Best Bites, Chicago

Best Bites: Queso fundido with longaniza, lamb albondiga & more, Mi Tocaya Antojería

Spicy peach-lime frozen margarita, Mi Tocaya

Spicy peach-lime frozen margarita

Chef Diana Davila recently took over a prime spot on Logan Boulevard to cook her family’s soulful Mexican recipes. Mi Tocaya Antojería is the kind of cozy-yet-exciting restaurant that everyone should want in their neighborhood, so I feel very lucky to have it in mine. Each dish blended the familiar and the unexpected, starting with a vibrant peach-lime frozen margarita that was on special the night I visited. It was fruity at first, but the garnish packed some intense heat, a slow build with every citrusy sip.

Guisado de nopalitos, Mi Tocaya

Guisado de nopalitos with fried cheese curds

I’ve eaten nopalitos (cactus) a few times, but hadn’t ever found it noteworthy until this dish. It was tender and meaty, with just enough heat from the chiles, and the fried cheese curds were a creative and decadent touch.

The queso fundido was a great example of a familiar appetizer that’s nearly ubiquitous on standard Mexican menus, but is rarely memorable and often a little too greasy. Mi Tocaya’s version wasn’t greasy at all, in large part because the typical chorizo was replaced by longaniza, a sweet Filipino sausage that I’ve sought out ever since a friend introduced me to it right after college. The photo doesn’t do it justice, but the char on the sausage and gooey cheese, mixed together with poblano peppers and spooned onto tortillas, was definitely something special.

Longaniza, rajas, and queso fundido, Mi Tocaya

Longaniza, rajas, and queso fundido

Lamb albondiga, Mi Tocaya

Lamb albondiga with mint, carrot, and egg

The lamb alboniga (meatball) was another dish that benefited from the influence of a separate ethnic cuisine. This time, it was North African-inspired, with the mint, carrot, and hard-boiled egg that are often seen in a tagine (like this one). It all came together well. And I had to try at least one of the tacos, deciding to go vegetarian after reading rave reviews. As with the cactus, I didn’t miss the meat at all, with textural contrast from the squash, the crema, the swipe of black beans, and even the fried pepper in the middle.

I already can’t wait until my next visit; the lengua (tongue) with peanut butter and frothy nitro horchata are at the top of my list, preferably from a seat on the boulevard-facing patio.

Milpa taco, Mi Tocaya

Milpa taco with charred butternut squash and chile, beans, and corn crema

The details: Mi Tocaya Antojeria, 2800 W. Logan Blvd., Chicago.

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Chicago, Restaurant Week

Chicago Restaurant Week 2017: Dinner at Table, Donkey & Stick

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.

Glazed duck breast, Table, Donkey & Stick

Glazed duck breast with butternut squash, buttered cabbage, Louisiana popcorn rice, and maple & fenugreek glaze

Best Bite: Table, Donkey & Stick specializes in alpine cuisine, which seems especially appropriate for winter. The main course was a beautifully cooked duck breast in a bowl full of comforting accompaniments: buttered cabbage, squash, and nutty rice. And how pretty is that ring of sticky-sweet glaze?

Lentils and latkes, Table, Donkey & Stick

French green lentils with smoked mushroom and roasted kale; Yukon Gold potato latkes with roasted garlic aioli

Other notes: The green lentils were on point in both seasoning and texture, with major umami from the smoked mushrooms, and the decision to present the latkes as wedges to be dunked in aioli was a seriously genius one. I also swooned over the silky duck liver mousse with chili powder and sweet preserves, spread onto piping-hot baguette for the ultimate appetizer bite. I was very impressed by the whole experience, including attentive service throughout the meal. I’m a little ashamed that it took me so long to visit a restaurant of this caliber in my own neighborhood, but I’ll just chalk it up as another Restaurant Week success story.

Duck liver mousse and gouda, Table, Donkey & Stick

Duck liver mousse with preserves, chili powder, and oregano; Boerenkaas gouda with honey, walnuts, and sourdough rye baguette

The details: Table, Donkey & Stick, 2728 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

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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Best Bites, Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Fried giardiniera, Parts and Labor

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Fried giardiniera, Parts and Labor

Fried giardiniera with sriracha mayo

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I first visited Parts and Labor a little over two years ago, right after it opened in Logan Square, and I’ve been going back for this unique side dish ever since. Originally, I was just intrigued: giardiniera can only come one way, right? What would a fried version even be like? Turns out, the tempura-like batter adds a fluffy layer of crust that’s masterfully offset by the vinegar-soaked vegetables. It’s spicy, especially after a dip in the sriracha mayo on the side, and is a wonderful reinvention of a humble Chicago condiment.

The details: Parts and Labor, 2700 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Pecorino cake, caviar brioche, shrimp toast & more, Sink|Swim

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Shrimp toast, Sink|Swim

Shrimp toast with n’duja, radish, avocado, MSG aioli, greens, and lemon

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: Sink|Swim is the second venture from the proprietors behind Scofflaw – widely considered one of Chicago’s very best bars – and is conveniently located on the same block. While I expected to be impressed by the menu, especially because of its focus on seafood, these dishes represented some of the most intriguing culinary concepts I’ve seen lately.

Take the shrimp toast, for example: instead of the individual-shrimp-atop-bread that you’d expect, the shrimp is mixed into spicy n’duja sausage to form a spread for toasted brioche (for more details, read Chicago magazine’s playful review). And who can say no to a mini umbrella? I also couldn’t get enough of the beef and oyster tartare, a combination I hadn’t seen before. Scooping the doubly delicious meat onto a crispy chip, together with the horseradish and pickled onion, felt almost like a deconstructed deli sandwich.

Beef & oyster tartare, Sink|Swim

Beef & oyster tartare with malt chips and horseradish

Pecorino cake, Sink|Swim

Pecorino cake with whipped honey crémeux, grapefruit, pistachio, and cappelletti

I’m always interested in savory desserts, and this pecorino cake fell into the “where has this been all my life?” category. The nutty cheese came through just enough in the dense cake itself, balanced by a swipe of honey-kissed cream, a generous dusting of pistachio, and an assertive kick from the grapefruit. Pecorino also made an appearance in the charred broccoli, joining furikake seasoning and creamy sauce for a completely unique (yet still comforting) flavor profile.

Charred broccoli, Sink|Swim

Charred broccoli with furikake, whey soubise, and pecorino

Caviar|brioche and Esplanade Swizzle, Sink|Swim

Caviar|brioche with onion caramel, smoked roe, and cured egg – plus an Esplanade Swizzle with El Peloton mezcal, amontillado sherry, lime, ginger, and Lucky falernum

But perhaps the most surprising snack was the caviar dish. The tiny rounds of brioche were soaked in onion caramel, then topped with smoked roe and shavings of cured egg yolk. Part breakfast (think eggs, smoky bacon, and biscuits with honey) and part luxury appetizer (it’s caviar after all), it was an entirely original, bite-sized treat.

Sailor, Sink|Swim

Sailor on the wall, in keeping with the nautical theme (he also makes an appearance on the website)

The details: Sink|Swim, 3213 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Staff meal of greens, bread, butter & soft boiled egg, Cellar Door Provisions

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Buttered bread, Cellar Door Provisions

Buttered bread ready to dip into the soft boiled egg

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: With a limited menu of seasonal breakfast and lunch specials and a small selection of artful pastries that routinely sells out before noon, Cellar Door Provisions is tightly focused in its craft. Since I knew I wanted to try the much-lauded bread, I went with the Staff Meal, a no-frills breakfast of greens, bread, butter, and soft boiled egg. This was no ordinary bread and butter, however. The bread itself had a dark crust and airy crumb – the best of both textural worlds – and the egg-sized, salt-flecked quenelle of butter was plenty to smear into every nook of both thick slices. Dipping the bread into the yolk of the soft boiled egg was even more satisfying, and peppery bites of lightly dressed greens helped break up the richness. The whole meal had an understated elegance that was so refreshing.

Staff meal, Cellar Door Provisions

Staff meal of greens, bread, butter, and soft boiled egg

The details: Cellar Door Provisions, 3025 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

This week’s Best Bite: Ripples on an Evaporated Lake and Pool Rules cocktails, Lost Lake

This Best Bite is one of the 20 foods and 15 drinks I’ve set out to taste and document in 2015. View the full list to see my plan and progress.

Ripples on an Evaporated Lake and Pool Rules, Lost Lake

Ripples on an Evaporated Lake, with aged Panama rum, aged Trinidad rum, coffee, coconut, and amaro; and Pool Rules, with bourbon whiskey, aged guyana, rum, lemon, curaçao, cinnamon, allspice, vanilla, and angostura bitters

Why it’s this week’s Best Bite: I’ve been to Lost Lake at least five times since it opened in mid-January – officially enough to deem it my new favorite bar in Chicago. As fortunate as I am to live within walking distance, there’s just so much to love about this tropical oasis. Immediately upon stepping inside, you’re effortlessly transported to a warmer, happier place. The interior features leafy wallpaper, thatched bamboo, and stone walls, all of which strike an impressive balance between kitschy and fashionable. The retro island soundtrack hits the same sweet spot. And Paul McGee, who left Three Dots and Dash for this new venture, makes tiki drinks that are just so, so good.

It was difficult to pick two favorites from a menu that has so many creative options, but these two repeatedly stood out. Ripples on an Evaporated Lake fused four things I love to drink: coffee, rum, coconut, and amaro. In each sip, the coffee and rum hit my palate first, the flavors quickly progressing from sweet to bitter on the finish. The mint and coffee beans were a nice touch as garnishes. Meanwhile, Pool Rules, in its adorable fish-shaped glass, was more bourbon-forward. The rum and bourbon both fell into balance with citrus, bitters, vanilla, allspice, and cinnamon for a complex yet easy-drinking cocktail.

The details: Lost Lake, 3154 W. Diversey Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

2014 Best Bite #30: Fried brussels sprouts, The Radler

For the third year in a row, I’m using each day in December to celebrate the rest of the best bites (and sips) that I didn’t get to blog about in 2014, posted in chronological order. Browse all of this year’s Best Bites, or look back at year-end Best Bites from 2012 and 2013.

Fried brussels sprouts, The Radler

Fried brussels sprouts with apple mayo, butternut squash puree, gingersnap cookie, and candied ginger

Why it’s another 2014 Best Bite: In its first year open, modern beer hall The Radler has been a welcome addition to Logan Square. While the house-made sausages are certainly delicious, I more often pair my stein of beer with these crispy fried brussels sprouts. Sweet and gingery from crushed gingersnaps, squash puree, and candied ginger, they’re like none I’ve had anywhere else and let me enjoy the flavors of fall year-round.

The details: The Radler, 2375 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

2014 Best Bite #23: No. 21 juice, Owen+Alchemy

For the third year in a row, I’m using each day in December to celebrate the rest of the best bites (and sips) that I didn’t get to blog about in 2014, posted in chronological order. Browse all of this year’s Best Bites, or look back at year-end Best Bites from 2012 and 2013.

No. 21 juice, Owen and Alchemy

No. 21 juice with blueberry, basil, grapefruit, and lime

Why it’s another 2014 Best Bite: Owen+Alchemy opened in Logan Square this year as the first “juice apothecary” of its kind, with a staggering selection of sleek glass bottles filled with concoctions of every color. My first selection was Number 21, a blend of blueberry, basil, grapefruit, and lime. Every sip began with a punch of basil, which I loved, and then glided into a delicate balance between sweet blueberry and tart citrus.

The details: Owen+Alchemy, 2355 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.

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Best Bites, Chicago

2014 Best Bite #17: Bone marrow, Longman & Eagle

For the third year in a row, I’m using each day in December to celebrate the rest of the best bites (and sips) that I didn’t get to blog about in 2014, posted in chronological order. Browse all of this year’s Best Bites, or look back at year-end Best Bites from 2012 and 2013.

Bone marrow, Longman & Eagle

Roasted marrow bones, bacon shallot jam, preserved meyer lemon, sea salt, and sourdough toast

Why it’s another 2014 Best Bite: Longman & Eagle did a lot of things very well this year; the bone marrow appetizer is one of the dishes that still wowed me time after time. The roasted marrow itself was truly luscious, and the combination of bacon, shallot, and preserved lemon turned it into the perfect spread for toast. It was easy to miss the little spoon of sea salt, but trust me: a generous sprinkling on top of the toast was what launched this dish from great to extraordinary.

View two other Best Bites from Longman & Eagle: one at dinner, one at brunch.

The details: Longman & Eagle, 2657 N Kedzie Ave., Chicago.

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