A Review for Lao Hunan

http://chicagoweekly.net/2011/11/16/the-peoples-spice/

A review I wrote for the Chicago Weekly.  An upgrade, if not an update.

I’m currently writing a review of my experience at EL ideas tonight which will likely be published in the forthcoming issue of the Weekly.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone (all four of my friends/family members who follow my eating blog.)

 

-L

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Goat Week @ UChiFood

A busy weekend for UChiFood: Girl and the Goat on Friday and Birrieria Zaragoza on Saturday.

I left from Hyde Park around 7:30 Friday night with two friends and arrived at Girl and the Goat (hereafter referred to as GatG) around 8:30, without a reservation.  We were quoted a 45 minute wait and seated within about 30 minutes.  With one dining restriction to consider (no pork) we quickly set to work making our menu selections.  After some discussion, we decided to start with the Bloody Mary Bread and order two selections from the Veg, two from the Fish, and one from the Goat.  We ordered the chickpea fritters, hen of the woods ragout, hiramasa crudo, mussels with lamb chorizo croutons, and the goat belly confit.

The bread was very good, soft, dense, and fresh from the oven.  I don’t miss free bread service at most restaurants and this was a much better way to start the meal than serving a recycled mixed bread basket.  There are three choices to select from – the bread we chose came with a Worcestershire butter and celery pickle relish.

Next came the chickpea fritters.  The flavors were great, but the textural and temperature contrast between the different components of the dish really allowed for it to stand out.  The cool mozzarella balanced out the crisply fried fritters and the dish was rounded out by the caponata (mix of fresh chickpeas, eggplant, and other vegetables.)  I would order this dish again.

We came very close to not ordering the hiramasa crudo after seeing the plate delivered to the couple next to us.  It looked to be a few thin slices of yellowtail topped with a sauce and meager accompaniments ($16).  After taking a bite, the couple insisted that the dish was a “must order,” so we decided to try it on their recommendation.  This dish stood out that night as being one of the only courses which tended toward restraint or minimalism.  The yellowtail was excellent, it was topped with small green chili slices, a sort of cream sauce, and confit pork belly.  I enjoyed it, but there were about eight bites to share between the three of us.

After the crudo came the hen of the woods ragout and the mussels.  The ragout was very creamy (almost like a bisque) with a nutty spice which lent the whole dish a sort of sweet kick.  It was an odd combination of flavors which brought out the sweetness in the mushrooms and the sweet potato agnolotti.  My table probably enjoyed this course the least and I don’t think I would order it again.  It seemed as though many of the dishes at GatG were focused on delivering on flavor rather than balance and I think that was most apparent in this course.

The mussels were very good.  They were exceptionally large PEI mussels (some of the largest I have seen anywhere) served with lamb sausage croutons in a wonderful broth.  This was probably my favorite course of the evening, along with being the best value ($12.)

We rounded out the meal with some confit goat belly with crab ‘n’ lobster (?!)  The goat belly was excellent, well cooked with some crispy parts (think carnitas.)  The accompanying crab and lobster was strange, but not untasty.  The whole dish tasted good, but I was still confused about the flavor pairings afterward.

Declining dessert, we settled the bill and ended up paying around $32 per person, less than I was expecting to pay.  I was anxious that GatG would not be able to meet up to the hype, but I was not disappointed.  All in all, a very reasonable night out with ambitious flavor pairings and interesting dishes.

I give GatG  four stars:

On Saturday, I ventured out to Archer Heights to try Birrieria Zaragoza.  Birria is a mexican stew from Jalisco so a Birrieria is an establishment which sells birria.  Birrieria Zaragoza has a narrowly edited menu, which includes birria in two portion sizes, quesadillas, salsa mocajate, birria tacos, and tomato consomme.  The restaurant closes at 7:00, and in typical college fashion we arrived 20 minutes late (at 6:40.)  Despite our last minute arrival, we were treated incredibly graciously.  When I tried to order a beer, I was informed that they did not serve alcohol but were a BYOB establishment and we could run out and buy beer a few blocks down Archer.  We placed our orders for salsa and a quesadilla and plate of birria each an left to find beer.  After walking several blocks, we arrived at the store they had directed us to only to find that it was closed for renovation.  We ended up walking around for several blocks in an attempt to find beer and ended up at 7-9-11 25 minutes after we’d left the restaurant and picked up a 12 pack of Pacifico.

When we finally, sheepishly walked back into the restaurant it was already 10 minutes past 7:00.  Our friend who had stayed had been talking with the owner, Johnathan, for half an hour.  The kitchen had held off on bringing out our food until we came back.  Rather than being annoyed, our waitress was concerned that we’d gotten lost.  We were served within a few minutes of getting back and the food was absolutely outstanding.  The quesadilla was perfect, especially with the home made fire roasted tomato salsa, onions, limes, chilis, and cilantro.  The birria was like a plate of the best, most succulent pot roast I’ve ever had.  The tortillas were hot and fresh – tender and pliable so as not to break under the heaping portions of goat and consomme piled on.  After we’d finished our meal, we stayed to talk with Norma, Johnathan’s wife.  The restaurant is family owned (almost all of the staff are family members) and the emphasis on authenticity and service is commendable.  Birrieria Zaragoza is another restaurant which has received lots of hype and recognition, but this dining experience completely blew my expectations out of the water.  The food is outstanding, but beyond being talented restauranteurs, the members of the Zaragoza family are some of the warmest, funniest people I have met in Chicago.

I will definitely be back soon – taking care to arrive earlier and with beer on hand.
I would be incorrect in giving Birrieria Zaragoza anything less than five stars:

Coming up this week: I attempt to knock another two restaurants off my shortlist, Nightwood and Piece.  And maybe going blonde in between.


Quick Reviews on All the Restaurants in Hyde Park I’ve ever Gone to (Part 1)

Bonjour Bakery and Cafe

Good fresh bread, even better fresh and slathered with some fresh butter and sea salt or goat cheese.  Pastries are good but expensive.
The French bread here has a finer crumb, which makes it better for cooking with in many recipes (brioche for bread pudding, sliced baguette for crostini, etc).

Cafe Corea

One of the few safe places to sit down and have a good meal in Hyde Park.  (An exaggeration, but not by much)  Staff is friendly and accommodating, I believe the restaurant is family owned.  The Jap Chae is a good bet, as are the hot soups.  Marginally more expensive than most Asian restaurants in Hyde Park, but markedly better.  Comforting food well prepared.

Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen

Overall, disappointing.  Hyde Park’s attempt at a mid-range “Mediterranean” attempts to make up for in ambiance what it lacks in originality and quality of ingredients.  The dishes I’ve sampled have been hit-or-miss, but there is better, cheaper food to be found at the Nile.

Chant

I went here for dinner last spring quarter, I will never come back.  The “Asian fusion” concept is poorly executed in every sense.  The decor and layout are tacky and impractical, and the food is uninspired and in some cases highly contrived.  The reason I have a hard time liking Asian fusion restaurants is that so many times the product of the fusion ends up being a compromise of the originals rather than an innovative and nuanced approach to an old classic.  Noodles Etc’s attempt at a trendy, mid-range fusion restaurant is no better than most cheaper restaurants in Hyde Park.

Edwardo’s Natural Pizza

Edwardo’s offers inconsistent food and consistent poor service.  Giordano’s has better pizza, service, and atmosphere, though it’s farther from the quad.  Either way, the only time I eat deep dish is when I’m going to dinner with friends from out of town, in which case I have better things to do than watch servers argue with each other and ignore patrons for 90 minutes.

Giordano’s

See above.

Harold’s

A must.  Sometimes the quality of the meat is poor, but apparently they have a 7 day return policy (?!) so I guess if you want to, you can ask for a new one.  Or just shell out another $3.51 and wait 10 minutes for a second half dark meal if you’re too embarrassed to ask for a refund.  Perfect when paired with a crisp champagne.

A note: everyone has their own preferences when it comes to ordering Harold’s.  I usually go with the half dark fried hard mild sauce salt and pepper.


UChi Update!

http://newsmachine.uchicago.edu/article/2011/05/02/uchicago-lands-clarke-s-24-hour-restaurant-53rd-street

FTA:

The University of Chicago is bringing Clarke’s restaurant, a 24-hour Chicago-area diner, to 53rd Street in Hyde Park…

…Scheduled to open later this year, Clarke’s will offer a wide variety of menu choices, including specialty salads, stir-fry dishes, sandwiches and a host of additional breakfast, lunch and dinner items. The restaurant addresses a longstanding interest among students and other community members for more late-night options.

All I have to say about this is… YES!

This definitely beats trying to stay up until 5:30AM to eat at Valois.  Plus, sweet potato fries are delicious at all times of day, but especially between the hours of 1 and 4 AM.

More updates to come after I escape my 6th week black hole of midterms (workload reached critical mass yesterday).  Check Wednesday afternoon for a new post.


Surviving on the UChi Dining Plan

This may sound silly, but I almost never have a desire to eat dining hall food.  I know everyone complains about it, but I actually would sometimes rather not eat than eat in the dining hall.  Case in point: last week I ate in the dining hall three times.

It’s not because I’m prissy.  (I’m not.)  Last week I went to Harold’s twice.  There are a lot of days I would rather make the trip to Harold’s and pay $3 for a meal than go to the dining hall for a free dinner.

I don’t eat in the dining hall often because I rarely find satisfaction in dining hall food.  Some of you have heard me say this before, but dining hall food leaves me feeling physically full and spiritually empty.  My extreme indifference toward dining hall food comes from what I acknowledge to be an unorthodox attitude toward food: I eat because I want to find enjoyment and fulfillment, not because I’m hungry.  I can comfortably go more than a day without eating, and I can also eat a good amount of food in one sitting.

I don’t expect anyone to adopt this viewpoint (it’s admittedly not very healthy), but most people can appreciate a good meal.  Food matters to all of us, it’s just an unusually high priority for me.  That being said, I did not start a blog so I could complain about food over a thousand words a day.  I’m actually a very proactive person.

So, some constructive criticism and guidelines for coping with dining hall offerings (this applies mostly to South Campus Dining):

1.  Get eggs for breakfast.  Real eggs, not those powdered military rations they prepare by the tubful.  And don’t be afraid to ask for less oil and other modifications.  Instead of an omelette, I usually ask for a scramble.  This improves the overall texture of the egg, in my opinion.  As always, this is a matter of personal preference.

2.  Biscuits or toast with honey butter and a dash of cinnamon or salt.  Admittedly, not very nutritious.  But I’m usually provided with a sense of home-style comfort.

3.  Pizza with oregano.  And other seasonings, on the right of the pizza bar.  This is available most of the time in the dining hall.

4.  Grilled cheese.  Assemble a grilled cheese at the sandwich bar with bread and cheese of your liking.  Take it to the grill station and patiently wait 10-20 minutes to get someone’s attention.  Ask them nicely to grill your sandwich for you.  Make sure it is cut diagonally.  This actually makes the sandwich taste better, since there are more bites with a preferable crust/non-crust ratio.  (opinion)

5.  Always toast your pita.  One run through the toaster can resuscitate cold, stale pita for a few minutes, giving you enough time to eat it before it turns back to stone.  Two runs can further improve texture and temperature or potentially kill it again.  Choose wisely.

6.  Mix and match different stations.  Make a chicken sandwich out of the breaded chicken breast at the euro station (usually a decent option in its own right).  Add some cheese from the salad bar to your baked potato.  Put some guac in your salad.

There’s also a really simple sauce I make at home you can try: peanut butter + soy sauce + sugar, microwaved.  Some variations include sriracha (rooster hot sauce) and vinegar.  Mix the three ingredients in an approximately 2:2:1 ratio and pour over tofu, noodles, or blanched vegetables.

There are more variants others have come up with.  Some girls microwave spinach and water to boil it.  Spencer tops off soda water with apple juice (I really like this combination.  It’s been my dining hall beverage of choice for some time now.)  What most of these variants have in common is an emphasis on simple, unfussy meals.  I generally find the more work the dining hall puts into developing something new, the more likely it is to be inedible.

Do you know of any good dining hall mods?  Perhaps we can work together to make a more palatable dining experience.