, 1 mile North of the Bridge; Marbucks Coffee, Tropicana Drive; Casa Picasso, past Belikin distributor; Blue Water Grill, Barrier Reef Drive; Wild Mango’s, Barrier Reef Drive; O Restaurant at Las Terrazas, 3.5 miles North of the Bridge; Elvi’s Kitchen, Pescador Drive; Waruguma, Angel Coral Street; Robin’s Kitchen, Sea Grape Drive; Tiki Maya (old Palapa bar), 1.5 miles North of the Bridge; Melt Cafe and Beach Bar, Boca Del Rio Drive; Aurora’s Grill, Secret Beach; Carlo & Ernie’s Runway Bar, Coconut Drive; Portofino Restaurant, 6 miles North of the Bridge; Estel’s Dine By the Sea, Buccaneer Street; Izzy’s Smoothies, Snacks, & Juice Bar, corner of Pescador Drive and Caribeña Street; The Baker, Sea Grape Drive; Brooklyn Brothers Bagel Shop, next to Caye Coffee; Belize Chocolate Company, Barrier Reef Drive; all San Pedro, Ambergris Caye, Belize.

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Best Bites

Ube, mochi, and Chicago-style hot dog bun, The Bakery at Fat Rice

Ube, Bakery at Fat Rice

Ube with purple yam, coconut, and sweet dough

Why it’s a Best Bite: It’s no secret that Fat Rice is a favorite of mine for both dinner and brunch, so I was excited to check out their take on a Macanese bakery. In July, the Fat Rice team opened this daytime pastelaria along with an adjacent, red-lit cocktail lounge called The Ladies’ Room that’s reservations-only.

Birdcage lighting, The Bakery at Fat Rice

Colorful birdcage lighting

I couldn’t help but love the bakery’s decor. From the pastel-painted storefront to the vibrant birdcage light fixtures, color was everywhere – including the pastries. Cracking open my ube bun revealed a yam filling in an almost shocking shade of royal purple. Its texture contrasted nicely with the crispy coconut that formed a golden crown on top.

Anywhere else in the city, you’d expect that a breakfast pastry modeled after a Chicago-style hot dog would just be an overdone novelty, the stuff of downtown tourist traps. But here, they totally pulled it off. The poppy seeds, onion, celery salt, and bright green relish with chunks of Vienna beef hot dog brought me straight to the ballpark, just with a more elaborate bun.

Hot dog bun, Chicago-style, Bakery at Fat Rice

Hot dog bun, Chicago-style, with Vienna beef and classic fixins

I added the mochi almost as an afterthought, since I tend to enjoy it in all forms, and am grateful I did. The stretchy rice-flour exterior was flecked with coconut and then stuffed with peanut, black sesame, and other crunchy seeds. Sweet and salty doesn’t even cover it – this was borderline addictive.

Mochi, Bakery at Fat Rice

Mochi with black sesame, peanut, coconut, and seeds

The details: The Bakery at Fat Rice, 2951 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

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Delicious Events

Delicious Event: Pok Pok Thai pop-up supper club in Chicago

Pok Pok pop-up table setting

Loft-style space with long wooden tables, set with fork and spoon atop Thai paper placemats

Last night, I attended my first Land and Sea Dept. pop-up dinner with two food-loving friends. We bought tickets for the later of the two seatings held in the group’s East Garfield Park studio space (both sold out within hours).

It was the first of this fall’s From Good Stock supper club series, and featured Chef Andy Ricker preparing the cuisine of the Tai Yai / Shan people in the north of Thailand. Everything was served family-style at communal tables, and I felt very at-home among people who appreciate adventurous food as much as I do.

Chef Andy Ricker in the kitchen

Chef Andy Ricker overseeing the plated first course

Ricker is renowned in the food world for the wildly popular Pok Pok Thai restaurants, which opened first in Portland, then expanded to New York and Los Angeles. Pok Pok was at the top of my list when I visited Portland a few years ago, and the chicken wings (and more) did not disappoint.

With a soundtrack of Thai music from the DJ, we opened the evening with a cocktail by Paul McGee (best known for the beloved Lost Lake) that included local Letherbee Gin and one of Pok Pok’s drinking vinegars. It was punchy, fruity, and complex, as McGee’s cocktails always are, and set the tone for the sour-sweet-spicy balance that would persist throughout the meal.

Welcome cocktail and pinball machine, Pok Pok pop-up

Welcome cocktail of Letherbee gin, pineapple, lemon, tamarind vinegar, Letherbee absinthe brun, chili tincture, and mint, with a pinball machine backdrop

The first course was anchored by a fiery dip of sour tomatoes, peanuts, green onions, and a whole lot of chiles. Of all the accompaniments – cabbage, cucumber, and some more exotic herbs and vegetables – my favorite were the knotted green beans. The spiciness of the dip was right at the edge of my comfort level, but I’d prefer an authentic experience over one tamed for Western palates. Lacey fritters made with shallot and green papaya were a deep-fried foil for the chile-laden dip.

Naam pit with crudites, Pok Pok

Naam pit: naam phrik of grilled tomatoes, green chiles, green onions, and peanuts, served with herbs and crudité

Khang phong fritters, Pok Pok pop-up

Khang phong: green papaya, lemongrass, chile, and shallot fritters

The two components of the second course had the same sort of dynamic: one spicy and super-charged; one meant to absorb the other’s impact. The yu choy salad was a textural explosion of crispy shallots, peanuts, and pork cracklings, plus more of the sour-spicy ingredients from the dip and pungent black sesame oil. The heat of the salad was tempered by rice balls, gently flavored with turmeric and fried garlic. Eating both together was key to this course.

Phak kad ko salad, Pok Pok pop-up

Phak kad ko: yu choy salad with black sesame oil, phrik kaliang, naam phrik thua, shallots, peanuts, and pork cracklings

Khao som rice balls, Pok Pok pop-up

Khao som: rice balls flavored with turmeric and tomatoes, and topped with fried garlic

We paired the first two courses with Double Jungle Boogie, a fantastic imperial IPA from local Marz Community Brewing Co. Then the beer got even more creative: each person was presented with a Thai “jelly beer,” a bottle of Singha lager cooled below freezing for a slushy-like effect (explained here by Thrillist). A traditional elephant-carved barrel gently shakes the beer in an ice bath – here’s an Instagram video of the barrel in action. When the beer is opened, the pressure release and temperature change is what creates the slushy consistency.

And, needless to say, such a cold beer was sweet, sweet relief after two spicy courses. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated an icy lager more than I did at that moment.

Thai jelly beer slushy, Pok Pok pop-up

Thai jelly beer, a supercooled beer slushy

Kaeng hang leh pork belly curry, Pok Pok pop-up

Kaeng hang leh: pork belly and shoulder curry with tamarind and ginger

Then came the third course, whose centerpiece was a luxurious pork belly and shoulder curry. The pork was wonderfully tender and aromatic from just enough five-spice, bathed in a mild-yet-rich broth. Alongside were lightly seasoned, almost creamy rice vermicelli noodles showered with more of the same onions and herbs. The noodles were especially useful in soaking up the leftover pork broth. The course also included a curry of boiled eggs and what a fellow diner described as Thai marinara sauce. Eggs cooked in a tomato-based sauce are a staple of many world cuisines (Israeli shakshuka is the buzziest at the moment), and this version fit right in.

Khao sen ko rice vermicelli, Pok Pok pop-up

Khao sen ko: rice vermicelli with fried garlic oil, chile powder, cilantro, green onion, and lime juice

Khai oop egg curry, Pok Pok pop-up

Khai oop: tai yai boiled egg curry

The meal ended the way it began: with a mint-garnished cocktail. This time, cold-brew coffee joined milk, coconut, and Letherbee fernet (a spirit I keep on hand at home) as a sweet and licorice-scented dessert drink. The dessert itself was a bowl of coconut cream, sweetened with palm sugar and dotted with Thai bananas and soft tapioca pearls, which were worlds apart from the larger (and to me, unappealing) bubble tea variety. As a whole, the meal was an unforgettable introduction to ultra-regional flavors that I likely would never have experienced outside of traveling there myself.

Coconut cream dessert and coffee cocktail, Pok Pok pop-up

Dessert of warm coconut cream with palm sugar, sago pearls, and bananas; dessert cocktail with cold brewed coffee, coconut, condensed milk, Letherbee fernet, and mint

View more coverage of Land and Sea Dept. restaurants.

The details: From Good Stock by Land and Sea Dept., 3124 W. Carroll, Chicago.

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Dublin Dining, Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Euro-whirlwind in Dublin, Edinburgh & London

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

This year, I celebrated my birthday by heading back across the pond for six days. I started by reuniting with Dublin – both the people and the city – and also fit in quick stops in Edinburgh (for the first time) and London.

While in Dublin, I revisited some favorite spots from my time there: Avoca, the subject of a previous post about an equally colorful dish; Sister Sadie, where I was wowed by dinner, and Hatch & Sons, a cozy café that taught me about the blaa.

Halloumi salad, Avoca

Grilled Toonsbridge halloumi salad, butternut squash, cavolo nero, baba ghanoush & dukkah, Avoca

Cortado and scone, Hatch and Sons

Cortado and scone with butter and raspberry jam, Hatch & Sons

Beans and toast, Sister Sadie

Home-baked beans in tomato sauce with a soft fried egg, whipped feta, olive & lemon yogurt, fresh herbs, and toasted bread

I also tried a few new places: Catch 22 for smoked salmon, Whitefriar Grill for their renowned brunch, and the Tram Cafe for a mocha served out of a restored turn-of-the-century train car.

Smoked salmon with mushy peas, Catch 22

Castletownbere smoked salmon with Guinness bread and mushy peas, Catch 22

Exterior, Tram Cafe

Exterior, The Tram Café

Mocha, Tram Cafe

Mocha, The Tram Café

Interior, Tram Cafe

Interior, The Tram Café

Norwegian eggs, Whitefriar Grill

Norwegian eggs with potato rosti, smoked salmon, baby spinach, and hollandaise, Whitefriar Grill

Next, it was off to Edinburgh for the main dining event: a seven-course tasting at The Gardener’s Cottage that was seasonal, creative, and completely charming. I also tried haggis (not as crazy as people make it sound) and enjoyed a traditional Scottish breakfast.

The Gardener's Cottage, tiny and tucked away

Walking up to The Gardener’s Cottage, tiny and tucked away

Amuse bouche, The Gardener's Cottage

Mussels with herb crumb and broad bean with mint, The Gardener’s Cottage

Trout, The Gardener's Cottage

Trout with cauliflower and sheep sorrel, The Gardener’s Cottage

Tortelloni, The Gardener's Cottage

Beef shin tortellini with butternut squash puree and chantarelles, The Gardener’s Cottage

Grouse, The Gardener's Cottage

Grouse with spelt, charred onions, parsley, capers, and walnuts, The Gardener’s Cottage

Sorbet and rosé, The Gardener's Cottage

Roman berry sorbet with mascarpone granola and meringue, with a glass of rosé, The Gardener’s Cottage

Chocolate dessert, The Gardener's Cottage

Dessert of blueberry, chocolate ice cream, soft biscuit, and popcorn, The Gardener’s Cottage

Veggie breakfast, Loudon's Cafe and Bakery

Loudons veggie breakfast with veggie sausages, sautéed spinach, egg, tattie scone, baked beans, mushroom, cherry tomatoes, and toasted homemade bread, Loudons Cafe & Bakery

Haggis tower, No. 1 High Street

Haggis, neeps and tatties tower (haggis with carrot and turnip), No. 1 High Street

Then, with tea and salted caramel fudge to tide me over for the journey, I took the train from Edinburgh to London to meet friends. We came upon a BBQ spot in Camden that night for dinner, and the next day spent multiple hours in the culinary mecca that is the Borough Market (recommended to me by many).

Braised ox cheek sandwich, Q Grill

Braised ox cheek on a brioche bun with chilli slaw, mustard mayo, and seasoned fries, Q Grill

Key lime pie jar, Q Grill

Key lime pie jar, Q Grill

Grilled cheese (with 4+ different cheeses), Borough Market

Grilled cheese (with 4+ different cheeses), Borough Market

Exotic meats, Borough Market

Exotic bites trio of crocodile, ostrich, and zebra, Borough Market

Fresh figs, Borough Market

Fresh (and massive) figs, Borough Market

Meringues, Borough Market

Giant meringue topped with macarons, Borough Market

The details: Avoca, 11–13 Suffolk St., Dublin 2, Ireland; Sister Sadie, 46 Harrington St., Dublin 8, Ireland; Hatch & Sons, Little Museum of Dublin, 15 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland; Catch 22, 28 South Anne Street, Dublin 2, Ireland; The Tram Cafe, Wolfe Tone Quay, Milltown Park, Dublin 1, Ireland; Whitefriar Grill, 16 Aungier Street, Dublin 2, Ireland; The Gardener’s Cottage, 294 Colinton Rd, Edinburgh, Scotland; Loudons Cafe & Bakery, 94b Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, Scotland; No. 1 High Street, 1 High St., Edinburgh, Scotland; Q Grill, 29-33 Chalk Farm Rd., London, England; Borough Market, 8 Southwark St., London, England.

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Travel Eats

Travel Eats: Brisket, Tex-Mex & more in Austin & San Antonio

Travel Eats documents my food adventures while traveling.

Brisket plate, Brown's Bar-B-Que

Brisket plate with mac & cheese and corn-on-the-cob, Brown’s Bar-B-Que truck

I recently spent the weekend in Texas with five girlfriends, splitting the trip between San Antonio and Austin. Because our time was so limited, we had to prioritize, and barbecue was at the top of the list. We landed on Brown’s Bar-B-Que, one of Austin’s many food trucks; without hesitation, I ordered sliced brisket. After the first bite or two, I was practically moaning over how good this brisket was – crackly crust on the outside, unfathomably tender on the inside, and just the right ratio of smoke to meat to fat. It didn’t need the sauce, but I drizzled a bit onto the open-faced sandwich I made with the white bread, and was happy I did. The mac-n-cheese and corn on the cob were no joke, either. Eating that caliber of meal in what was really just a bar parking lot felt quintessentially Austin.

Chalupa Cabra, Beto's

Chalupa Cabra, curry-stewed cabrito served over guava & cream cheese empanada roll, topped with cilantro lime cole slaw, cotija, and toasted coconut, at Beto’s

Tacos was also a dining priority, and that was where we focused our efforts upon arrival in San Antonio. Beto’s Alt-Mex came highly recommended by our Airbnb host, and this towering Chalupa Cabra was listed on the menu as “Guy’s Favorite” (Fieri, of course). It was an eclectic mini-feast of curried meat, toasted coconut, and lime cole slaw, all on top of a sweet guava-cream cheese pastry. On the other side of the spectrum, the best classic tacos we ate all trip were actually at the airport location of Rosario’s (one of several in San Antonio). They were lightly grilled with generous amounts of beans, chicken, and sliced avocado, plus a smoky salsa on the side that tied it all together.

Tacos nortenos, Rosario's

Tacos Norteños with flour tortillas, refried beans, Monterey Jack cheese, sliced avocado, and chicken, served with frijoles a la charra, Rosario’s

It isn’t vacation without brunch, and ours came in Texas-sized proportions in both cities. In San Antonio, it wasn’t enough for Cappy’s to top thick-cut, cornflake-crusted French toast with deliciously juicy Hill Country peaches, whipped cream, and powdered sugar. No, there were also scrambled eggs and bacon on the side for good measure. It was probably the best French toast I’ve had in recent memory.

Hill Country peach French toast, Cappy's

Hill Country peach French toast with scrambled eggs and bacon, Cappy’s

At Perla’s in Austin, seafood was the star in my breakfast bouillabaisse. The unabashedly spicy broth was stuffed with a staggering amount of clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, and whitefish. A crispy poached egg made it “breakfast,” and I’m now convinced all bouillabaisse should come that way.

Breakfast bouillabaisse, Perla's

Breakfast bouillabaisse with crispy poached egg, saffron rouille, and grilled french bread, Perla’s

Centro-Americano, Houndstooth

Centro-Americano with espresso, rice milk, cinnamon & honey, red plum preserves, and a burnt lemon garnish, Houndstooth Coffee

Austin seems to take coffee as seriously as Portland or Seattle, and I drank a couple of especially creative versions. At Houndstooth, an Austin mini-chain, the twist on an iced Americano involved red plum preserves, cinnamon, honey, rice milk, and burnt lemon – a fascinatingly successful combination. My order at Cenote in East Austin was a little more traditional (iced chai with espresso) but the chai itself was creamier and more heavily spiced than most. I was also a little obsessed with the glittery marble table amidst the other mismatched furniture inside the shop.

Iced house-made chai with espresso, Cenote

Iced house-made chai with espresso, Cenote

The details: Brown’s Bar-B-Que, 1901 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin; Beto’s, 8142 Broadway, San Antonio; Perla’s, 1400 S. Congress Ave., Austin; Cappy’s, 5011 Broadway, San Antonio; Houndstooth Coffee, 401 Congress Ave., Austin; Cenote, 1010 E. Cesar Chavez, Austin; Rosario’s, San Antonio Airport (and other locations), San Antonio (all Texas).

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