Friday, October 30, 2020

Empanada Mama & The Pie Man

 -Grubbing in Chicago
Baked Treats in Boystown

As you already know by now indoor dining in Chicago has been halted yet again. It's going to be a long winter and you can thank our elected officials on all levels for that. Some places just aren't going to make it but others have a chance of surviving. The selections for dining out are going to get very corporate if nothing is done. Though this new pie shop on Broadway in the neighborhood formerly known as Boystown is the opposite of corporate. They never planned to have dine in customers. 

Newly Opened in Boystown 

Empanada Mama & The Pie Man opened in the last four months or so. I've mentioned recently how empanadas are a big go-to this year due to restrictions on dining in across the country. Both those and savory meat pies are the calling card here. They do desert pie too but I'm always interested in a spot making savory pies like those you'll find in places like New Zealand, England, and South Africa which is where one of the owners hails from. I asked as soon as I saw a Bobotie Pie on offer. South Africa remains one of the best places I've ever been on a grand scale (not just the food). We enjoyed a few meat pies during our time there and I also got to try bobotie which is one of the more commonly mentioned dishes when discussing South African cuisine. Some call it the country's national dish. 

Empanada and Savory Pie from Empanada Mama & The Pie Man

Pictured up above is a traditional Argentinean ground beef empanada with hard boiled egg and the whole nine yards. They're baked as is the more traditional style in Argentina. I chose the Bobotie Pie over other options like chicken pot pie and Guinness and Steak. Bootie is more times than not a casserole made with curried ground beef and something sweet like cinnamon, chutney and or raisins with a milk and egg mixture topping that's then baked. Recipes vary like Moussaka and it's also a popular filling in the country's well liked meat pies. These are available all over South Africa from little roadside gas stops in the country to trendy bakeries in Cape Town. They make for a great snack as they're meant to be individual servings. Bobotie skews sweet (though it's not supposed to overpower) so keep that in mind if you want to try this one. I liked it but will try another one next time just bc I don't love bobotie. For me South Africa was all about the Piri Piri Prawns. Never saw it in pie form though!

The insides of a Bobotie Pie 

Empanada Mama & The Pie Man
2933 N Broadway
Chicago, IL 60657
(312) 856-5530

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Ramirez Fast Food

-Grubbing in Chicago
Chicago Style Fast Food on Grand avenue

There used to be a ton of spots like Ramirez Fast Food. It's now almost like it's out of place where it rests on Grand just east of Ashland. It's been around forever. I've always meant to ask how long in there but forget. I was probably daydreaming of my childhood spots back in the 90's when visiting. 

Locals Favorite in West Town 

Spots like Ramirez Fast Food remind me of the old Chicago that’s mostly a relic at this point. These spots each had a unique character to them. These days they all feel the same. But you can see in the pic above both on the building and inside there's old pictures and or drawings that make a place like Ramirez Fast Food stand out. They have all the Chicago style classics and also offer Mexican guisados, tacos, tortas, and such. The steak tacos here come loaded with what can best be described as a Carne Asada Guisado. They grill a ton up then it sits in it’s juices like the rest of the guisados on offer. The end product is both juicy and tender. I've never tried the classic Chicago style offerings. 

Steak Taco at Ramirez Fast Food 

The sleeper item(s) at Ramirez Fast Food are the breakfast sandwiches. They open at like 5a M-Sat and close at 4pm each day. You can order a breakfast sandwich in a variety of ways including bacon or sausage on toast, torta, or French bread. The bacon, egg, and cheese on French is a damn good sandwich that comes in around $3.50 which is basically the same price as a franchised fast food sandwich. But you get much more bang for your buck here and you're supporting local when doing so. Seriously this isn't by any means a "special" sandwich but the sum of all of it's parts makes it a mighty fine one. Anyone that grew up in the Chicagoland area had a neighborhood spot like this. 

Bacon, Egg, and Cheese on French at Ramirez Fast Food 

Ramirez Fast Food 
1521 W Grand Ave
Chicago, IL 60642
(312) 666-8331

Monday, October 26, 2020

Chicago Ramen

-Grubbing in Chicago(land)
Ramen Royalty out by O'Hare

So this post was originally planned for February but before I could hit post every person involved in food media in the city had done the same. So I figured I'd save it for when the talk dies down. Just to remind people of one of the years best openings. Honestly I haven't been since covid came calling but I've heard of others experiences being positive. Ramen isnt the best as far as foods taken to go but they package it properly. Chicagoland is in the midst of what I call Ramen Boom 2. I like to keep my eye on recently opened restaurants in the Chicagoland area and it feels like every other opening right now is a ramen shop. Plus more are coming. That said most of them are crap. When ramen got big so did figuring out ways to make it faster and easier. It's possible quite a few of these new spots get the same broth from the same factory. In fact in a few cases these places are owned by the same corporation. This results in similar menus and recipes served under different names. That said it's pretty easy to pick out the places worth checking out. So far there's two very much worth mentioning. I already featured Menya Goku which is located on the city's Northside. Today we visit the other one. 

 Newly Opened in Des Plaines 

The easiest way to tell if a ramen shop is serious about their craft is by looking at the menu. The more crap the less likely it is to be special. Or the more likely it is to be run by a corporation. At this point any spot doing something other than Tonkotsu should be given a visit too. If for anything bc they're not following the flow which is how ramen is supposed to go. Japan is a super traditional country especially with food but ramen is the one dish where chefs are welcome to be original and stand out in some sort of nontraditional way. Though the name of Chicago Ramen is pretty generic the guy behind it is very well known on the ramen circuit. Kenta Ikehata became known running the popular Tsujita in Tokyo before opening their Los Angeles location. Now he’s here in Des Plaines hoping to break into the Midwest market. This should be easy if my first few visits are any indication.

Tsukemen at Chicago Ramen

Tsujita is known for their tsukemen aka dipping ramen. But if I’m being honest I didn’t love it in LA. That said Chicago Ramen also lists Tsukemen first though the crowds seem to be favoring the miso ramens (red and white) early on. Not sure what happened in LA bc this was much better. Guessing it’s kind of it’s own thing since this isn’t a Tsujita. Sun Noodles are served cool. Spray them with a lime and dip the noodles into the hot and thick pork stock that’s cooked for more than 40 hours in-house. The chasu (house sliced pork) was perfectly tender and when it and all the noodles are gone you get a few scoops of hot light broth in your dipping stock which turns it into a delicious bowl of soup. It was a really nice experience getting to sit around the kitchen and watch Chef Kenta Ikehata work his magic. Word is he's trying to make Chicago Ramen a brand so go now while he's there.

White Mabo Tofu

If you're thinking of doing takeout at Chicago Ramen the White Mabo Tofu is a dish that would travel fairly well. It's also unlike any other dish I've tried. It's more Chinese than Japanese but pretty much all Asian food derives from China one way or the other. Here's Mike Sula at the Reader on it. "White mapo tofu ramen was born at Tsujita in LA, and it's the White Walker of ramen varieties. A riff on the lava-colored Sichuan mapo tofu, it features a relatively light chicken broth, a thinner-bore Sun noodle, and a pile of soft, silky tofu nestled within. It looks as midwestern as hotdish, but for the blanket of black pepper on top and the Thai chilis lurking in its depths. You can customize the spice level, and if you're battling a viral invader I recommend you push yourself to the limit." Like Chicken & Dumplings. 

Red Miso Ramen at Chicago Ramen 

Chicago Ramen offers a red and a white miso ramen. The pastes of which make the broth almost a creamy consistency. I tried the red last winter and I cant remember if I ordered it extra hot or it's just served spicy but it was a nose burner. There was alot going on. Too much maybe for me. But I love how the broth for these bowls visit a wok which gets it all sorts of smoky. As mentioned it's been a few months since my last visit but the miso options were the most popular early on. But if you read all of the glowing reviews it's the Tsukemen that most people praise. The chicken gets some love too. 

Miso Ramen at Chicago Ramen 

Chicago Ramen 
578 E Oakton St
Des Plaines, IL 60018
(224) 938-9982 

Friday, October 23, 2020

Stopping in at three Omaha Favorites

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- The Gateway to the West 

We took a socially distanced roadtrip to Colorado earlier this month which meant the local eats of Omaha would finally be within reach. Believe it or not the biggest town in Nebraska has a pretty rich food scene if you like roadfood type spots. Maybe not Warren Buffet rich but I would've been happy to spend a night or even two and hopefully I do someday but for this trip it made little sense to stop since we left Chicago around 4:30a and were in Omaha around noon. Might as well get to where we were going for the next 12 days and we got there before 8p with the hour gained back and all. So while I had a good two handfuls worth of spots in Omaha that I wanted to try I was only able to get to three of my choosing based on them being open when I was passing through and also being able to easily eat the food I was getting to go. So no steakhouses or stops at the legendary Joe Tess Fish Place this trip. I'd wanted to get a meat sheet pizza on the way home but after the burger below and a week plus of Den-Mex I couldn't eat anymore. Thus I had to put off a stop in Des Moines too. But in the end I chose three places that give a good idea of the locally loved food of Omaha. So here's the beef. 

Omaha, NE

Crescent Moon Ale House 

So first things first I had to have a Reuben Sandwich in the city where it was born. Or so goes one of the stories if it’s origin. Reuben Kulakofsky and the Blackstone Hotel’s poker games are long gone but the Reuben sandwich is as prevalent as ever in Omaha where lots and lots of spots serve it. This popular beer bar across the street from where the Blackstone Hotel used to stand often gets mentioned as the best in town and they go through 100’s of pounds of corned beef weekly. It’s too tender to slice so it’s just broken up into chunks and joined by Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and topped with Thousand Island dressing and sandwiched between two slices of grilled marble rye. Perfectly constructed and different from most in that instead of pressing it on a hot flattop they put it through a pizza conveyer belt to get all the cheese melted. Fantastic. The onion rings were fried "hard" but the sandwich was sensational. I'd contemplated getting one on the ride home so you know it was good.

Reuben Sandwich at Crescent Moon Ale House 

GI Forum

Nebraska Style Crispy Tacos were actually the first pit stop of the trip. I was extra excited for these. Omaha (and Scottsbluff) is a big stop on America's Crispy Taco Trail. A series of stops I'll always stop for. These places arent quite nearing extinction but when they're all gone they're gone for good. That's bc you cant recreate what people used to perceive Mexican food and the restaurants that serve them as. Not after Mexican food has come so far in America to where it's now pretty common knowledge that it's an extremely regional cuisine. So much so that even Mexican-American food can be regional. More on that in my Denver round-up. In Omaha a crispy taco is ground beef fried inside a flour tortilla to order. Lots of spots around town serve these and GI Forum is one of the most popular. It’s a local VFW where on my visit the average age of customers was 55+ so it’s like most VFW’s in that regard. That said most people are here for the crispy tacos and not just the cheap beer. When fried, flour tortillas get crisp but not crunchy, if that makes sense. I just wish I could’ve explored South Omaha a bit more. Don’t get it twisted they got what looked to be lots of taquerias and taco trucks worth trying. But any talk on the history of tacos in this town has to include these. You already know I loved them. 

Fried Tacos at GI Forum 

Stella's Bar & Grill 

As regular readers know I’ve indulged in countless of the Midwest’s best burgers. But this trip was my first log of a spot in Nebraska. Stella’s outside of Omaha was my pick for an old ‘Hamburger America’ original. They’ve been at it since 1936 which to me means it’s good. They started as a stand served out of the sunroom of a house but have ballooned into a full fledged bar that brings in folks from across the state. Burgers are made with fresh local beef and weigh in at about 6.5 oz each. Even though I'm a minimal toppings guy I decided to try the Stella’s Staple with bacon and egg and it’s probably the best burger I’ve had this year. I also tend to prefer thinner patties but this one was the perfect change of pace from the smashed burger craze sweeping the nation. They have this small flattop that must hold a ton of flavor as they crank them out all day. Fresh cut fries and onion rings too.

Stella's Staple Burger at Stella's Bar & Grill 

Bonus Stop!

Runza (locations throughout Nebraska)

Last stop on our journey out to Colorado and back. I couldn’t help myself as there was a Runza right by the gas station I stopped to fill up at. Runza is to Nebraska as Maid Rite is Iowa or In-N-Out and California. It’s regional fast food at its finest and that’s bc they’re doing a completely local thing and it’s freshly made at that. What they call a runza is what’s usually called bierock. It’s a yeast dough pastry pocket sandwich with savory filling, originating in Eastern Europe, possibly in Russia. Seasoned ground beef is mixed with cabbage and onions in their original offering. Maybe my favorite regional fast food chain as they translate well to car travel and are doing something different from all the rest. I preferred the original to the cheeseburger version I tried. Either way they’re a treat when in the region as you’ll only find a select few out of state locations in neighboring states (CO) (KS) (IA). 

Runza in the flesh

See ya next time @chibbqking

Monday, October 19, 2020

Especialidad de la Casa Pt. 10

-Eating like a Mayan King in the Windy City

It's time for another of 'Specialty of the House'. The ongoing series where house special dishes at Mexican restaurants are featured. Today's five will feature spots to recently open on the Northside. Aside from having that in common all five also opened at some point during the pandemic. So maybe you missed them bc you know other stuff was going on. That said you don't want to miss these spots bc there's some really good food coming from them. Look there's some great Mexican restaurants in Pilsen but when people say you have to go there to get the real stuff it's a real load of bull. There's more than one million people with Mexico origins living in Chicagoland. They don't all live in Pilsen.


Cafe Pachuca 

Humboldt Park 

Hidalgo Style Pastes are now available along North avenue in Humboldt Park here at Cafe Pachuca. It's named after Hidalgo's capitol city of Pachuca where there's a long and rich history of mining which means the Cornish were once there. During their time in Mexico they introduced locals to Cornish style Pasties which was their fuel for mining. They made great lunches as they were super portable seeing as how they worked underground. Well as time went by locals became miners too and the paste (pasty) is now one of the states signature snacks. These are the owners dads family recipe from Pachuca and I’m an instant fan. Love the golden crust which is without a doubt a recipe that’s been refined over time. The biggest difference between a Paste and say an empanada is that the ingredients in Pastes and Pasties are uncooked when wrapped. I’m not a coffee guy but they do that too. If you’re anywhere near you need to stop and grab a couple. Make sure to get a cup of the dads family recipe salsa verde for dipping. Pastes come in a handful of flavors both savory and sweet. 

Pastes at Cafe Pachuca 

Gabriela's Carnitas 

Logan Square 

Odds are you've heard of L ' Patron as it's one of the Northsides most popular taquerias. Less chance you've heard of Gabriela's Carnitas which is just down the block on Fullerton. While some are aware others will be surprised to find that Gabriela's is owned by the folks at L ' Patron. They specialize in carnitas and sell it by the pound as well as in tacos, flautas, and more. What I like about getting them by the pound from here is that they give you a bundle of homemade tortillas to go with them. They also have a specialty taco which is a bunch of chopped up carnitas and melted cheese inside one of those aforementioned tortillas. Could QuesaCarnitas be the next big thing? Haha. Who knows but this is a super indulgent taco. It makes for a nice 1-2 punch with Pan Artesanal Bakery across the street.  

El Presidente Taco at Gabriela's Carnitas 

Tlayudas Oaxaca Grill 

Albany Park 

There's a new tlayuda specialist in Albany Park. They opened right when covid came calling which is just awful but they seem to have been noticed by the neighborhood. So while it was a tough time to start, tlayudas are terrific for takeout. They're original to Oaxaca where vendors dress up large crisp tortilla discs in a variety of ways. Refried black beans tend to be standard as is shredded Queso Oaxaca. Protein on this one pictured below is chorizo and also included are mushrooms, cabbage, tomato, avocado. Go pick one up next time you want takeout but aren’t feeling pizza. Also of note are what they call empanadas but look more like huge quesadillas. The massive tortillas are made in house and stuffed with grilled chicken (also on menu), Oaxacan cheese, and special mild sauce. 

Tlayuda at Tlayudas Oaxaca Grill 

The Birria Connect 

Portage Park 

Since my first in the city report on quesabirria there's been quite a few more spots to open. One of the better ones I've tried comes from the Birria Connect which is currently running out of a Guatemalan bakery up north on Milwaukee. According to the young man in charge they're doing an old family recipe from Jalisco. Their beef birria is some of the best I've had and to make it even better they're  good at crisping the outer shell which is something alot of spots don't do. Even the consommé is a little more beefy than most of the others around town. I expect them to open a full fledged spot soon. 

Quesabirria at The Birria Connect 


Logan Square 

With Fall weather in full swing this is a spot to keep in mind next time you want to go drinking in your hoodie. Kumbala is a one man pop-up that currently runs of Split Milk Tavern at Fullerton and California. You can order both barbacoa (tacos / by the lb) and pozole to enjoy in the back on the bars patio or you can order it for pick-up or delivery. So you dont have to go drinking to get down on these little two bite tacos which are addictive with barbacoa juices seaping into the tortillas. A nice change of pace from the current quesabirria craze sweeping the nation. They make a red (meat) and a green (vegan) pozole too. Pork belly is crisped up nicely in the red and cocktails there are Chicago good. 

Pozole and Barbacoa Tacos at Kumbala

Friday, October 16, 2020

United Grill

-Got beef?
The Burgers of Chi

Every now and then I like to get a little dirty when dining. By which I mean some good old fashioned grease eats. The Chicagoland area has more than it's fair share of spots where the grease on the walls is considered a good thing. Usually these type of spots serve food at a more than fair price and sometimes do it around the clock. This is the case at United Grill in Cicero. An old school 24 hour diner with a slot shop on the side. It's Cicero location makes it a popular spot with Mexican families. They also have a second location on Armitage just off Cicero but I've never visited that address. 

Locals Favorite in Cicero 

For an old school diner the menu at United Grill is somewhat tamed down. They offer the usual breakfast classics and sandwiches. Judging by the online reviews it's biggest strength is the fact it's always been there for Cicero locals and such. After that there's quite a few good words spoke on the burgers. I've had a few over the years and have to say it is pretty good for what it is. Sometimes I get a taste for a classic diner burger like this which you cant just recreate. Not without a flattop that's cooked 1000's and 1000's of pounds of sausage, bacon, and burgers anyway. It took decades for United Grill to get that flattop seasoned just right. So while the flavors from this burger wont come from the fact the beef was raised humanely on heirloom corn it still tastes better than the $5.50 pricetag and that's with fries. They're just frozen but like the burger they take on the flavor of the oil.

Diner Cheeseburger at United Grill

United Grill 
2145 S Laramie Ave
Cicero, IL 60804 
(708) 222-0637

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Irving's for Red Hot Lovers

-In Chicago: Every Dog Has it's Day

This past National Hot Dog Day (July 22) I woke up to lots of hot dogs in my social media (Instagram) timeline so it made the question I ask myself every morning - What's for lunch? - an easy one. Especially when later that day I was driving by Irving's for Red Hot Lovers on an errand. Even though I went to school at nearby Loyola Academy I rarely went to Irving’s as Fullerton was my stop on the Red Line so Demon Dogs was my longtime hot dog stand and I stopped there damn near every day. That said Irving's used to have a location in Beverly that me and my cousins went to now and then.

Locals Favorite in Wilmette 
They’re in their 45th year at this here Wilmette location and that’s not by chance. The hot dogs are nice and snappy due to both the high quality natural casing wieners and the fact they don’t sit in the holders all day. They see a steady traffic of tradesmen and the suburbanites they fix stuff for. I kept simple even though the menu here offers more than just hot dogs and fries. The latter of which I had remembered being fresh cut but that's not the case. My memory of them serving Merkt's cheese however was spot on. I guess if anything can make some average frozen fries better it's a big heaping scoop of melted Merkt's cheddar. The dogs are dragged through the garden and everything is on point from the topping portioning to the poppy seed bun being steamed properly. I'm glad Irving's is still around. Not too many hot dog stands from my youth still are. A nice North Shore lunch option.

Chicago Dog with Merkt's Cheese Fries at Irving's for Red Hot Lovers

Irving's for Red Hot Lovers
3207 Lake Ave # B
Wilmette, IL 60091
(847) 251-6300

Monday, October 12, 2020

Gino's North

-The other Chicago-style pizza: Tavern Style

My pick for best tavern thin pizza in Chicago will always be Pat's (on Lincoln). That said when one is discussing tavern thin pizza (key word - tavern) the atmosphere of a place is important too. Pat's doesn't have the same great atmosphere as say Vito & Nick's or even that of Gino's North. The latter of which I used to pass on the way to and from school every day after hopping off the Granville Red Line (I'm still amazed kids took the train by themselves back when). All that said I'd never been to Gino's despite wondering about it. I always thought it looked awesome but didn't make it in until recently. 

Locals Favorite in Edgewater 

Stepping into Gino's North is a step back into time. It feels more like an old school martini bar than it does a pizza parlor but there's still some elements of an old school pizza parlor. But it is indeed a martini bar too. On my visit (pre-covid) there were more people drinking martinis than there were those eating pizza. Though a few people came in to take pizzas to go. If you like old time dimly lit bars than Gino's North is about as good as it gets. If we ever get rid of corona go have a drink here.  

a peek inside 

The pizza is just ok. Good not great. Then again I’m picky to where I most always regret eating a thin sausage pizza that’s not Pat’s. Next time I’ll just get a martini and marvel at the fact the statue behind the bar has been here since the 1940’s. According to Chicago’s foremost food historian - Peter Engler aka ReneG at LTHforum - this place was called the Snowdrop up until the 70’s. Snowdrop also being the name of the nude statue the original bar owner had created by a local Swedish sculptor. Snowdrop as the statue is still called today is based on the woman who later became the owner of Gino's wife. The type of spot that's fading from Chicago so I'm happy to give them some business. 

Sausage Pizza at Gino's North 

Gino's North 
1111 W Granville Ave
Chicago, IL 60660
(773) 465-1616


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