Soup I’ll never pho get


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!


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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.)

Finally off the ILC!

The very first thing I did when I arrived home from the ILC (Island of Limited Cuisine) was sit at my mother’s kitchen counter and devour all of her home Thai cooking.

Thai food that Thai people eat at home is different from Thai food that is served in Thai restaurants in America. It’s not that what’s served in the restaurants isn’t authentic–there is such thing as pad thai and tom yum soup in Thailand and those are great dishes. It’s just that the standard Thai restaurant in the U.S. is typically lacking some fundamental Thai plates.

For example, some food my mom whipped up (please excuse the spelling–not sure how they translate some of these in English so I just wrote them phonetically):

Soam Thaam
A spicy, shredded papaya salad. Usually served with a side of pork rinds. (You read correctly. Pork rinds. I thought that was just my mom being weird but I recently found out that it’s actually a part of her culture!)

Nam Pick
A heavily spicy dipping sauce.

Pla Doak
A certain kind of catfish caught in Bangkok. It’s usually fried and served with Nam Pick and sticky rice. This catfish has some pretty distinctive looking whiskers. The meat is soft and white.

Pickled stuff
There is always a bunch of pickled stuff in Thai and Chinese cuisine, like pickled fish, or cucumbers, or anything really, but how often do you ever see that on a menu? More Americanized dished like crab rangoon and orange chicken usually dominate.

Thai fruit
Thai people are so skinny, and it’s probably because after dinner they eat fruit instead of sweets and they also consider bread a rarely consumed “cun-nom” (dessert). While they have bananas and tangerines just like we do, usually they eat a bunch of tropical fruit most of us have never even heard of, like mangosteen, durian, rambutan, lychee, etc. These fruit are pretty much never offered in Thai restaurants around the U.S., probably for the best. Importing those fruits would probably make our eco-footprint even heavier and bring in a bunch of fruit bugs. (Although I have seen frozen durian at Asian supermarkets.)

Anyway, I am not complaining by any means. I love my creamy crab rangoon and a good dose of orange chicken! I’m just noting the difference between the Thai food my mother cooks at home and the Thai food served in restaurants in Chicago. It’s fascinating!

Chicago’s food cart dilemma

During the quiet, wee hours of the morning, a late night crowd often gathers and smokes just outside of The Owl bar in Logan Square. Amidst the cigarette fumes, beer breath, and chilly Chicago air, beholds an entity seldom seen in this city: a food cart.
The cart is white with a logo depicting a pig’s face with two X’s over the eyes and a fork and knife crisscrossed behind it. The words “Carnal Swine” are underneath the image. Hot steam rises from the cart and the scent of barbeque sauce permeates the air.
Behind the cart stands a bald, tattooed man who sells pulled pork sandwiches for five dollars. His name is Scotty, and he never grants interviews but agreed to talk to me after I explained that this blog has approximately three hits a month.
Scotty’s pulled pork has a strange, yet lovely mixture of spices, and is topped with sweet coleslaw made from a recipe his grandma gave him.
“There are twenty-three spices in Dr. Pepper and it mixes well in my food,” said Scotty.
Food carts aren’t exactly illegal in Chicago, but there are limitations. Food carts aren’t allowed out past 10 p.m. and never within 200 feet of a restaurant.
Scotty explained that there are several restaurants in the city who lobby against food carts because they don’t want the business competition.
In contrast with those lobbyists, there are some restaurants Chicago restaurants that take the side of the food carts because they have carts or trucks themselves. Among them are Lucky Star in Wicker Park and Bucktown’s popular Lillie Q’s, which has trucks out of use.
A few Chicago groups advocate for food carts to have more operating privileges. Most prominently, Chicago Food Carts is an organization with a mission to “start the mobile food revolution in Chicago that other great cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have had for decades.”
Next week, on July 25, the Chicago City Council will vote on a food truck ordinance introduced by Major Rahm Emanuel which proposed longer operational hours.
Scotty hopes this ordinance will pass.
“When food carts aren’t allowed so much, there’s just some thing missing in Chicago streets,” said Scotty.