Monday, December 27, 2021

The Best of 2021

- Memorable food from the past calendar year

Well that was a fast one. This year felt more like an extension of 2020 than a new one but according to the calendar we're about to reach 2022 and who knows what's to come with it as far as food and travel. But with it we must release this annual treat. The best of the year here on S'C'&C. I do this one up a bit differently each year and this years list is going to consist of the best bites which account for individual dishes featured on the site this year. Then I also decided to share my ten favorite meals from those that were posted here on the site. None of the dishes in the ‘best meals’ will appear on the ‘best bites’ bc it's likely the menu has changed by now at those restaurants. Whereas the best bites are items ordered off of restaurants everyday menus. You can click each listing to take you to it's original post. Happy New Year! Season15 begins in Feb. but maybe a special post before then. 

The 33 Best Bites of 2021


10 Best Meals of 2021 
(in no particular order)

The Grocery (Charleston, SC)

Ukiah (Asheville, NC)

The Grey (Savannah, GA)

Common Thread (Savannah, GA)

Andros Taverna (Chicago, IL)

Dear Margaret (Chicago, IL)

Hexenbelle (Traverse City, MI)

Wren (Suttons Bay, MI)

Feast & Floret (Hudson, NY)

Oberlin (Providence, RI)

See ya next year @chibbqking 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Avenida Peru

-Grubbing in Chicago  
Lima Style Peruvian in Belmont Central 

For the final Chicago restaurant feature of 2021 (best of the year post coming next week) I want to showcase one of my favorite openings of late. Avenida Peru is a family owned Peruvian joint in Belmont Central that opened up during the second half of the calendar year. Chicago has maybe a handful of Peruvian restaurants but this one is a bit different. The family behind it has roots in Lima.

Newly Opened in Belmont Central 

Most people who travel to Peru might spend one night in Lima, as a layover between their arrival in the country and their main reason for visiting - Machu Picchu. But those in the know aka people that like to travel for food know that Lima is the undisputed gastronomic capital of South America. The food of Peru is a conflation of indigenous Peruvian cultures from the Amazon mixed with Spanish and Arab and Moore influences that were fused with African, Chinese, and Japanese ingredients and culture. The use of the word "melting pot" is overplayed but Peruvian food is a true melting pot of flavors and if you want to experience the best it has to offer Lima is where it's at. I think you could make the case that Limeño's (people from Lima) are as food obsessed as anyone. So while the menu at Avenida Peru is somewhat similar to other Peruvian places around town it's also a bit different. 

Papa a la Huancaina at Avenida Peru

The potato is a staple in Peruvian cooking. Peru has more than 3,500 different varieties of potato and there's something like 4000 varieties total. So most of the worlds potatoes can be found in Peru. If you like potato salad you'll likely enjoy the Peruvian staple that is Papa a la Huancaina. It's a simple dish with roots in Huancayo, Peru that consists of boiled potatoes that sliced and served cold covered in a creamy and cheesy sauce that gets lots of it's flavor from the use Peruvian aji amarillo peppers. 

Salchipapas at Avenida Peru 

Speaking of popular potato dishes in Peru they do a sick salchipapas here too. It's a popular snack in Peru consisting of fries mixed with slices of fried hot dogs served with a handful of sauces. Some people prefer the sauce be served on top and others like to put them on themselves. So they're kind of a custom have it the way you like it type snack. Common sauces included would be aji (Peruvian green hot sauce), ketchup, mustard, mayo and sometimes salsa rosada which is a mix of ketchup and mayo together. The reason I decided to try the version served at Avenida Peru was bc they do fresh cut fries for theirs which isn't as common as it should be. Most spots just use frozen fries. I ordered mine with the sauces on the side and enjoyed the combo of hot dog and potato (Gene & Jude's, Jimmy's etc) dipped in aji sauce. About halfway through I threw all the sauces on top and that was damn good too. The fries weren't twice fried so they weren't perfect but they were full of potato flavor. 

Ceviche Carretillero at Avenida Peru 

Ceviche is to Lima as tacos are to Mexico City. Everyone in Peru has a favorite spot for the country's national dish. The practice of saturating raw fish in vinegar, citrus, and spices (escabeche) was brought to the Americas from Spain and is linked to the Muslim heritage in Spanish cuisine. Both Peru and Ecuador claim the dish as their own but nowhere is it as popular as it is in Lima. Chicago has a handful of Peruvian restaurants and some of them serve ceviche but go down to a place like South Florida and there's handfuls of spots specializing in ceviche. I never really found one around town that could match some of the spots in the Miami area until I tried the ceviche carretillero from here. There's countless recipes for making ceviche but the basis is raw seafood, lime juice, lemon juice, chilis and Tigers Milk which is the citrus based marinade (mixed with fish stock) that makes the magic happen. One popular way to eat cebiche is mixed fried calamari. The "Carretillero" which loosely translates to "wheelbarrow" also mixes soft corn, crunchy corn, sweet potato, and more.  

Lomo Saltado 

A large number of people from Lima have Chinese ancestry and the city is home to the largest Chinatown in South America. The Chinese first came to Peru as indentured servants to replace the slavery of Africans which had been abolished. As time passed the Chinese population grew and with it so did their influence on the local food and culture. Lomo Saltado is a dish that's as Peruvian as it gets in that almost every Peruvian restaurant both in Peru and outside of Peru will serve this dish that has it's origins in Chifa cuisine. Chifa is what they call Peruvian Chinese food which is a staple in Lima. The city is home to 100's and 1000's of Chifa restaurants where they serve Chinese style food with Peruvian influence. Lomo Saltado is perhaps the most well known as it's found in many non-Chifa restaurants too. Avenida Peru might make the best version of this dish I've tried but it's not like I've had a ton of different ones. The basis of Lomo Saltado is stir fried steak that's been heavily marinated mixed with onions, tomatoes and fries. It's all cooked up in a wok with a liquid mixture of aji amarillo and soy sauce. White rice comes on the side. Avenida Peru uses those fresh cut potatoes and the steak is so tender and juicy. This was the first dish I tried here and it was so good I had to come back and try more. "Chifa Chaufa" is Peruvian fried rice, another popular Peruvian-Chinese dish. They do one here with chicken and thinly sliced hot dogs and it's some of the best cooked fried rice in town, of any style. It's loaded with ginger and extra smoky wok flavor. 

Chifa Chaufa (Peruvian fried rice) at Avenida Peru 

Avenida Peru does breakfast every Saturday and Sunday morning and the menu includes sandwiches. I've always considered Lima to be one of the worlds great sandwich cities as they have a handful of originals like the Pan Con Chicharron. Timeless simplicity is the key to this breakfast favorite that pairs crunchy pieces of pork belly with crispy slices of sweet potato. Both a slightly spicy aji sauce and also a cup of lightly pickled red onions come on the side for you use as you please. As far as breakfast sandwiches go this is an absolute winner that should be in your morning rotation. The bread was well paired with the rest of it too. It should come as no surprise that on each of my three visits the place was near full with mostly Peruvians from around town. Chicago is home to more than 20,000 Peruvians and word is spreading amongst them about Avenida Peru and it's delicious food.  

Pan Con Chicharron at Avenida Peru 

Avenida Peru  
3131 N Central Ave
Chicago, IL 60634
(773) 736-1647

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Tacos El Rey

-Eating like a Mayan King in the Windy City

A while back there was a local alderman on twitter who asked if there were any Tijuana style tacos to be found in Chicago. I replied that no there was almost certainly not any and then someone else replied to me asking how I could know for sure when there's so many taco spots around town. I explained that while it's possible a new place had opened I hadn't seen any personally and while I haven't visited every taco spot in town I've gone to the majority and I'm always looking out for new options including the popular style in Los Angeles that's been given the description "Tijuana style". This is used to describe tacos filled with smoky carne asada and thinly sliced adobada which is what they call al pastor in Baja. But what really makes this style "Estilo Tijuana" is the dollop of bright green avocado salsa that comes standard on each taco. I don't recall personally seeing the practice of painting tacos green when I was down in Tijuana but it's been popular in LA for a while now.

Newly Opened on the East Side 

I knew Tacos El Rey was doing TJ style tacos as soon as I saw their ad on insta (like quesabirria it stands out the on the gram). I figured it would be a place in California or somewhere not here but I clicked it anyway just to see where they were located and to my surprise they were in Chicago. Over on the East Side to be exact. To my knowledge this is the first TJ style taqueria to hit the city. 

Lunch Spread at Tacos El Rey 

The practice of wrapping tacos covered in avocado salsa like In-N-Out wraps up their burgers has become popular around LA and like quesabirria it's gone boom so you can expect to find these trendy tacos by you sometime soon. When ordered “con todo” they come with cilantro, onion, and a few spoonful's of avocado salsa. I tried carne asada and adobada. No charcoal grilling here but a spit of marinted pork was up and running. The tacos were better than the torta which I was hoping might be something similar to Tortas Washmobile in Tijuana which some call the best torta in Mexico. Not the first area I expected to find Tijuana style tacos in town but there will likely be more places coming. 

Steak and Adobada Tacos at Tacos El Rey 

Tacos El Rey 
9625 S Ewing Ave
Chicago, IL 60617
(773) 359-6007

Monday, December 20, 2021

Habrae Cafe

-Grubbing in Chicago(land)
A Thai Dessert Paradise in Forest Park 

As the 2021 calendar year nears it's end I thought it would be smart to get today's post up. That's bc I'd put Habrae in Forest Park on any "best new restaurants in Chicago" list I'm asked to make. Habrae is a mom and pop owned Thai restaurant located on Madison which is the towns busy business strip. It's owned by a Thai couple who met in Chicago and at the time neither of them were in the restaurant business. I learned their story through a terrific feature in the Reader written by the great Mike Sula. 

Recently Opened in Forest Park 

Habrae was born out of a love for the Bangkok treats of it's dessert chefs youth. The restaurant officially opened last summer after a stint selling homemade Thai desserts to local Thai owned groceries around town. It's quite astonishing when you consider this is all rather new for the couple as it's such a well put together spot and the desserts are spot on. But more on those further down in this review bc they do savory food too. The menu consists of a bunch of Thai style Hors-d'œuvres to start. On one visit we tried their chicken curry rolls which were clearly made on site judging from the unique combo of ingredients. I might as well note that most of the items here are made on site including the desserts we're going to get to later. The little individual rolls of chicken curry mixed with purple sweet potato, onion, and oyster sauce are an extra satisfying way to start your meal. It's important to note that menu specials are a regular occurrence here. If you follow on instagram you can get a heads up as far as anything special and unique that they’re offering.

Chicken Curry Rolls at Habrae Cafe 

There's everyday offerings listed under soups, noodles and rice. Most of them are homestyle Thai dishes like khao soi. I've been a big time fan of the Northern Thai noodle dish ever since enjoying it in Chiang Mai even though it'll never get as good as it does in the Rose of the North. That doesn't mean that a great bowl cant be had over here, it's just a bit different. Don't get me wrong I've had plenty of enjoyable bowls of Khao Soi in the States including the version served at Habrae. In fact this will be on my 'best bites of the year' list which is coming out next week. It's one of the most satisfying bowls of noodles I’ve had this year and that's bc it hit all the notes one wants from a bowl of soft noodles sitting in a thick coconut curry sauce with tender thinly sliced beef. You can tell they don't just throw this bowl together. It's made as if it's a dessert and each ingredient portion needs to be exact. Very well done. 

Khao Soy at Habrae Cafe 

Moving down on the noodle portion of the menu you'll find the empire noodles or "rad na" which is another terrific Thai comfort food. Crispy egg noodles are loaded up with a medium in viscosity gravy mixed with marinated pork and Chinese broccoli. The noodles soften as they sit so this dish had two different textures going for it as far as the portion ate right away and anything that was eaten after that. 

Habrae Empire (Rard Nar Moo Noom)

When Habrae first opened they were a dessert shop exclusively. In the first pic of this post you can see there's a glass case displaying some of the desserts they make on site. In there you'll find options like charcoal pudding and Toddy Palm Cake (Khanom Tan). Those options are more so made to be taken home and in many cases heated up. Try the Ube pudding if you see it, you really cant go wrong with chunks of taro pearls in a warm coconut cream liquid. A great wintertime dessert even though Thailand is a place that stays pretty hot. Habrae also does some savory desserts like roti and Kluay Ping which is Thai style grilled banana which comes covered in a luscious caramel sauce. I haven't even had a chance to try their dessert roti offerings as the menu here is loaded with gems. 

Kluay Ping (Thai Style Grilled Banana) 

On top of a couple handful of dessert items that I want to try they also have some special ones that aren't always available but you might as well ask if they’re available. Actually in the three visits I've made they've always been out of something as far as the desserts go and that's to be expected when they make them all on site and I'm pretty sure it's just her and maybe a couple family members that help while he runs the front of the house. But you would have to be quite picky to not find something sweet worth trying from here whether it's the Thai style ice creams (offered as a sandwich if desired) or this unique (in Chicago) dish called Lod Chang. It's pandan noodles (which she makes on site) sitting next to a mixture of crushed ice, palm sugar, and coconut syrup. I didn't really get introduced to Asian desserts until 4 or 5 years ago and these days I cant get enough. You could go to Thailand and do a trip that revolves just around all the amazing desserts they offer and Mike Sula's story in the Reader dives further into why that is and also how they came about being served in Forest Park. To me the best new restaurants shouldn't just be new in age but also in innovation as far as what they're bringing to the local scene and there's really not alot of spots like Habrae Cafe around town.

Lod Chang at Habrae Cafe

Habrae Cafe
7230 Madison St
Forest Park, IL 60130
(708) 689-8852


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