Soup I’ll never pho get

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Located downtown Wheaton on Main Street, Luong Loi Restaurant looks like a dingey hole-in-the-wall type of  place with its white blinds and plain decor. 

This weekend, I walked in and an old Vietnamese grandpa was sitting on a crooked chair, his head bent down towards his chest, snoring. There was maybe one other table seated. Outside it was sunny. Inside I’m not even sure if the lights were turned on. Just little sun rays seeping through the blinds.

A typical person may have been irritated that there was no hostess to greet us. They may have called that grandpa lazy for sleeping on the job. They may have said that everything looks dirty and the dingy lighting needs to be fix. They may have thought, maybe we should go somewhere where the staff is actually awake.

Not I. 

See, when I saw that sleeping grandpa, I knew it wasn’t laziness. Instead, I saw hard work.

Luong Loi is like the best place to get pho in all of Chicagoland, and making real pho is no easy task. It takes several days to make the broth from scratch, waiting for all the marrow to seep out of beef bones, gradually adding the right amount of spices (Saigon cinnamon and star anise anyone?!), and stirring that shit up real good. 

You need good arm muscles to continuously stir real pho beef broth. That grandpa was probably so worn out from making so much pho that he couldn’t help doozing off a few minutes. I’d rather go somewhere where the staff is tired and the broth is real than somewhere where the staff is perky and the broth comes from bouillon cubes. (The thought of someone using bouillon cubes to make pho makes me seriously sad.)

Order the number 18, the Pho Dac Biet. It comes with the special traditional broth that that grandpa slaved over, rice noodles, cilantro, sliced cooked beef brisket, and think sliced broiled beef. On the side you’ll get a plate of fresh bean sprouts, limes, sliced spicy peppers, and Thai basil leaves. 

I like to rip up the basil with my hands before throwing into my pho. It seems so fresh and appetizing that way. I squeeze the lime, throw in the peppers, add some siracha and hoisin sauce, and I’m good to go.

Luong Loi is the standard of which all other pho places in the U.S. should try to measure itself up to. Like, one time I went to this pho place in Seattle and they gave me NO LIME. As if I’d ever pho get that!

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Dream about tea

There’s a tiny, cramped shop in Seattle’s International District where a little old Chinese lady sits with her fur ball of a dog and drinks tea all day long.

Until today, that nameless squalor was the only tea shop I’ve been to in this country that has some decent oolong.

Introducing Dream About Tea in Evanston, IL. This place is not polished and brightly lit the way chains like Starbucks or Argo Tea are. On the shop’s window a handwritten sign has “Free Wifi” scrawled on it. The interior looks like your elder Chinese-American uncle’s living room with its old mismatched furniture and TV in the corner. 

This place is quiet. Not in a eerie, awkward, need-to-fill-the-void kind of silence, but rather, a peaceful, meditative, I feel-like-I’m-a-Buddhist-monk kind of quiet.

At the tea counter, there is a wide and varied selection of jars and jars of great Chinese tea. I asked for oolong, and the gentle men behind the counter asked, “darker or greener oolong?” This has never been asked of me before, and I liked that he checked. I told him greener, and he pointed out five choices. I chose an ounce of Lishan.

When still dry, the Lishan Oolong smells fresh and strong, sort of like taking a whiff of fresh air when you’re uphill on a green mountain in the springtime. Once brewed, it expands magnificently and can be rebrewed several times, as most oolong can.

You can find me dreaming about tea tonight.

90 Miles Cuban Cafe is bold, fun and authentic

When is comes to eating meat, there are two things that make me a very happy woman. 

One is when you’ve got a great hunk of meat marinated and on low heat for ten hours. How could that not make anybody happy? There simply is NOTHING like the scent of dripping fat and spices permeating the kitchen all day long. It’s what makes home and holidays so great. A giant turkey cooking for six hours on Thanksgiving. A chunk of ham roasting in the oven on Christmas. Even if the day is mediocre, the knowledge that a juicy, dripping, tender, soft, chewy, pink piece of meat is sitting and working and just waiting all day for you to take a bit out of it is absolute bliss.
 
Shoot, I got so caught up in thinking about how much I love slow roast meat that I can’t remember what the second thing was.
 
Umm…
 
Uhh…
 
…..
 
…..
 
…..
 
…..
 
Well, whatever.
 
The point is this: if you’re a lover of meat, spice, and garlic, there is a great Cuban place in Chicago you’ve gotta check out. It’s called 90 Miles Cuban Cafe. They’ve got two locations–I went to the one on Armitage and Milwaukee.
 
Atmosphere
 
It felt as though I were back in Key West again. The Cuban presence at this place is legit and way fun. They had good windows and lighting. Water is served in glass jars and there are quirky antiques everywhere to decorate the dining room, include a wall piano. A large TV screen had I Love Lucy playing with the volume on mute. It’s colorful, bright, and happy without being overwhelming or too noisy. Tropical Cuban music could be heard throughout the cafe. I think Ernest Hemingway would have approved, though it might be just a tad too cute for him. (But definitely not too cute for me.) I half expected to see one of his six toed cats to stroll in. (Did not happen.)
 
Also the bathroom was one of those bathrooms where everyone writes all over the walls and all over the stalls. This can make a place look dirty depending on how it’s executed. At 90 Miles, it fortunately did not look dirty at all. Just made it more fun and customize!
 
Food
On my the server’s recommendation, I ordered the Churrasco. This consists of “marinated, tender, skirt steak served with parsley garlic sauce, yellow rice, and boiled yuca with mojo de ajo.” The garlic sauce is very strong, like pure chunks of nearly raw garlic. It will seep in your pores for days, but the savory, unique bold flavor is worth it.
 
Drinks
 
I went there for lunch with my teenaged sister, so being the responsible adult I did have have any alcoholic drinks. Although it should be noted that they have great looking sangria and mojitos! I imagine it would be the perfect place to host a summer birthday dinner. (Hint hint to all my friends.)
 
Service
 
Our server was very experienced. He told me he’d been at 90 Miles for four years now. He was very knowledgeable about every menu item and happy to give further descriptions and recommendations. You could tell he had a lot of tables but he did his best to manage his time and check up on everyone and be attentive and all that.
 
They give you a little brown paper bag to put your money in at the end of the meal, which I’ve never seen done before at a restaurant.
 
Overall, 4.5 out of 5 stars!

A trip to Wicker Park’s tastiest “eco-chic” restaurant

A few weeks ago when it was snowing terribly in Chicago, a friend took me to dinner at a place called Prasino.

I was in the mood for some cheap Thai food, so before we went I asked her what kind of food they serve. She stumbled around too long for an answer and I got short-tempered. Chinese? Greek? Vegan? Jesus Christ, is it really so difficult to categorize food?!

(It should be noted that similar to those people in Snickers commercials, I’m just not myself when I get hungry. This friend is very patient with me.)

The description she came up with was one word: (more…)

The world is your oyster

It’s always odd to think that most seafood–oysters, clams, mussels, crabs, lobsters–used to be poor man’s food, especially considering how expensive a plate of it is today. Although, if you take a close look at most seafood, it’s not that weird. Lobsters and crabs looks like overgrown insects of the sea and oysters and look like rocks. As the late writer Jonathan Swift said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”

I’d like to add the word hungry to Mr. Swift’s assertion. I believe he was a bold, hungry man that first ate an oyster. I imagine a homeless man named Clayton. He is a desperate, hallucinating hooligan with diseased skin sleeping on the docks and scavenging the piers for food thrown overboard by wealthy ship captains. One day, Clayton begs a pirate ship for some food and the pirates tell him to move his ugly, sorry ass out of the way. So he throws some rocks at the pirate ship in frustration only to discover that the rocks split in half and some slimy stuff comes out and he’s so hungry he just eats it, spitting the pearls out the way people spit out cherry pits.

Luckily, eating an oyster is not such a dire situation in our time. It’s expensive, but last week I discovered that Catch 35 in Naperville has a great happy hour for oysters! It’s from 4-6pm and all oysters are half off. I would recommend getting whichever ones are the smallest. The smallest oysters always have the most flavor. (As it is with vegetables; the smallest vegetables always taste better.)

An Evening on the Silk Road

The menu at The Silk Road is the most beautiful document in all of Missoula. It changes seasonally and there are usually fifty or so choices of mouth watering dishes from faraway lands, including descriptions that makes the drool slide out of my mouth and onto my lap. Hot pickled beets served over arugula with goat cheese and pistachios, from France for $6. Halibut baked with caramelized onions and tomatoes in coconut-pomegranate broth, from the Ivory coast for $10. Chicken cafrael marinated in ginger, garlic, green chiles, garam masala, tamarind and cashews, sautéed and topped with fresh mint, from India for $7.50.

The choices go on continuously. I dined there recently with a group of my girlfriends. While we were all studying the menu, I squealed in delight to my friend Erin about every delicious looking dish I came across, which was literally every single one. I even gripped her hand from across the table in awe that such a place like The Silk Road even existed. Maybe there is a god out there, I thought, and maybe he really does love me. And maybe The Silk Road was created as my heaven on earth.

It even kind of looks like what a restaurant heaven would be like. It’s located on the Hip Strip and there is outdoor seating, although we sat inside. The tables are a bit close together. It’s dim and cozy and rather romantic inside, with plum colored walls and curtains and a few large, aesthetically pleasing paintings of naked women on the walls. It feels like the dining room for a comfortable, happy house of a very cultured, intelligent family. I told Erin I wished The Silk Road was my home.

Our waitress explained that the portions are actually just small taster sizes and typically people ordered multiple rounds of dishes. That explained the prices, which I had initially thought were pretty low. My friend Courtney exclaimed this was great, we’d get to try more flavors! I agreed with her enthusiasm completely.

I ended up ordering the Weiner Schnitzel of chicken with lemon and cognac sauce (Austria, $6), the BBQ Duck Crêpe, which included duck legs slow roasted in sweet and spicy cinnamon-clove-tamarind sauce, wrapped inside a fresh pasta crêpe, served with fennel slaw (France $7), and the Cannelloni, which is pork and veal sautéed with onions and butter, infused with truffle and herbs, folded into cream and chicken pâté, wrapped in thin pasta, baked and clothed with manchego cheese (Spain $6).

As a group, we shared a plate of truffle fries, which are described as house-cut local potatoes tossed in truffle oil, served with artichoke-preserved lemon aioli (Holland $5.50). I usually hate fries; but that fancy truffle oil really made them the best fries I have ever had in my entire life.

The Weiner Schnitzel came in the first round. Immediately I noticed that the waitress had not lied; the portions were indeed small. The size of my fist, perhaps. As soon as I bit into the chicken I  decided I wouldn’t worry about spending too much money on more dishes; I wanted more from this chef!

The last time I had Weiner Schnitzel was on a family vacation to Munich, Germany when I was eight years old. I remember liking it then, but not loving it the way I did as a twenty-three year old at a gourmet restaurant in Missoula, Montana.

What made The Silk Road‘s Weiner Schnitzel dish so good? Three things. One, the crispiness of the coating over the chicken was simple and not at all greasy. Two, the chicken was cooked to the perfect level of tenderness. Not the least bit dry. Three, THE SAUCE. OH. MY. GOD. THE SAUCE. I am dying to know what goes into their cognac sauce. It is slightly sweet and slightly creamy and the taste of wine is mildly present. It’s not a bold, strong flavor which I usually prefer, but rather, it’s a subtle sauce, which somehow, when paired with lemon juice squeezed over it makes it a sauce that I could not get enough of. I licked the plate clean like a dog that hadn’t been fed in a week. That cognac sauce is that good.

The BBQ Duck Crêpe was so so. I thought the sweet and spicy tamarind-based sauce made the dish taste more like it was from an Asian country than from France. (Tamarind is the base for dishes such as Pad Thai.) Also, I wasn’t expecting it to be as spicy as it was, although that might just be personal preference. Still not bad, though.

Erin and I each got our own Cannelloni plate. It looked adorable, similar to how pigs in a blanket is kind of a cute idea. Mostly it was cream and cheese, which is hard to go wrong with.

There were other dishes that my friends tried out which did not fail to impress us. One highlight was one that my friend Alison ordered: the Seasonal Mushroom Sautée (France $7), which has some sherry in it. For dessert she ordered the Lavender-Infused Panna Cotta with Flathead cherry sauce & basil shortbread (Italy $7), which I thought was too strongly lavender flavored for my palette, especially since I am not a big lavender fan. It did, however, have the smooth texture of flan, which was lovely.

I would strongly recommend you go check out The Silk Road for yourself. Their menu is a bit overwhelming, but if you’re looking for a fun dining experience which includes several rounds of gourmet foods from countries in which the actually silk road went through and you don’t mind dropping $25-$50, I say go for it. Life is no fun if your money always stays in the bank.

Yowaffle

This summer, a new waffle & frozen yogurt place opened up on Main Street in Missoula.

It’s called Yowaffle and it’s pretty darn hip. When you walk in, the walls are big and painted bright colors (yellow and lime green) and the ceilings are tall and it just feels really airy and light in there.

I love the name Yowaffle, mostly just because I love saying yo in front of something. Or after something yo.

Alright, so they’ve done a good job establishing the atmosphere. On to more important matters: the food. It is self serve and there are three main sections.

The first is the waffle making section. There are two waffle maker machines and a mini fridge with cups of ready made Belgian waffle mix. Customers can pour the mix into the machine and wait while it cooks.

The second section is the frozen yogurt machines. Currently the flavors they have are french vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, banana, coffee, white chocolate macadamia, heart wildberry, original tart, snicker doodle, and an orange burst sorbet. Cups or waffle cones are provided.

The third section is the toppings that could go on your waffle or your yogurt. There are 55 different toppings, mostly fruits and candies. The highlight is most definitely the peanut butter sauce.

After you’re finished creating your ideal frozen yogurt or waffle dish, take it to the check out counter and they’ll weigh it. It’s 42 cents an ounce. If you get a waffle you’ll probably spend at least three dollars.

Yowaffle is run by a father son team, which is kind of sweet. They’ve got a great business formula. People love customized food and serving two main things keeps the menu simple and easy for customers to manage through it.

My friends and I have speculated on whether or not Yowaffle will soar or plummet. It seems as though the majority believe they will plummet. Especially through the winter. And one of my friends brought up how slow the waffle machines are and how there are only two of them and if there’s a line…

I’m not sure what to predict. I like Yowaffle. It’s great that they open late (until midnight on the weekends) and it’s easy and fun to navigate through. If they plummet, it would be sad. It’s always sad when small family businesses struggle to survive. But small business seem to do better downtown Missoula than in other places I’ve seen, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Go check it out yo.

Japanese Style Pork Ribs

I’ve finally determined that my favorite dish at Iza is the Japanese Style Pork Ribs. If you’re a meat lover I would highly recommend this dish!

The description on the menu:

Slow cooked pork ribs dipped in sweet tonkatsu sauce and coated in panko. Served with rice and fresh cabbage.

This is my favorite dish because:

  1. It costs $12 which is less expensive than some of the other dinner plates.
  2. There was enough for leftovers.
  3. It has a sweet taste if you’re not in the mood for crazy spicy or overwhelming flavors.
  4. The panko coating is TO DIE FOR. Panko is basically just bread crumbs, usually from white bread without the crust. It provides a crisp crunch on the outside, but doesn’t dominate the dish.
  5. I love dishes that are balanced. I felt as the the rice and a bit of cabbage was a nice balance with the ribs.
  6. The chef slow roasts the meat for four hours.
  7. It’s surprisingly not very messy!

Why the Hob Nob is the best place to eat ever

The Hob Nob is a lunch and breakfast… place? No, the word place is too broad of a word to accurately describe the simple loveliness of the Hob Nob. I wouldn’t exactly call it a restaurant, since you order your food at the counter. I would say the Hob Nob is a bistro, similar to old fashioned Parisian bistros.

In my opinion, the Hob Nob is the best place to grab lunch in Missoula because:

  1.  It’s delicious and there’s isn’t a single bad thing to order on the menu. There is something for everyone, vegetarians (brie and chutney sandwich, mozzarella sandwich), vegans (they make a mean tempeh sandwich), and everyone else (the salmon patty burger is to die for).
  2. Every meal is a nutritious and balanced meal. Or, at least I think they are. Like with the lunch, it’s mostly grilled sandwiches and burgers and it always comes with a choice of sides: fries, yam fries, soup (miso, creamy tomato), or a good salad (lettuce, this nutty dressing I have yet to identify because I think they make it themselves, sunflower seeds, and shredded Parmesan). I LOVE it when meals come with a side!
  3. You never have to wait too long for your food. I am so terribly impatient when I’m very, very hungry and I want to eat. The Hob Nob is by no means fast food, but I feel like it’s never more than a ten to fifteen minute wait until your food is brought out. Not bad! Especially if you’ve got good company, the time will fly by.
  4. It’s very reasonable priced. You can get a brie and chutney sandwich and their delicious house salad for only six dollars! Good deal!
  5. The food is perfectly portioned. I always feel satisfied after a Hob Nob meal, never too full or not full enough. Always just right.
  6. It is conveniently located. Right on the hip strip!
  7. It has a friendly atmosphere. It’s a small place and at lunch time it is admittedly crowded and you can’t always get a table right away. But it has a welcoming feel to it nonetheless. And it’s bright and airy and decorated in a simple, easy going fashion.
  8. The Hob Nob strives to use good quality ingredients, including local meat and produce. For example, they have a bison burger listed on the menu, of which the meat was grown in Montana, free range, grass-fed.
  9. It’s got character. Even the name Hob Nob is just great. If someone asks me what’s up, I love saying, “Not much, just heading to the Hob Nob.” Sounds cool!

Definitely the best ever.

Nicolas Restaurant in Portland, OR

(from spring break)

It was cold, dark, and rainy out when my friends and I waited outside of Nicolas Restaurant on SE Grand in Portland. There were others waiting outside the restaurant, including couples, families, and other friend groups like us. My friends and I huddled together in an attempt to keep warm. We contemplated going elsewhere for dinner. So far it was already nearly an hour of waiting. But we decided, no, we’d wait it out. Too many people had told us how great it was.

An adorable, exotic looking male host called us in finally. As soon as we sat at down, our server brought us fresh, ginormous pita bread, straight from the oven, set on a pizza like platter, raised from the table. It was absolutely divine. There is nothing better in the world than warm, fresh bread.

The name Nicolas Restaurant may be misleading–when we first heard of it, one of my friends though it was an Italian place, but it is actually Lebanese.

The facts are these: the hype about Nicolas is deserved; their food is indeed superb. The portions are enormous and I noticed everyone in the restaurant was taking home leftovers. I talked to a waiter, and was informed that wait to get a table is ALWAYS long, similar to how there’s always a line outside of Portland’s renown Voodoo Doughnuts. He also said the restaurant is ALWAYS crowded, which is true. It was the kind of place where the tables are all so close together. And it took awhile for our food to come.

One of my friends ordered the Mezza meat platter for one, which was nine dollars and had enough left over for two more meals.

I ordered Stephan’s Beef, which gave me a chuckle to say alloud. (It’s not intentionally perverted like Voodoo Doughnut’s slogan, “the magic is in the hole!” but I still had fun with it.) Absolutely delicious. The description on the menu:

Fresh cut sliced beef marinated overnight in red wine, garlic, extra virgin oil, basil, oregano, thyme and other secret spices passed down from our grandparents, grilled and layered on a bed of rice with tahziki sauce and small cuts of fresh tomato.

The tahziki complemented the food so well. Tahziki is a rich sour cream and yogurt mized together with lemon juice, garlic and cucumbers. The yogurt used at Nicolas is homemade, as well.

I love the mix of hot, flavor heavy foods and cold simple foods. Like a hot Thai curry soup and cold, crisp cucumber slices on side. Or a cheesy quesidilla with chopped iceberg lettuce and sliced roma tomatoes on the side. When I was eating Stephen’s Beef (ha!), I though the contrast between the spiced beef and rice and the cold tahziki was absolutely divine.

Overall, I’d say the food was pretty good. The price reasonable for the portions you get. But too crowded, slow service, and a long wait. I’d give Nicolas 4.5 out of 5 stars.