Friday, May 28, 2010

Chicago: Ruxbin

Ruxbin is a new restaurant with American, Korean, and Mexican flair opening in Noble Square. It isn't quite ready for the public yet, but Ruxbin is currently working through some kinks by having a series of soft openings for friends and family. Luckily for me, my roommate is good friends with the owners Edward (the chef), Vicky (his sister), and Jenny (their friend). Eddy has quite an impressive background, having worked under Thomas Keller at Per Se in New York prior to moving back to Chicago:

I have been periodically checking in on Ruxbin's progress through their blog, so it was very exciting to be able to see the near-finished product of all their hard work and love. Everything in the decor is made from salvaged materials, from the booths (old church pews), to the walls (old apple juice shipping crates and tiles from the former mayor's mansion), to the backs of the seats (old seat belts!). Even the ceiling is decoupage with recipe books from the chef's personal library. The overall effect is a small, cozy space with plenty of visual stimulation:

Because it's the soft opening, we were given a special treat: a $20 fixed prixe menu. We could choose between a salad or an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. Between the 5 of us, we were able to sample quite a few things off the menu.

For my appetizer, I chose the K-town empanadas:

I could smell the awesomeness of the kimchi before I even took a bite. The masa shell was warm and crunchy, the cheese nice and gooey. I think all empanadas should be filled with kimchi and oaxaca cheese and topped with chimichurri creme fraiche.

My friend got the crispy eggplant:

Though fried, the eggplants were light without a trace of oil. The cucumber strips were cool, crisp, and refreshing along with the roasted beets and honey-cardamon yogurt. Very impressive.

The avocado toast, however, had to be my favorite appetizer of the night:

The heirloom baby tomatoes, pickled onions, anchovies, grilled asparagus, and feta all came together for a party of flavors in my mouth. I wish I'd gotten more than a bite.

Then came the entrees. My roommate wisely picked the garlic white wine mussels:

I've never had mussels so well prepared before. The meat was almost melt in your mouth soft and nothing like the tough, chewy mussels that I'm used to eating. The fries were so delicious from being soaked in the mussel juice and white wine sauce.

Unsurprisingly, I went with the hanger steak:

The steak was perfectly rare, resting on a bed of the most amazing, creamy cauliflower puree you'll ever have. The kale was a savory balance to the sweetness of the sauce. For someone who doesn't like vegetables, I ate up all the greens with relish.

My friend chose the pan seared trout:

The trout wasn't the most memorable dish of the night. The bulgur wheat tabbouleh was a little lacking in flavor and the trout didn't really stand out.

Now comes the best part...dessert. Just about everyone around the table decided on the panna cotta:

Lychee and coconut, how could I resist? The toasted coconut was just brilliant. You can tell that they used fresh coconut instead of the shredded stuff you can buy off the shelf. The lychee flavor was subtle at first, but it slowly emerged with every bite I took. The hint of lime also went a long way. The panna cotta was so good that I can easily eat a pot of it in one sitting.

Before we left, we were given a bonus dish, compliments of the chef. I couldn't quite catch what it was, but it was basically something like tiny yummy apple turnovers:

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Ruxbin and I can tell that it will be a wild success once it actually opens. All the right ingredients are there: fun decor, good location, friendly staff, and of course, fantastic food.

The most interesting part of the restaurant, in my opinion, has to be the restroom:

You'll have to visit yourself to see what's inside!

851 N Ashland Ave
Chicago, IL 60622

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Chicago: The Big Easy

For an impromptu lunch after class, a couple friends and I stopped by The Big Easy:

Publish Post

The owner (at least I think he was the owner) was a really engaging man who, once he found out that we were law students, regaled us with stories about the one time Geoffrey Stone set him up on a blind date with Elena Kagan back in the day. Who knows if it's true, but it does make for an entertaining story.

The first thing he asked us when we were seated was whether we ate fresh bagels. I guess our confusion showed on our faces (how the heck do you answer a question like that? Um...yea?) because he immediately explained how the bakery had made extra bagels that morning and that we were free to take some home. Yea, baby! I grabbed an onion one. I haven't tried it yet, but it sure smelled good:

It didn't take long for a basket of cornbread to be set in front of us. These little muffin cornbread were just too cute. Some of them looked like they had trunks:

I've been wanting to try fried green tomatoes for a long time, or at least since I saw them on the Food Network:

To be honest, I wasn't all that impressed. But that doesn't mean I've given up on fried green tomatoes. I'm sure there are really good ones out there just waiting for me to discover them. If you know of any restaurants that serve good ones, let me know!

My friend kindly "requested" that I take a photo of her entree for the blog. She had the Bourbon Street stuffed jambalaya:

There's shrimp, andouille, and roasted chicken stuffed in that chicken breast. I can't tell you how good the dish was or whether or not the chicken breast was dry, but my friend seemed to like it a lot. If I remember correctly, the last time we came here she'd ordered the same thing.

Actually, I'd ordered the same thing as my last visit too. Being cheap, I've cultivated a taste for sandwiches over the years. Combined with my love for fried fish, how could I not order the catfish po'boy?:

The best po'boy I've ever had was in Berkeley and I still miss it. This po'boy is good, but it just doesn't satisfy that po'boy craving I get from time to time.

Before we left, the owner had one more surprise for us. We each got a sample of the chocolate cappuccino mousse pie:

We were advised to eat the entire thing in one bite and that was probably the best advice I've gotten all month. If I hadn't been so full...and so cheap...I would've asked for a full slice.

The Big Easy
1660 E 55th St
Chicago, IL 60637
(773) 330-0440

Chicago: Shawn Michelle's Homemade Ice Cream

The ice cream truck at Kimbark Plaza is back! After stopping by Harold's for lunch, we couldn't help but be drawn to the big, blue truck. The call of ice cream was too sweet to ignore on a hot day like yesterday:

We got taste samples of both the vanilla (which was great) and the honey cinnamon graham cracker. It only took one bite of the honey cinnamon for all of us to unanimously agree on what to get:

It was nice and creamy, with just the right amount of spiciness from the cinnamon. Check out the large pieces of graham cracker in there.

If only it didn't cost close to $4 for such a little styrofoam bowl. As it is, the big, blue ice cream truck will have to remain a special treat for really hot days after Harold's.

Shawn Michelle's Homemade Ice Cream
Kimbark Plaza
Kimbark & 53rd St

Their storefront is further down south:
11925 S Western Ave
Blue Island, IL 60406
(708) 239-1380

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Chicago: Mario's Italian Lemonade

Now that it's getting warmer, Mario's Italian Lemonade is finally open again for business and people are not wasting any time. I knew that Mario's is popular, but I didn't realize how much so until I saw the 2 monstrous lines branching out from the small storefront:

The good news is that the lines go really fast. Maybe a little too fast for those who can't decide which flavor to choose. I'd seen a lot of Yelp reviews on the watermelon, so that's what I went for:

I got the medium size, which is $2.25. The frozen drink was sour and icy and actually had a watermelon flavor. In fact, there were large chunks of watermelon fruit in the drink.

My friend got a small tutti frutti:

The small is only $1 and it's still quite a lot of frozen lemonade. She also had bits of fruit in hers as well.

I'm definitely coming back to try the multitude of other flavors. The coconut is calling my name. Apparently the peach is really good, but it's only available in August. Ah, summer in Chicago. I love how Mario's uses fresh fruit. Definitely worth braving the lines for.

Mario's Italian Lemonade
1068 W Taylor St
Chicago, IL 60686

Chicago: Jimmy John's

I meant to take my friend to get some Italian beef sandwiches at Al's Beef, but I didn't realize that it's not open on Sundays until we got there. We wandered around the street for a bit before settling on Jimmy John's:

Jimmy John's is a chain that can be found all around Chicago. The sandwiches are good...but not incredibly exciting. I ordered the Big John, which is roast beef with tomatoes and lettuce:

I didn't realize the cheese was an additional $0.99 until after I saw the receipt. Anyway, the sandwich was okay. I rather like the bread at Jimmy John's. I imagine that's what bread would taste like if it were pan fried...minus the oil. As for the ingredients in the sandwich, let's just say that it was the least messiest sandwich I've had in a while.

Decent sandwiches for a decent price. Don't expect too much.

Jimmy John's
1133 W Taylor St
Chicago, IL 60612
(312) 666-3666

Chicago: Roscoe's Sidewalk Cafe

Last night, my friends really wanted to walk around Boystown to see what it's like, so I busted out my maps skills and got us lost by getting onto the wrong L line. Oops. Thank goodness for buses. Well, we managed to make it to Boystown in one piece, but then the greater problem of where to eat arose. The issue was that we weren't really hungry and only one out of the three of us wanted to drink. Despite researching a lot of gay bars online, we ended up at the sidewalk cafe of one:

Roscoe's Sidewalk Cafe is only open during the nicer weather months of the year, which is not surprising given how cold Chicago gets in the winter.

Because I wasn't really hungry, I picked an appetizer that immediately jumped off the menu at me, smothered french fries:

I'd originally ordered the smothered tater tots (tater tots!!), but the kitchen somehow got it mixed up. Our server was really apologetic, but it really wasn't a big deal. Tater tots are fun, but they're basically fries in a different shape. Potatoes with gooey cheese, bacon bits, and green could that possibly not be delicious?

My friend got the grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich:

I don't think I'll ever have an un-grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich again.

The staff were really nice and the patio seating really cute. The food was good, but not good enough to make me want to try it again. Maybe next time we'll actually make our way into the bar.

Roscoe's Sidewalk Cafe
3356 N Halsted St
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 281-3355

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Chicago: Bobtail Ice Cream Company (Grant Park)

When we saw this ice cream stand (does this still count as a stand?) at the Buckingham Fountain, we couldn't NOT stop by for some ice cream. The weather was cooperating for once and the little seating area provided the perfect vantage point for observing the 6 wedding photo shoots going on simultaneously:

We got the basic sundae with French vanilla ice cream, caramel, pecans, whipped cream, and cherries:

Vanilla may sound boring, but this was really good and creamy. Plus, the vanilla and the salty pecans helped offset the sweetness of the caramel.

Bobtail has a storefront up in Lakeview, but for those of you taking a stroll around Grant Park, stop by the South Loop location for a cone.

Bobtail Ice Cream Company
522 S Lakeshore Dr
Chicago, IL 60604
(312) 786-1014

Chicago: Cafecito

For a late lunch, my friend and I stopped by Cafecito in the South Loop. The cafe itself seems like a good place to come and study. There were quite a few people around with their laptops out and their books spread across their tables:

It was such a nice day today that we took our sandwiches out to Buckingham Fountain and enjoyed them there. I'd heard a lot of good things about the Cubano, so that's what I went with:

Roasted pork, ham, swiss, pickles and mustard, all pressed between two perfectly crispy slices of bread. It was divine. The meat was flavorful, the mustard bright, and the pickles tangy. I'll definitely be back to try the other sandwiches. Not to mention all the interesting desserts in the display case.

26 E Congress Pkwy
Chicago, IL 60605
(312) 922-2233

Chicago: Valois

Before sending my friends off at the bus stop for their architecture boat tour downtown, I took them to Valois, the should-be-official breakfast spot in Hyde Park:

Cafeteria style, Valois is cheap, fast, and absolutely no nonsense. Just grab a tray and make your way down the counter:

Apparently Obama often ate here while he was living in Hyde Park. You can choose from 3 of Obama's "favorites". I forewent the Obama specials and stuck to the basics. French toast and a small orange juice:

That's 3 slices of french toast for $2.85. Where else can you find deals like this? I slathered each toast with butter, sprinkled them with some salt, and then dunked them into the syrup. me, the salt makes the french toast twice as yummy.

Can't forget my hash browns:

A whole meal for $5.45. I love Valois. The food isn't particularly mind-blowing, but it's good honest food, it's cheap, and it's filling.

What I love the most about Valois is how it serves as a space for the community to come together. Taking a look around the room, you'll see people of all kinds, from students to families with children, from teenagers in their skinny jeans to elderly couples in their weekend finest:

We were especially lucky today because we got to see firsthand how special Valois is to the Hyde Park community. Halfway through our meal, a gentleman walked in with a large sheet cake. He set it on the counter and announced to the dining room at large that it was Larry's (the mustached man behind the counter and the first person who takes your order) birthday. Everyone burst into a rousing rendition of the birthday song, ending it with a loud cheer and a wild round of applause. Larry waved his hands in thanks and went back to serving the next customer.

Happy birthday, Larry.

1518 E 53rd St
Chicago, IL 60615
(773) 667-0647

Chicago: Signature Lounge

No trip to Chicago is complete without at least one observatory experience. There are two options here in the Windy City: the Hancock or Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower). Observatory tickets cost around $15 to $16. The Hancock Observatory is located on the 94th floor, but why settle for that when you can go up to the Signature Room on the 95h or the Signature Lounge on the 96th?

I usually take my friends up to the Signature Lounge:

Drinks aren't exactly cheap, but it's basically paying the price of an observatory ticket, getting a drink, and being two floors higher. Why not?

I'm not much of a drinker, so I took the coward's way out by getting water. But my friends' drinks looked pretty:

It can get pretty noisy up there, but the view is definitely worth it. Of course, ideally you'd want a seat by the window, but really, you can see the view from anywhere in the lounge. For the Signature Room, on the other hand, you'll really want to reserve a table by the window. Chicago is really pretty from above:

Just a little something extra for the ladies, we get a nice viewing spot from the restroom. Guys, not so lucky. So if you can't score a window seat, don't be ashamed to take some pictures from the restroom:

The Signature Lounge
875 N Michigan Ave
John Hancock Center
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 787-9596

Chicago: Italian Village

Apparently, Italian Village is the oldest Italian restaurant in Chicago. There are 3 floors at the Italian Village, each floor corresponding with a different degree of fanciness and price range. The top floor, The Village, is we're-off-to-the-symphony-after fancy. The main level, Viviere, is trying-to-impress-my-expensive-date fancy. The lower level, la Cantina, is supposed-to-be-casual-but-makes-you-wish-you-weren't-wearing-sneakers fancy. Guess which level we dined at:

Taking the flight of stairs down into la Cantina felt like entering an underground bunker. The interior was quite beautiful, with large, sweeping murals, little torch lights, and a fluorescent aquarium. The overall atmosphere was charming, like an underground tunnel transformed into a quaint little Italian village:

After our crazy lunch at Hot Doug's, I didn't really feel like tackling an entire entree on my own, so I split one with my friend. The waitress brought everything over already divided onto different plates. Here's my portion of the salad:

It was....salad. Not much to report there.

The cannelloni came in a pair, so I got one and my friend got the other:

We couldn't decide on what sauce to get, cream or marinara, so our waitress advised us to get both. Made perfect sense to me. The meat filling was almost creamy in texture and the pasta nice and smooth. Both sauces were good and I wish we had asked for more bread so that I could have sopped them up.

Italian Village (la Cantina) would be a nice place to for a first date. It has mood lighting, soft music...prices to impress your date with your generosity...and tropical fish. Check it out if you have a special occasion and some cash to spare.

Italian Village
71 W Monroe St
Chicago, IL 60603
(312) 332-7005

Friday, May 21, 2010

Chicago: Hot Doug's

Since my friends are visiting from out-of-town, I seized them as an excuse to finally check out Hot Doug's. (Plus Hot Doug's is taking a vacation starting 5/22 and won't be opening again until 6/2.) We stood in line for about an hour before I was able to take this picture of the front door:

Hot Doug's has regular hot dogs for under $4 and then a selection of more exotic hot dogs for around $7:

Even though there were so many people, like magic, tables opened up every time a party finished placing their order. The owner was the one at the counter (I'd seen him on TV before). He was super friendly and took the order of every single person in that monstrous line with a smile and a quip. When my friend tried to order a large soda, he told her that it was refillable and that if we were eating in, she should get the small instead. Anyone who gives that kind of advice at the expense of making a profit immediately gets respect points:

I figured that since I was there, I might as well make the most out of my trip. I started off with the basic Chicago dog with everything on it:

So juicy and so worth every cent of that $1.75.

To try something new, I went with the "Game of the Week":

That's brown ale and chipotle smoked buffalo sausage with half acre beer mustard and Irish whiskey cheese. Holy moly. The buffalo had quite a kick to it, one that didn't hit me until the second or third bite. It was uh-may-zing.

And here is what I'd been dreaming about since I first heard of Hot Doug's:

Only served Fridays and Saturdays, these are no ordinary fries. They're DUCK FAT FRIES. Yes. Duck fat fries. I can't really pinpoint what was so special about them, but they were damn good. That's all I have to say.

Long wait aside, Hot Doug's was the perfect way to start the day. What made the experience even more memorable was the fact that I saw one of my professors there. I didn't recognize him at first because he wasn't wearing a suit, but yea, how cool is that?

Beware, Hot Doug's is cash only. I can't even imagine how much it would suck to finally get through the front door and to the counter only to find that you have none on you.

Hot Doug's
3324 N California Ave
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 279-9550
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