Monday, March 27, 2023

Japanese Food in the NW Suburbs

-Grubbing in Chicago(land)  
Where to eat Japanese Food in the Northwest Suburbs

We’ve checked out handfuls of Japanese joints in Chicagoland over the years here on the site. The majority of them located out in the Northwest suburbs. In and surrounding Arlington Heights in particular as that’s where you’ll find Mitsuwa Marketplace - the Japanese owned grocer with 11 stores in California, Hawaii, Texas, New Jersey, and Illinois. Each location is strategically placed in an area where there’s a large Japanese presence (ex. there’s one in Plano Texas which is the North American headquarters of Toyota). The Arlington Heights location caters to a large Japanese clientele that both lives and works in the area surrounding O’Hare. You’ll find a food-court inside Mitsuwa as well as other Japanese eateries in the vicinity. Places like Sozai Banzai which I profiled HERE. Today we’ll take a look at five more restaurants where Japanese food can be had in these parts.   


Bakery Crescent (Arlington Heights)

You’ll find one of my favorite bakeries in Chicagoland hidden within a mostly abandoned strip mall. This family owned gem of a Japanese bakery is called Bakery Crescent (no affiliation with the bakery inside Mitsuwa Market around the corner). Bakery Crescent is a small spot that can fit maybe six customers total, most of whom are Japanese speaking people that live or work in the area. Many are here for house baked milk bread and other fun pastries plus Japanese sandos packed to go. Others come for the freshly prepared food. The daily bento box ($8.50) is always changing but always seems to satisfy with home cooked dishes served up with some of the fluffiest rice around. When I first went to Bakery Crescent I was excited to find that they made a dish I was 99% convinced you couldn’t find in Chicago - Taco Rice. The Okinawan classic that came about after the American military became stationed there. Taco Rice was created for the GI’s but over time it became a popular Yoshoku dish enjoyed by the Japanese too. Although the version served here is more like chili rice it's still from the same tree. It comes with a sweet leaning mix of seasoned ground beef over a layer of melted cheese stuck in between the meat and the rice. No gringo taco toppings on top but it does come with a fried egg. I’m a sucker for all things yoshoku (Japanese interpretation of Western cuisine). If you’re ever out this way shopping at Mitsuwa I would make it a point to grab food here instead of the food court there. This is all home cooked stuff while most of the food served at the store has corporate backing. Even the ham and cheese sandwiches with Japanese mayo make for a great snack. If you can swing a stop here before a flight out at O’Hare that’s a smart move I've seen people make on my visits.  

Japanese Eats at Bakery Crescent

Kurumaya (Elk Grove)

Next stop is an old favorite of mine from out this way. Kurumaya is one of a handful of spots I always consider when I’m out here and want something to eat. It’s not really an izakaya nor a sushi-ya but it is something in between the two of those. I’d describe it as an honest to goodness Japanese restaurant. The type of place you'll typically find in an area where there’s lots of Japanese people. Kurumaya does a lunch and a dinner service with the former being a bit more limited than the latter. I typically come for lunch because I’m rarely out here in the evening so my go-to order during lunch is their shrimp tempura set. It’s a near perfect rendition of the Japanese classic with both the shrimp and vegetables being skillfully fried with a terrific Tentsuyu (tempura dipping sauce) served on the side.  

Shrimp Tempura Lunch Set at Kurumaya

Teksuke Market & Food Court (Elk Grove)

Tensuke is another really good Japanese grocery store out in this area. In my opinion they have a better fresh seafood selection than Mitsuwa, among other things. They also have a food court that’s one big operation ran by the family owned store. You can order a bunch of different things including sushi and ramen. I always enjoy the tuna donburi which is extra refreshing on a hot summer day.   

Tekka Don (Tuna Bowl) at Tensuke

Chicago Ramen Lab (Rolling Meadows)

I passed by this new branch of the Chicago Ramen chain on a visit to Mitsuwa over winter. Chicago Ramen is run by a Tokyo ramen vet who seems to have big plans for expansion (he also recently opened a spot in Schaumburg). I stopped in for a bowl of shrimp wonton ramen which I made into a combo by adding a small tendon ($20). The noodles had some pretty good chew while the broth was enhanced bigly with the addition of some condiments. Not as good as I remember the product at Chicago Ramen to be but the menus are different so the food isn’t the exact same from spot to spot. For ex. they do a Jiro ramen at their new Schaumburg outlet as Nick K. reviewed for the Tribune.     

Wontan Ramen with Tendon (shrimp tempura bowl) at Chicago Ramen Lab

Summertime Jazz Cafe (Mt. Prospect)

I had a delicious and relaxing lunch at this charming little spot after the chaos that was the outlet mall during the holiday season. Summertime Jazz Cafe is a semi newish place that caters to a Japanese clientele and fans of jazz. They offer Japanese food in the form of lunch and dinner service and feature live jazz music on the weekends. When there isn’t live music they play records and CD’s from their large collection which sits on display inside. My visit came during lunch service which showcases Hamburg steak, a popular Yoshoku dish. Japanese Hamburg steak is more like meatloaf than a burger but it’s so much better than meatloaf. I chose to go with the version served with a brown gravy on top and some spaghetti underneath all on a sizzling hot plate. Your lunch plate comes with a miso soup and an unlimited amount of white rice. I have plans to come back for dinner where there's a much larger izakaya style menu with lots of daily specials based on what's fresh and in-season. 

Hamburg Steak at Summertime Jazz Cafe

See ya next time @chibbqking 

Thursday, March 23, 2023


-Grubbing in Chicago  
New to the 'Scene'

One of the city’s best restaurant openings came along quietly late last year. Pompette took over at the corner of Armitage and Damen in September after the former Izakaya Mita space became available with Chef Brian Mita’s passing (RIP). Pompette is a passion project of sorts from three Chicago restaurant vets. It’s an all day cafe that fits perfectly in a space that comes with lots of natural lighting. It’s also a bar and an all day one at that. I’d describe it as a perfect neighborhood place for various occasions. Our visit came during happy hour (4-6p daily) which goes into dinner service but you can also meet friends and family for a big weekend brunch or just treat yourself to a nice little weekday lunch or even a bottle of wine to take home. Pompette presents their neighbors with options.  

Newly Opened in Bucktown

Happy Hour in Chicago is lacking to say the least but Pompette has a serviceable menu that can be enjoyed at their bar. They offer a couple different drafts at $5/each and certain glasses of wine plus a selection of cocktails for $10 a piece. The menu has a section of snacks in the $5-$15 range. A bowl of olives mixed with Manchego cheese is a nice pairing for whatever you choose to sip on. 

Olives and Cheese 

There’s also a burger offered up during happy hour and the waitress sold me on it with it's description (also available for lunch / brunch). Slagel Farms beef patties are doubled up and dressed with grilled onion, pickles, lettuce and American cheese plus special sauce on a very soft yet still sturdy sesame seed bun - it must be baked in house bc it’s way better than anything commercial. I’d give this one a B+ which is a very good grade based on my curve. My only qualm with this one was the lettuce that they used. I’d either switch that to a classic shredded iceberg blend or just ditch it completely as there’s no use for those type of fancy ass leaves on an otherwise classically dressed cheeseburger. 

Cheeseburger at Pompette 

The dinner menu is broken down into four sections starting with charcuterie and cheese and ending with desserts. You’ll find shareable plates and entrees from the charcoal grill in between. The shareable plates can be anything from creamy crab croquettes to crunchy fried quail with vegetarian options abound. With agnolotti being my favorite pasta I pretty much always have to order some when I see it on a menu which was the case at Pompette. It’s a longer rectangle shaped version that comes stuffed with a mixture of herb ricotta and hazelnut and topped with brown butter, squash and crispy kale. Very nicely done. I’m assuming the charcoal grill is a remnant from the previous tenant. Cool to see it stick around. The live fire cooking added good flavor to a plate of Black Sea Bass sitting on smashed white beans alongside artichoke, leeks and Swiss chard. A really fun addition to the area. 

Agnolotti (top) - Grilled Sea Bass (bottom)

1960 N Damen Ave
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 799-8072

Monday, March 20, 2023

DaNang Kitchen

-Grubbing in Chicago  
Regional Vietnamese on Argyle

Vietnamese remains one of the worlds most underrated cuisines. While it is getting it’s due more and more than ever before it’s still relatively under the radar of many. It’s not hard to find a Vietnamese restaurant as long as you’re not in the middle of nowhere but it’s a little harder to find spots where the menu features more than the usual's like Banh Mi and Pho. If you go over to Argyle street there’s seemingly endless options for both of those but much less options for dishes like Bun Cha or Banh Cuon. Neither of those dishes are un-findable but most of the restaurants don’t serve them among an army of other popular dishes from the booming Southeast Asian nation. But I’m always on the lookout for the spots that are doing a little more than the usual stuff and today's post is one of those places.

Locals Favorite on Argyle 

Danang Kitchen opened a few years ago on Argyle towards the eastern end closer to Sheridan than Broadway. It's arrival was around the time that a handful of new school Southeast Asian restaurants were opening in an area that was for the most part filled with places that had been there for awhile. The type of places where the menus are worn down and Instagram is unheard of. Danang Kitchen is a family run joint like most of the restaurants in the neighborhood but there’s a younger part of the family that has the business on social media and such. They also do special pop-up dinners which in one instance featured one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes - Cha Ca Va Long - a turmeric fish dish with roots in Hanoi. You’ll find regional options on the every day menu too. Mi Quang Noodles are the house specialty and are what first got me to stop in. Mi Quang is a popular dish in Central Vietnam and cities like Danang and also Hoi An, the latter is where I first tried it. The main ingredients are rice noodles, meat, herbs and it’s most commonly served with a small amount of broth infused with turmeric. At Danang Kitchen the Mi Quang comes with wide rice noodles sitting in a puddle of turmeric based broth with pork belly, shrimp and quail eggs served up with a roasted rice cracker and Asian greens. It’s a delicious rendition and my favorite version of the few I’ve come across in Chicagoland.

Mi Quang Noodles at Danang Kitchen 

There’s two Banh Mi options on the menu here and they’re both made with pork. One is labeled as grilled pork (Banh Mi Thit Nuong) and the other is just called "pork". It’s baked until tender and tossed in a sticky and tangy sauce that seeps into in a fresh, extra crisp French roll alongside some cucumber, house pickled carrots with daikon, basil, and mayo. It’s one of the best Banh Mi in the neighborhood and one of the city’s best sandwiches you can find for around $6. But it’s not that big so I suggest getting one as an appetizer or two to make it a complete meal.

Banh Mi at Danang Kitchen 

Pay attention to the daily specials board hanging over the cash register inside (they also update their Instagram at times). Bang Bang Chicken was listed on a recent visit and if not for my friend asking our young waiter what that was I would likely still be unfamiliar with this dish that I had just assumed was similar to Bang Bang Shrimp (a popular dish at corporate type spots). But as I learned from the waiters description Bang Bang Chicken or Xoi Man as it’s called in Vietnam starts with a big pile of sticky rice that’s topped with shredded chicken, Viet jerky, crispy onions, sliced omelet, and a semi funky fish sauce plus cilantro. You mix it all up and dig in and that we did. One of the best things I’ve ate of late. The type of dish that still has me thinking about it now and then weeks after I ate it so I can only hope it’s still on the menu the next time I stop by. But either way I can count on whatever they’re doing to be different than most of the other spots on the block and for that I’m a fan.

Bang Bang Chicken (Xoi Man)

Danang Kitchen 
1019 W Argyle St
Chicago, IL 60640
(773) 654-3564

Monday, March 13, 2023

Eating BIG in Athens

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties 
- Exploring "The City of the Violet Crown"

It had been more than three years since I last got to use my passport in a country that wasn’t Mexico. My wife was out in Paris for a few weeks this past January and I got the opportunity to join her. But having been to Paris twice already I wanted to add a new country to my list of those visited. A trip to Greece made the most sense and not just because the price was right but also because a longtime friend is currently living in Athens. Since it was winter it was the off-season for the islands but I figured if I visited Athens now I could spend a few more days on the islands when I return to Greece, having already been to Athens. But make no mistake about it this is definitely a city worth revisiting.

Churches of Athens

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Athens since this was a spur of the moment trip. I figured I’d like it as I do every European city I’ve visited over the years but of course some of those are more loved than others. Either way I tend to like the cultural capitals of pretty much every country I visit and Athens was no exception. It’s a city with some high energy that can be felt throughout the day. But it’s also pretty chill and laid back in it's own way. Even the nightlife here has a certain type of chill to it. I think that comes from the fact that Athens is the launching pad to the islands where a large number of Athenians spend their summers, chilling. It’s a large modern city with a very historical core. As far as the food I was surprised by how well Greek food translates across the world. The Greek food I’ve had in the United States or in places like Canada was pretty on par with that I had in Athens and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s just a more simple cuisine than most that relies on quality ingredients and freshness more than most. Like any European city of its magnitude Athens has a fantastic public market. My hotel was right around the corner from the Central Market and I enjoyed walking around the area each morning and watching all the vendors get ready for the day ahead. My only complaint of Athens is the smoking. Everyone and I mean everyone was a smoker or so it seemed. But I’m not here to tell people how to live. Just how to eat and we’re doing that in Athens Greece.

Pics from Athens

Tylixto Greek Wrap

My first order of business after landing and checking in to the hotel was to meet my friend and grab a beer and a gyro sandwich. We were able to do both at Tylixto Greek Wrap - a popular spot right in the middle of a busy pedestrian street in the historical Monastiraki neighborhood. The street used to be home to a bunch of textile shops and over the last decade or so it's become one of the main gathering spots for both tourists and residents. Tylixto is a walk up window popular for gyro sandwiches which come straight from one of two large vertical spits stacked with pork which is one of two noticeable differences in the gyros served in Greece and those served back home in Chicago and the rest of the U.S. where a mix of beef and lamb is standard. The other major difference is french fries are standard with your gyro in Athens where they act as a topping with tomato, onion, Tzatziki.

Gyro at Tylixto Greek Wrap


You'll find this hoppin' spot for Greek donuts directly next door to the gyro shop up above. So it only made sense to check it out since it was on the list and all. LUKUMAΔΕΣ is a new school spot offering up one of the worlds oldest pastries. Greek donuts or Lukumades as they're called in Greece go all the way back to the days of Aristotle who once wrote about these fried fluffy balls of dough. Since this was my first time trying them I got an order of plain which comes drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. Due to the constant flow of customers they fry the Lukumades non-stop so they come served piping hot. These were really good but really heavy. I could only do a few of them.

Lukumades at LUKUMAΔΕΣ


Nolan is a contemporary restaurant recommended in the Michelin Guide among other lists. It's ran by a local chef who's part Greek and part Japanese. Greco-Japanese flavors aren't a pair you see sharing the same bed too often so I wanted to check it out. I enjoyed the meal which hit all the traditional Greek and Japanese notes - fresh, colorful, simple, salty, sweet, sour. Reservations recommended.

Soba noodles with smoked salmon in tahini sauce

Short fin squid with fennel

Short fin squid with fennel

Bhaba Rhum Cake


I was very much looking forward to taking a step back in time at the 150+ year old Diporto. I learned about the iconic Athens taverna from the good people at Culinary Backstreets. It's located in what's literally an underground room right near the famous Central Market. The promise of "no sign, no menu, and no English" put Diporto on my must visit list. We visited early one morning thinking they would be in full swing but they were just getting started for the day (most places in Athens don't open early). The sardines weren't ready as one of the guys working was peeling them one by one at a table while the older guy who seemed to be the owner was tending to the pots on the burners. He told us only chickpeas and fava beans were ready so we got an order of each with a big loaf of crusty bread. The fava beans were mashed and served cold like a hummus with a bunch of olives, lemon, and onion on top while the chickpeas were a melt in your mouth stewed variety. While we were eating the old man brought us a bowl of simple but sensational orzo soup. This is peasant food at it's finest. 

Lunch at Diporto


Savory meat and cheese and spinach filled pies are a favorite snack of Athenians. You'll find 100's of pie options throughout Athens. Each spot does them a little different and offers a selection of pies ranging savory to sweet so of course each local has their favorites. One of the most popular is a place called Μάμ (pronounced Mam) that's known for their tiropita (pie with low fat cheese). Since 1958.

Cheese Pie at Μάμ


You have to try a spinach pie when in Athens and my friend brought me to his favorite spot for one. Makedonikon is a time capsule spot in the city centre where local law students and tourists in the know line up for spanakopita and the likes. The phyllo dough on these was next level. Since 1974.

Spinach Pie at Makedonikon

Elvis Suki

Souvlaki is Greece's most popular snack. It's typically served in a pita as a quick sandwich in Athens but O Elvis Souvlaki is the exception. They serve charcoal grilled skewers of meat on a plate with some fries. The use of pork is another common trait at the city’s souvlaki shops but Elvis offers a few different meat options including lamb which is pictured here with their pork. Some of the juiciest skewers of meat I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Made even better with a little splash of lemon. To me this is the epitome of Greek cuisine in that it’s simple while also being extremely flavorful. For those wondering about the Elvis name? Europeans have long stanned for American entertainers.

Souvlaki at Elvis


I ended up at this popular street food stand after another busy spot down the block had a long line that wasn't moving. Falafel in Europe is so much better than most of the places I've been to in the States and I think part of that is because Europe has a better street food culture. I noticed a nice crowd huddled around the ordering window at Falafellas and it was moving so I jumped in to try it out. On top of falafel they also offer fried Greek meatballs wrapped up with all the typical falafel toppings. That sounded good so I went ahead and got one with everything and that's where I think European spots really have the American falafel shops beat - an abundance of fresh toppings. 

Fried Meatball Wrap at Falafellas


Here's a spot that always seems to come up when Athens' best restaurants are discussed. Seychelles has been packing them in on a nightly basis since their opening in 2014. This modern Greek Taverna is a favorite of both Athenians and tourists alike. The menu changes regularly with the exception of their signature Papperdelle pasta which you'll see sitting on every occupied table. It’s a tomato free recipe that pairs beef and lamb confit with a soft and salty and creamy Greek cheese. The secret might be in the cooking process which consists of boiling the noodles in a very little amount of water, which is slowly added when needed. The end result is a flavor banger. While the pasta was the star of our meal the mutton kebabs with a feta - tomato paste were also pretty good as was a banana curd dessert of some sort. This was the spot that almost everyone who had dining recs in Athens suggested so make sure you get a reservation as it’s really popular, and rightfully so.

Dinner at Seychelles

Kosta's Souvlaki

Every Athenian has a go-to spot for Souvlaki. It's to Athens as the hot dog is to Chicago in that it's a commonly found snack. Kostas is probably the city's most iconic stand so I made sure to stop by and try a sandwich. They opened in 1950 and are still ran by Kostas though it's the son of the founding father. Kostas serves up what's a slightly smaller than average souvlaki but fans will tell you it doesn't need to be the biggest to be the best. A skewer of lean pork comes wrapped in a toasted grease free pita with red onion, tomato, tzatziki, parsley, paprika and their signature tomato sauce.

Souvlaki at Kostas

Lefteris O Politis (est. 1951)

My favorite souvlaki came from this place which commonly popped up when searching online for the best that Athens had to offer. Good marketing by them to include their established date in the name as it caught my eye. Lefteris O Politis serves up a beef souvlaki as the owners father came to Athens from Constantinople where pork is/was non-existent with the majority Muslim population. I came here right around their opening time and there was already a nice line. Extra juicy ground beef kebabs are seared on a sizzling hot flatttop and dressed with tomato, red onion, and a dash of paprika.

Souvlaki at Lefteris O Politis (est. 1951)

Ε/Γ Ταξιδεύοντας

We took a daytrip to the town of Pireas for some fresh fish. The city by the seaside is basically an extension of Athens and the launching point for the Greek Islands. But it’s also a town that offers up the best seafood in the Athens area. My friend got a hot tip by a friend of his from here about a spot that’s not on the water and thus is a bit more local than the restaurants that are. Another good sign was the menu changes daily based on what’s fresh. On our visit that included grilled sardines and fresh fried squid paired with fresh cut fries and fried cheese (saganaki) among other treats the kitchen sent out. A perfect little lunch on a beautiful January day. I could get used to fresh fish and extra mild winters mixed with long summers spent island hopping. Copy and paste the name to find this place.

Lunch at Ε/Γ Ταξιδεύοντας

Bairaktaris Tavern

If you're looking for the best gyro in Athens it felt like that was always the closest one to you. I know it's a bit of a cliche to say but the truth is they're all very similar over there just like they are here. The difference is they serve a higher quality product that features pork and not lamb / beef. You can see the layers of meat in each sliced piece which is always a good sign when it comes to spit roasted meat. I was walking by Bairaktaris Tavern which was busy on a beautiful Sunday. I watched as some customers walked up and ordered a gyro to eat while strolling and I followed in their footsteps.

Gyro at Bairaktaris Tavern

Falafel Al Sharq

There's also a ton of falafel options in Athens for those that don't eat meat or want a change of pace from it. Falafel Al Sharq is an Egyptian owned spot that serves up some stellar balls of fried chickpeas. This is the type of place where backpackers can get a complete meal for around 5 euro.

Falafel Sandwich at Falafel Al Sharq

Every great city has good ice cream and I found some at Kokkion near the Central Market. It's owned by a graduate of France's Cordon Bleu patissiere program. She makes all the ice cream on site using fresh and natural ingredients. I like to look for flavors you might not find elsewhere at an ice cream shop like this and I found one with the kaimaki. I had no idea what that was but she let me try it and I rally liked it so I got a scoop. This was not your typical ice cream as far as texture. It was chewy and stretchy similar to the Middle Eastern ice cream I've tried. It's made with a spice made out of an orchid plant as well as Mastiha (Greek liqueur) and rose water. A little bit of research shows that kaimaki came to Greece with the Turkish immigrants. Also of note is the pistachio with cinnamon.

Kaimaki Ice cream at Kokkion

Karavitas Tavern

One of the main things I wanted to do in Athens was eat dinner at a classic Greek Taverna. You’ll find 100’s if not 1000’s of them across the city and I settled on Karavitas which has been at it since 1926. Diners are greeted with massive barrels of wine that line the walls upon entry. The next thing you notice is the smell of smoke coming from the kitchen. Karavitas is known for having some of the smokiest lamb chops in town. Their most popular menu item is available by the kilo (half kilos too) and served with fries and lots of lemon. Lamb chops in Greece are sliced different than they are in the States. Over here they’re typically served to groups of diners and thus they’re thinly sliced and piled high on a platter. I’ve been craving these lamb chops regularly since my return to Chicago. We also got Greek meatballs that were somehow extremely firm on the outside and seriously soft within. I wish I knew their secret as I’ve never had a meatball quite like that. A Greek salad with homemade Tzasitski rounded out a very satisfying meal to end a very satisfying visit to Athens. Not sure when I’ll be back but I look forward to another meal in a classic Greek Taverna when I return. See ya next time!

Dinner at Karavitas Tavern

See ya next time @chibbqking 


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