After months of putting off getting together with two great friends because of schedule conflicts, frigid temperatures, and all sorts of other hurdles we were clearing, we finally set a date. This was a celebratory dinner. It was a late birthday dinner for my former flatmate, a celebration for our mutual friend who accepted a position at a new company, and an early birthday dinner for me. What better way for a gathering than to try something new, Dos Urban Cantina at 2829 W. Armitage Avenue in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.
Chips and Dips
We arrived early enough to partake of happy hour. That meant a sampling of several small dishes, for sure. It also meant discounted cocktails. So there were libations for toasting and mellowing before. And first to the table were chips and dips. The guacamole was creamy and spicy thanks to the addition of some peppers. The roasted tomato salsa was another spicy delight. The pumpkin seed hummus was a nice change from traditional chickpea hummus.
The chipotle glazed chicken wings coated with sesame seeds were very reminiscent of Korean barbecue wings. These also had a kick to them and it was nice that the glaze was neither cloying nor overpowering. This was the appetizer that we wanted to order for a second round.
The tamal tots were a surprise. Who would have every thought to fry tamales up like tatertots? Served with a mild habanero crema, these were way better than expected. The combination of tamale flavor and crunch certainly move these up as a recommended appetizer.
Another winner from the appetizer section was the plate of enchiladas. These were small, fried, stuffed with a tasty cheese, and topped with a queso fresco. Compared to the other appetizers that had a bit of pepper to kick in on the back, this was mild.
I can now say that some of the best ceviche that I have had outside of Mexico, Central, and South America was at Dos Urban Cantina. I love spicy food and anything with heat is a winner. The ceviche was packed with lots of flavor, but the addition of a few red peppers took it up several notches. It countered the tartness of the lemon juice without a need for salt. To sum it up in one word: outstanding.
Moving into big plates, the seared scallops we devoured the seared scallops in silence. Served with shrimp toast ahogada, pickled spring onion, and turnip, we swiped through the gravy and finished this dish with a few random sighs and nods. When the server said that this was one of her favorite dishes, we understood why.
Short Ribs with Pinto Beans
A bit heartier was the plate of short ribs with pinto beans. This came with a side of flour tortillas that we stuffed the tender short ribs, beans, radish, and charred lettuce in. After a while of total satisfaction, we used the tortillas to sop the remaining gravy. Yes, by now, we felt quite at home.
Octopus Fried Rice
The addiction course was the octopus fried rice. This was what dreams are made of. The accent of garlic thankfully did not ruin the recipe, but rather hinted at its addition. Unlike octopus or squid at some restaurants, it was so tender that slicing through it with a dull eating utensil was possible without effort.
Because we had overindulged, we settled on one dessert: chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. Okay, that would be two desserts. The cake had the texture and the trace of Betty Crocker in it, quite possibly made moister with sour cream. Texture was a giveaway. Nevertheless, it was a nice wrap-up to an extremely satisfying dinner.
Generally, you get really good Mexican food at taquerias. When restaurants take on a mainstream look and feel, the cuisine seems to pale. At Dos Urban Cantina, while there is a bit of mixing it up in the recipes, the spirit of Mexican food still shines. It’s an action-packed restaurant. After you feast on several menu items, it become apparent why. This is another restaurant I should not have taken so long to visit.
One of the great things about Instagram is that you get some great ideas for restaurants to try out. Recently, I saw a photo from a Japanese restaurant in a section of Oak Park, Illinois, that is not in the downtown area, but is on a stretch that is known as the Art District. New to me, since it had a few years when I was last in the area, is MORA Asian Kitchen at 201 Harrison Street. Quite spacious with a nice bar area, it is a plus for those who would like to delight themselves in several Japanese dishes, robata grill items, and sushi.
MORA Mai Thai
I sat at the bar on my first visit. To unwind after being in congested traffic, I had a MORA Mai Thai. Prepared with rum and accented with a twist of some lychee liqueur, it was what I needed for a hint of summer given our frosty temperatures. For a starter, I ordered a flight of three robata grill items. There was barbecued salmon prepared medium well so that it wasn’t the consistency of sushi tuna yet flaky and moist without any indication of dryness. The skewered grilled shrimp with lemongrass sauce were simply not enough because you fall in love with it immediately during the first bite. The same can be said for the lemongrass beef, of which I ordered medium and which fell off the skewer.
Robata: Salmon, Shrimp, and Lemongrass Beef
The basil chicken was more of a Thai dish and I enjoyed it still the same. Instead of ground chicken, it was work fried to a tenderness and moistness that made each bite a delight. Unlike a lot of Thai restaurants that load their dishes up with vegetables, that heavy handed approach was not applied here. There was a mushroom medley, jalapenos, and lemongrass sauce, none of which was overpowering in flavor or in quantity. The dish may be Thai inspired. It’s till worth every forkful regardless.
While I was tempted to skip ordering any kind of sushi, some of the options I had not seen on other sushi menus and they were too tempting to pass. I settled on having a Samurai since there were lobster and unagi sauce in the ingredients. With the addition of salmon on top and a spicy kick from jalapeno, this would easily be my go-to or my “in addition to” sushi roll for future visits.
I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with any light options from the dessert menu. I had a flight of mochi: mango, green tea, and strawberry. Served over a pomegranate compote that wasn’t syrupy, it was pure satisfaction. It was a perfect finale that did not result in a feeling of having overeaten, even though I had enjoyed several dishes earlier.
Mochi: Mango, Green Tea, and Strawberry
MORA Asian Kitchen stands out a little more than other Japanese restaurants in the Near West Suburbs area in that there are robata dishes available for ordering. There is a small selection of about six items, but it is still something many Japanese restaurants don’t have. It was very nice to see it on the menu here. There does not seem to be a Pan-Asian feel to the menu, albeit some of the hot plates seem to be inspired by Korean, Thai, and Chinese. Like many restaurants that I try initially, MORA Asian Kitchen will probably be one restaurant that I will frequent without any hesitation.
February is tootling right along and it occurred to me that I had not written a blog review since summer of 2018. Last year came with a lot of change and I had been riding the wave of “peace of mind” since. And I have been cooking at home more. Nevertheless, a friend had recommended a French restaurant in Homewood, Illinois, from having passed it often on her way to catch the train into downtown Chicago. Not having much French restaurant representation from the suburbs on the blog, I agreed to meet her for dinner so we could sample their offerings.
In the business district at 2034 Ridge Road in Homewood, Illinois, is La Voûte Bistro and Bar. Co-joined with Banque Hotel, it’s a very nice escape from the congestion of Chicago for a bit of French authenticity. Spacious on the inside with a mix of tables, booths, and an airy bar setting, one can enjoy a nice variety of dishes with a bit of a provincial French influence.
Not wanting to order the exact same dishes that one finds on menus at just about every French restaurant outside of France, we did a bit of switching up so that we could try different dishes. We started with a plate of stuffed mushrooms. It may be that I have not had mushrooms for quite some time because these that were stuffed with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and mascarpone, and topped with a hollandaise sauce were addictive from the very first bite. It helps that you taste all of the ingredients individually, which meant no competition on the palate.
The escargot came with minced crudité. They were not as garlicky and buttery as I prefer, but they were just as tender. This was perhaps the first indication that the preparation of some of the dishes were indeed provincial. Served with the escargot were two strips of pastry that were outstanding as a standalone.
Where it was clear that there is lot of love to come out of the kitchen was with the lobster cigar. Clumps of lobster were stuffed inside of a delicately, flaky pastry and served atop a lobster sauce. There were no other fillers inside of the cigar, just fresh lobster and lots of flavor. This was perhaps the only dish we ordered that had a creamy base.
Baked Potato Soup
It seemed that most patrons had ordered the mushroom bisque. So, we were unfortunate that they had run out by the time we ordered. As a contingency, we ordered baked potato soup. Extremely tasty and peppery that way that I like soup during the winter, we forgot that loaded baked potato anything comes with bacon in it. It wasn’t overpowering and given the bacon was rather fine, it all went down nicely.
French Onion Soup
There was also a cup of French onion soup that was quite satisfying and filling. Topped with cheese, but not to the point of making the soup a chore to eat, this was certainly one serving that I actually liked because of it not being heavy handed with the cheese topping.
Chilean Sea Bass
For the first entrée, there was Chilean sea bass with a Mediterranean preparation. The bass had been fileted and seared to give the skin a crisp while retaining a lot of succulent meat. Along with the sea bass came a mélange of grilled vegetables: potatoes, zucchini, red bell peppers, green bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes. Any seafood lover would approve.
Another winner was the lamb shank served with ratatouille and couscous. The flavor of the lamb was reminiscent of beef tagine that I found rather addictive in Morocco. And to make the dish that more delicious, the lamb came off the bone with no effort. Clearly the lamb had been slow cooked to perfection, tenderness and flavor at each bite being all the indication needed.
Passion Fruit Sorbet
For desserts, we ordered light options. There was passion fruit sorbet with blueberries and a sliver of strawberry. There was also a lemon tart meringue accompanied with strawberry and whipped cream. Both were of the summer dessert variety in that they were citrusy. Neither excessively sugary nor tart to the point of biting at the back of the jaw, I recommend either, or, or both if you devour as much as we had prior to indulging the desserts. And for our finish, we had café au lait, something I definitely needed to wake up from the onset of food comatose.
La Voûte is indeed a vault of delicious, decadent, and lip-smacking dishes. For those in Chicago proper, North Suburbs, and West Suburbs, it’s worth the drive. For those in the South Suburbs, there is no reason why this should not be on your list. Per my friend, the restaurant is constantly filled. That’s a sign that they’re doing something correct. From what we had on our visit, they certainly got our dishes correct enough that we are already contemplating a return. For more offerings from La Voûte, I will make that long drive again.
This has been a slow year for blogging, for me. Two things have been at play — 1) I bought an Instant Pot and have become a pressure cooker fanatic and 2) the heat, severe thunderstorms, and humidity have been prohibitive for doing much of anything that requires going outside. So, with spending hours in the gym after work and cooking at home more with intent to gain weight — yes, I know that losing weight is most people’s goal — I have been rather laxed with my posting. Well, thanks to a recent recommendation, I got the kick I needed to get back on track.
Prairie Grass Cafe at 601 Skokie Boulevard in Northbrook, Illinois, gave me a chance to return to an area that was my receiving post when I moved from New York to the Metropolitan Chicago area. Very spacious in both main dining and bar areas, this restaurant is a nice escape from the rush of Chicago proper for some flavors that top many restaurants that constantly make the “Best Of” lists that circulate annually.
My restaurant advisor and I arrived for a Saturday evening seating and opted for a variety of dishes so that we could get a sampling of different menu offerings. Back to our usual practice of giving dietary specifications, we left the selections up to our server. Clearly loving a challenge, she was up for it and everything that came to the table was an indication that trusting her was an outstanding idea.
We started with a mozzarella salad that came with heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, micro salad, basil remoulade, and drizzled with a balsamic reduction. Having an addiction for tomatoes, this was already a winner. It was simply nice having a salad that you could taste the tomatoes, as opposed to what often tastes like “essence” of tomatoes.
The next two appetizers were not only bite size, but also very satisfying on the palate without being too much. The corn fritters were touted as one of the most recommended items on the menu. After the first bite, it was apparent why they are a favorite. Imagine a doughnut hole with corn kernels in them. Served with a honey butter, these fritters could be dessert. The shrimp egg rolls were where we have a hint of an Asian influence. The pop in the egg rolls came with the size and freshness of the shrimp. There was no excessive seasoning, which helped the taste of each bite of shrimp come through.
Cod with Slaw
A dish that played well to my British sensibilities was the plate of cod and coleslaw. The cod reminded me of days spent at fish and chips shops throughout Newcastle. Admittedly, I would have preferred chips with the fish rather than the coleslaw, the slaw added a nice accompanying touch to the dish. The addition of the grapes in the dish balanced it out such that it was neither bitter, nor sour, nor sweet. It was just right and even Goldilocks would agree.
Hangar Steak with Mushrooms and Potatoes
Having a bit of turf to the dining experience, we had hangar steak over mushrooms and potatoes. Going with medium, what came to the table was a plate of perfection, meat so succulent and tender that cutting it was as effortless as slicing through air. Well seasoned au jus and complete lip-smacking without much salt, many steakhouses that I have been to over the years could stand to take a course in preparing a steak without flare so that diners could actually enjoy the flavor, just like what we had at Prairie Grass Café.
Back to the sea, the salmon with house barbecue sauce over Mexi-corn with a corn purée was divine. The salmon was flaky and surprisingly had a texture of skate. Those who have had skate know how moist and silky the fish feels on the palate. Well, the same was the case with the salmon. This was a winner.
Raspberry Cream Pie
Having a little time between the main courses and dessert, we allowed a few minutes before indulging sweets. The first was a cream pie topped with raspberries and accented with a sprig of mint. The beauty of this dessert was that the filling was cream cheese and whipped cream, which made it light. Topped with fresh raspberries and a homemade compote that you could smell, thanks to it not being from a can or a jar, this pie could quickly become a favorite.
Devils Food Cake
The double chocolate cake was nothing short of truth serum. Extremely moist and yet not so sugary that it was overpowering, the rich texture certainly induced a bit of comatose. We, of course, balanced that out with coffee. While some may resort to calling this devils food cake, it was heavenly, nonetheless. And the star of the show was the sticky toffee date cake. Again, this was a cake that should be used as an example of what moist means. At most restaurants, date cakes have the course texture of cornbread. That was not the case with this date cake. It is one that would make a great autumn cake and it would pair well with mulled cider or spiced tea. We may even return during the fall months and see if that’s possible.
Sticky Toffee Date Cake
Prairie Grass Cafe is not what one could call a hidden gem. It is very surprising that it has not made any recommended lists because the restaurant excels in two very important areas: delicious food and top service. Farm-to-table and local source restaurants are becoming more popular, as people are now wanting their food to be fresh and restaurants are also starting to support local farmers, which ensures quality ingredients for menu items. Prairie Grass Cafe is more than worth a try. It should be top on your list.
Rarely do I ever pass through Skokie, Illinois. A few weeks ago, I was in the vicinity returning to a Jamaican restaurant that I love. On the way, I passed by a Mexican restaurant that, from the outside, looked like it was something akin to a Chipotle. I figured I would try it out anyway. Much to my surprise, it only had the look and feel of a run of the mill fast food restaurant. The flavors are what made it stand out as a restaurant I would frequent.
TBK Grill at 7565 Lincoln Avenue in Skokie, is a spot to check out for authentic Mexican food. With booths and tables spaced out nicely, it doesn’t suffer from congestion. The service was fantastic, and I concede that part of that may be because I switched into speaking Spanish. The grill is behind the cashier, so you get to see your food being prepared.
My appetite was ravenous, which is nothing new. I ordered three plates that I considered to be manageable in one seating. The first was chips with guacamole. The guacamole was chunky, exactly the way I like it. I didn’t think to ask if it was possible to get it spicy and with a little bit more cilantro in. It didn’t matter after I realized that the notion of getting it with a kick and more cilantro came after I had gotten down to the bottom of the cup.
The second plate that I ordered was of quesadillas with chicken, served with a small side of guacamole and sour cream. The guacamole was good enough as an accompaniment, but the quesadillas were flavorful enough without anything else for dipping or dousing. It has been over fifteen years since I had quesadillas that I found to be addictive without any extra sides or condiments. It helped that the chicken was succulent and seasoned well.
Quesadilla con Pollo
The taco platter was my final dish. Instead of ordering the tacos with lettuce and tomato like at Americanized taco restaurants, I opted for traditional preparation with cilantro and onions. These tacos reminded me of the ones that my Mexican neighbor prepares, which are the best that I have had ever. The yellow rice was neither sticky nor overcooked, and the refried beans were also tasty. Given all of the food that I had, I still finished every bit of it, something I never would have completed had there not been authenticity in the recipe.
Tacos Pollo con Arroz y Frijoles
TBK Grill is in a triangle between the tri-section of Howard Street, Lincoln Avenue, and Skokie Blvd. Depending on traffic and the direction from which you’re coming, it could be a task getting into the parking lot. However, once you are there, you’re guaranteed to find satisfaction on the menu. As mentioned earlier, it’s not a hole in the wall, but the food from the kitchen will put you in mind of small Mexican walk-ups. The best.
During spring and the very beginning of summer, Chicago has had some angry weather. The heat and humidity have been extreme. And it seems that thunderstorms pass over the metropolitan area every other day during the afternoon rush hour. When we have had some nice days, they have been good enough to take advantage of some al fresco dining. I managed to squeeze in a day of some patio dining at Praga/Bonton in Lombard, Illinois, at 229 W. St. Charles Road to see how they tempt the palate.
Only wanting a sampling on the first visit, I settled on two courses. The first was a lobster ravioli. While I have had more than my share of lobster ravioli at various Italian restaurants, it is always a plus when you get a dish that leaves you wanting more. The cheese inside of the ravioli had a la tur texture, very creamy and rich. The lobster chunks were not mere hints, which was all the indication I needed to know that there was neither imitation nor essence stuffed between the pasta. Topped with a corn and bell pepper confetti, this moved up to the top spot as best lobster ravioli that I have had in Metro Chicago.
The second dish was a risotto with diver scallops on top. My favorite Italian osteria in Logan Square serves the absolute best diver scallops risotto that I have had to date, but the dish at Praga/Bonton is a very close second. Filled with mushroom, asparagus, and wild truffle sauce, I recommend this dish. It pops with flavor without being busy on the tongue. Get a bowl for yourself, as sharing may result in too much of it going fast and regrets for not being selfish.
Risotto with Pan Seared Diver Scallops
For my second visit, I wanted to try a few other dishes that were more French. The offerings that I had the first time were very much couched in Italian and authentic in flavor, so I was curious to see if there was a proper amount of respect paid to the French menu items. They scored high marks in that space.
Veering away from escargot, since that is such a common item on menu items, I started with a bowl of forest mushroom soup, laced with sherry. Again, dining al fresco, it was rather hot outside, but the soup was not one that left me lethargic from being heavy combined with the outdoor heat. Packed with flavor from fresh mushrooms and a savory cream base, I polished it off and then used the complimentary bread to go around the inside and bottom of the bowl, sopping up as much of the rest of the soup as possible: Clean Bowl Society.
The second course was a crab cake atop an avocado papaya chutney and arugula salad with an avocado vinaigrette. The bliss factor for the crab cake was that there was very little breading used, more dusting than anything. The crab cake was another dish packed with flavor without having one wonder if the chef was trying too hard to season the dish. You could taste a bit of the sweetness in the crab meat since it was not masked by an unnecessary melange of herbs, seasoning, and other spices. The bed of vegetables reminded me of crudites, which is a small side dish of julienne vegetables (e.g., carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers) that many in France enjoy.
The third dish was a plate of beef medallions under frites. The chef erred on the side of preparing the beef tenderloins medium well and I was appreciative. The meat was neither runny nor was it charred to an unappetizing crisp. It was just right and whatever seasoning used to marinate the meat gave it enough smack without a need for any additional seasoning help. Add to that the Cognac flambe and the tenderloins having been sauteed in Bordelaise sauce with wild mushrooms, along with grilled asparagus spears, the marriage with the frites made it delectably French.
Beef Medallions with Frites
The finale was a duo of chocolate mousses, one white chocolate, the other dark chocolate. Served with a berry compote and looking like two scoops of ice cream, each scoop was heaven. The white chocolate was not sugary and the dark chocolate was not milk chocolate. This was a perfect ending to three prior courses that were already mouthwatering.
White and Dark Chocolate Mousse
Needless to say, the output from the kitchen was absolutely winning. The table service is also outstanding. My server during the first visit was quite conversational and good about making recommendations. On the second visit, the server remembered me, minus my 6-inch beard that I had shaved, where I sat, what I ordered, and my preference for cranberry juice. Service is everything and Praga/Bonton sets the bar high for creating a welcoming environment. The menu is a mix of Italian, French, and German-Austrian, but still retains authenticity in each without compromising recipes. If you are ever passing through the downtown Lombard area and wondering about dining options, add Praga/Bonton to your list.
Now that I have been on assignment in the West Suburbs, I had been actively looking for some restaurants in that vicinity with an international appeal that I could sample for blogging. The farther away you are from Chicago proper, the more limited the options are in that space. Imagine my surprise when I discovered La France Café & Crepes at 708 S. Main Street in Lombard, Illinois.
I went with my restaurant advisor on a Saturday and we arrived shortly after they had opened for the second part of the day. First thing we noticed was the accommodating service. It was a small touch, but the greeting of “Bon soir,” was enough to set a tone of comfort that we were both okay with. For me, being fluent in Quebecois and conversational in Creole meant not fumbling for words or feeling out of place whenever certain French words were used during our dining excursion. While perusing the menu, my advisor started with a glass of Pinot Noir and I had an iced mocha, after which I decided to have a Beaujolais once I had something to eat.
Boeuf et a L’Abricot
On to the good stuff. We ordered three savory crepes and two sweet crepes. The beouf et a l’abricot crepe reminded me of Moroccan tagine but stuffed inside of a crepe. Filled with tender beef, apricot slices, and spinach, and topped with toasted almond slivers, this was just what I needed to put me in mind of being back in Morocco. The beouf bourguignon was the equivalent of beef bourguignon as a stew reduced so that it could go into a crepe without making the crepe soggy. Filled with pearl onions and plump mushrooms, we loved it. The crepe de saumon a l’estragon was my favorite. This was stuffed with salmon that had a mild kick, red onions, tarragon, tomatoes, spinach, and crème fraiche. The seafood lover in me indeed approved.
Crepe de Saumon a L’Estragon
One of the sweet crepes was a framboise citronnee, which was filled with lemon custard, drizzled with a raspberry sauce (not from a jar), and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. Each bite was like summer on the palate. The other crepe was a abricot et brie, a true sweet and savory crepe thanks to the apricot purée and brie, while topped with candied apricots and dusted with confectioners sugar. Instead of going with whipped cream on the top, we had a fist size scoop of ice cream on the side. And we finished with Moroccan mint tea, yet another trigger to make me miss my vacation in Morocco.
Abricot et Brie
One thing to note is that nothing comes to the table within five minutes, except maybe the complimentary water, a coffee, or a glass of wine. The crepes are made to order, so there is no rush of any of the crepes to the table within five minutes. If you go to a creperie and you get your crepes in a flash, I highly recommend that you run. The crepes at La France Café and Crepes do not have a spongy texture, but rather that of a flat-pressed pancake. This is good because crepes in non-touristy France are prepared accordingly. Well, they reminded me of the ones I had in cafes during my days in Chalon-sur-Saone. For my restaurant advisor and me, there will be repeat visits. Pour de vrai.
For the past two months, I have been delaying my evening commute from the West Suburbs back to Chicago proper by spending a few hours at the gym. Finding something with international appeal to satisfy my hunger after heavy weights and cardio has not been as easy as I thought. I have, however, driven past a peri-peri restaurant named Porto’s Peri Peri tucked in a strip mall. And while looking up the restaurant on Google to get some information on menu and hours of operation, I found that there is also a location in Skokie, Illinois, at 4915 Oakton Street.
What looks like a small storefront restaurant is a nice area for small groups and solo diners. There is a fast casual aspect to the experience. You order at the counter and the food is brought to your table. For those who have gone to Nando’s Peri-Peri, it’s the same concept right down to the menu options.
Grilled Corn on the Cob
Since I was ravenous during the visit to Porto’s Peri Peri, I was very much aggressive with my ordering. I ordered some peri chips, which were small waffle potato chips that had been dusted with peri salt. Having not had potato chips for several years, these were a bit more appetizing than they probably would have been had I been eating potato chips all along.
Red Skin Potato Salad
The peri chicken is the best. I had two legs and two thighs in the hot sauce. Not overpowering, given I love everything peppery, the chicken was tender and extremely juicy. Most chicken as juicy as what’s served at Porto’ Peri-Peri would not be done thoroughly, but that was not the case here. With a side of red skin potato salad, grilled corn on the cob, perimayo corn, and yellow rice, the meal was complete.
Quarter Chicken and Rice
The potato salad is of the mayonnaise variety and since I prefer my potato salad with a mustard base, I must admit that Porto’s Peri-Peri has made me a fan of the potato salad. The grilled corn had a spicy rub and reminded me of sweet corn that I’ve had from farmers’ markets. The perimayo corn reminded me of Mexican elotes in terms of visual and in flavor. The yellow rice put me in mind of Indian basmati rice.
Having been to Portugal quite a bit, I have not been to any restaurants that have the flare of Nando’s Peri-Peri or Porto’s Peri Peri. Then again, I was visiting friends and they were gracious hosts with loving from their own kitchens. There are several peri-peri restaurants that are making their presences known in Metropolitan Chicago and if they are representative of kitchen delights from Portugal, I will get in enough samplings here so that I will know what to order next time I return to Portugal. Porto’s Peri-Peri in Skokie is a stop that I recommend. And if you happen to be in the West Suburbs, stop in at the Villa Park, Illinois, location at 100 E. Roosevelt Road. Saboroso (Portuguese for delicious).
While doing some freelance photography in the West Suburbs of Chicago, my restaurant adviser had sent a text message to me requesting that I meet her at a Vietnamese restaurant in Berwyn before continuing on home. With non-stop traffic congestion coupled with never-ending construction, a nice stop after being in third gear for a little over an hour was a welcomed recommendation.
Las Vegas Vietnamese Restaurant at 6723 Cermak Road has been in business since August, 2017, serving authentic Vietnamese flavors. It’s a spacious restaurant with a nice amount of light and without seating that introduces a feeling of being crowded. Add to that service that makes it feel like you are going to someone’s home instead of to an establishment, you have the making of a fantastic restaurant.
Without going overboard with all of the appetizing items on the menu, we started with durian smoothies while waiting for our dishes to come to the table. For those who have had durian, you are already aware of how much of a contradiction that fruit is. For those who have never had it, just get a durian smoothie in the meantime. The actual fruit smells like it would attract all sorts of creatures from the land and sky, but has a sweet taste that makes you wonder how something could smell so horrible yet taste so heavenly. Nevertheless, the smoothies were refreshing and sweet without being saccharine.
Còm Bò Tòm Nuòng
Easing into the meal, to whet the palates, we had spring rolls that came with a side of peanut sauce that had crushed peanuts. Even as a common staple, there was a freshness in each bite. They certainly did not have the “day old” texture that has become rather commonplace at a lot of Pan Asian restaurants that sell spring rolls.
The main dishes were where Las Vegas Vietnamese shines. There was a plate of grilled beef, shrimp, and rice, all served with a thin savory sauce that added a note of sweet and savory. This com bò tòm nuòng was seasoned well, and tender to each bite, this version of a surf and turf packed so much flavor that one may want larger portions of the dish. For our second landing, we indulged a large bowl of grilled beef called còm bò nuòng. Served with bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, and a small cup of the thin sweet and savory sauce, this will probably become a go-to dish on future visits. Adding the complimentary mint leaves and jalapeños to the dish made it pop that much more.
Còm Bò Nuòng
Rounding out the dishes, we had phò gà. While ramen may be a rather popular fad nationwide, phò is quite divine when prepared culturally versus appropriated. Brimming with a very faint aroma of autumn — cinnamon or cloves — the noodles were neither al dente nor mushy. The chicken was not simply dumped into the broth, which goes to why individual bites of the chicken burst with a notion of having been seasoned well. And being too filled from having enjoyed so much already, we opted for iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk. Brand name coffee shops would lose business if citizens at large were to get properly introduced to Vietnamese iced coffee.
Most who are in Chicago will recall that Broadway and Argyle in Uptown is where there is a cluster of authentic Vietnamese restaurants. It is nice finding a Vietnamese restaurant in the suburbs, as it provides an alternative to fast food eateries and family style restaurants that have cookie cutter menu options. Las Vegas Vietnamese was a gamble for this first visit, not really knowing what to expect. It was great discovering something with cultural appeal, top table service, and reasonable prices. If you want to take a chance on appetizing Vietnamese food while in or passing through the Near West Suburbs, make Las Vegas Vietnamese your stop.
We arrived at the very end of March and I realized that I had not posted since the very beginning of the month. This was a rather aggressive month, starting with me jumping out of information technology and plunging into photography seriously, albeit working on a website for a display of my portfolio still has me hooked into IT on a periphery. I added some real estate to my cache, became more engaged in community activism, and started an investment club along with some outstanding friends. My reviews thinned out, but my appetite didn’t.
For months, I had walked by a restaurant in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood that caught my eye after taking a peek at the menu. Antico at 1946 N. Leavitt Street is an Italian restaurant with the exposed brick interior that is rather popular throughout the Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square landscape. A nice setting without claustrophobia, an appetizing menu, and an impressive wine list, I was glad to have finally indulged this winner. And noting the influx of patrons starting immediately at 7:00 PM, it was clear that this was a delight for many.
Mushrooms and Polenta
After skimming the menu, I launched into my “challenge” method of ordering since the restaurant was not busy when I sat. I ordered an appetizer, a pasta, and an entrée, or rather I let the server handle the ordering. And I also trusted the server with the wine pairing. Starting with the mushrooms over polenta, this was certainly a choice I would entertain on future visits. Void of syrup, the mushrooms were not from a can, definitely given from the freshness in each bite. Drizzled with olive oil, the polenta was loose yet not to a runny consistency. With a glass of Nebbiolo that had a hint of berry on the finish, the first course received a compliment to the chef and to the server for the wine pairing.
Given my intent was to indulge myself in a hearty fashion, there was a spacing in time before the pasta course arrived. This was a manageable-sized bowl of lasagna. Prepared with a Bolognese sauce, bechamel sauce, and parmesan cheese instead of mozzarella to give a rich and creamy texture on the palate, this has quickly become my favorite lasagna I’ve had at any Italian restaurant. First, it wasn’t stacked such that it was heavy. Second, there is a very faint touch of nutmeg in the Bolognese sauce that shows up without making an announcement. It felt — or tasted — like a clue. Paired with a glass of Rossi di Montalcino, pure sangiovese that is like a Chianti on the palate, this was another amazing pairing as it still allowed the lasagna to steal the show.
The pork Milanese topped with fresh, crispy arugula along with cherry tomatoes, parmigiano vegano cheese, and fresh lemon, came on a regular sized plate with the pork chop almost hanging off the sides. Simply amazing. The pork milanese was a thin slice but fleshy because the breading was light. The salad, drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette, was a perfect accompaniment considering a rice, potatoes, or pasta would have been a bit much with the dish. This was paired with a Langhe Rosso, which was a combination of Nebbiolo dolcetto and barbera. It was mildly drier than a lot of the red wines that I drink, but the wink of cherries and nuts tricked me into not recognizing that. Again, for this to have been a course that I entrusted my server to order, this was a success.
For dessert, I shied away from anything that I thought would be “usual” on the menu. Having been good about not having a dessert with every meal, I opted for whatever gelato was on the menu. What arrived at the table was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with nutmeg topped with raspberries and powdered sugar. A dream this was and I believe the chef has a love for nutmeg, evident in how it was “hinted” in the lasagna and how it was included in the ice cream.
I have been rather unfair with my love of Italian restaurants in Chicago. While I like many of them, there is only one that I loved — Osteria Langhe. Antico now becomes the second Italian restaurant in Metropolitan Chicago that I love. Exceptional food is always a key to having someone return based on a hankering. But service is everything. What I discovered at Osteria Langhe was a staff that clearly enjoyed offering recommendations and listening to the customers. That was the same feeling I experienced at Antico. Good customer service is a dying art and when it rears itself in a restaurant setting, married with superb dishes, you achieve perfection and a spot on any one of my “I love this place for whatever reason” lists.