Monday, July 31, 2023

Aroy Thai

-Grubbing in Chicago  
Northern Thai Food in Ravenswood

Despite the fact I’ve been blogging about Chicago restaurants for more than 15 years I still haven’t posted about all of my go-to spots. No reason in particular other than I just haven’t gotten around to doing so in part because it’s not like most of us don’t know about a place like Aroy Thai. But if not it’s just north of the Damen brown line station where it’s a neighborhood staple. It’s one of the many spots I was put onto by LTHforum back in the message boards early days. The purpose of the still up and running site was to shine a light on spots like Aroy Thai and that purpose was more than achieved as it’s always listed among the city’s best Thai restaurants and rightfully so. There’s no such thing as a hidden gem anymore and it seems like everyone has been everywhere but I still wanted to throw up a little piece on one of my favorite places in town for the bold and beautiful flavors of Northern Thailand. Aroy (which means tasty in Thai) has a nice menu selection of Northern Thai favorites. 

Locals Favorite in Ravenswood

Aroy Thai is a very casual spot but the food is very formal. The menu sports many of the classics you’ll find at most Thai restaurants around town but it also has some of the stuff you won’t find everywhere and that’s what I come here for. Options like the Morning Glory (Pak Boong) which is the nickname for stir fried water spinach. I first came across it in Chiang Mai and I instantly became a big fan. Most spots stir fry it over a high heat with garlic and chilies plus dry and liquid seasonings. It’s salty, sweet, and spicy which are just a few of the key components of Thai food. Although Morning Glory is common at restaurants in SE Asia it’s less common here. Aroy Thai is one of the few spots in town that seems to have it.

Morning Glory at Aroy Thai 

If I see some form of grilled pork collar on the menu I’ll order it more times than not. I think this might have been the first spot I tried it in the form of Thai style grilled pork neck (Kor Moo Yang). It’s a pretty traditional dish. Aroy serves a version that’s well charred and comes with a wonderfully funky and spicy jeow sauce that packs a ton of bold flavor. I like how they cut the meat up into bite size pieces as it’s tender but comes with a slight chew. Make a complete meal out of it by adding a sticky rice. 

Grilled Pork Collar at Aroy Thai 

Speaking of sticky rice one of my favorite “quick meals” is grabbing an order of sticky rice along with a small cup of jeow sauce to keep in the fridge for a quick breakfast (or even lunch or dinner). All I do is add a fried egg to the mix. The runny egg yolk is a great match with the savory jeow sauce and the sticky rice is the perfect delivery vehicle for it. Thai food has become comfort food for me and Aroy is one of my go-to spots for something comforting. I’ve been eating here for more than a decade. 

Sticky Rice, Fried Egg, Jeow Sauce 

Aroy Thai
4654 N Damen Ave
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 275-8360

Monday, July 24, 2023

North Shore Food Options

-Grubbing in Chicagoland
Food (and a beach) along the North Shore 

July is almost over and with it so is the summer. That said you still have all of August to inhale as much warm weather while soaking up as much sun as you can. Chicago in the summer is second to none but sometimes I like to escape the crowds and head up the lake into the North Shore. Riding Sheridan Road up into Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, Glencoe, Highland Park, Highwood, Fort Sheridan, Lake Forest, and Lake Bluff is one of the nicest drives (or bike rides) in Illinois. I head up that way semi regularly in the summer to visit my favorite public beach in the Chicagoland area. A relatively unknown spot where there’s free street parking (limited), soft sand and the water is clear. Elmwood Dunes is an acre of lakefront property that had been fenced off and closed to the public for decades. During that time the dunes had become overgrown with trees and shrubs and then in 2015 they decided to fix up the eyesore and restore the area and with it open a public beach. While it isn’t that big and it does come with a weird swimming rule it just might be the best public (non paying) beach in the Chicagoland area. Sometimes I’ll go as far north as Zion to visit Illinois Beach State Park which can be nice when the crowds aren't large (avoid on holidays) but I digress. Todays post is exclusively a collection of food stops from the North Shore which I’ve always considered to be just the suburbs north of Chicago that touch the lake from Evanston to Lake Bluff. It’s a peaceful place but it’s also vanilla when it comes to options for food and fun. That said there’s still spots worth a stop should you need to eat before or after you beach. Just don’t expect them to be life changing. 

Elmwood Dunes (Wilmette)

Buck Russell's Sandwich Shop (Wilmette)

We'll start in Wilmette since that's where Elmwood Dunes resides. Having attended Loyola Academy for a couple years I'm familiar with the area and it's old school spots like Chuck Wagon and Dairy Queen and also the place where we'll end this post. But first up is a newish sandwich shop owned by Ballyhoo Hospitality. They run eight places situated in Lincoln Park or Wilmette plus one in Lakeview. Buck Russell's is their daytime sandwich spot that's connected to an ice cream shop and bakery. They fixed up the space to feel like an old school diner and they offer both hot and cold sandwiches. Some of them are more traditional like a meatball melt and others are a little more unique like the "Smilin' Guy" with Turkey, Tavern Ham, Hot Soppressata, Muenster, Lettuce, Tomato, Giardiniera on your choice of white or wheat. I liked the combination of ingredients but the bread is Subway soft. 

The Smilin' Guy at Buck Russell's

Noon O Kabab (Highwood)

Albany Park's Noon O Kabab recently expanded to the suburbs with the people of Highwood being the winners of a new location. It's already very popular as evidenced by my visit a couple weeks ago. Diners order at the counter and are given a number for the food runner to find you. The menu seems to be pretty much the same as the city location with the prices being a dollar or two more. I always get the Koubideh Kabab with beef which comes with your choice of rice (white or dill), grilled tomatoes, raw onion, pita, hot sauce. All smelled well upon it's arrival and it pretty much was with the rice being as fluffy as it is in the city however only one side of the kabab seemed to be charred properly giving it a bit of an off putting texture in that it was wet as it seemed to be held. It did come out pretty fast.  

Koubideh Kabab at Noon O Kabab

The Left Bank (Lake Forest)

Our next stop seems a little out of place in the swanky downtown district of Lake Forest but it's been a part of the community going back to 1963. I bet the area was a bit different back then. The Left Bank is known for their hot dogs and Sloppy Joe's and just being an inexpensive option in an expensive area. I'd never been there until just recently so I had to go with their chili cheese dog and the ‘Not So Sloppy Joe’ both of which seem to be among their most popular offerings. They use a non Vienna Beef brand that's skinless and made with pork among other things. I don't mind these as much on a chili cheese dog bc the chili and cheese add as much to the part as the hot dog itself. The chili sauce is a tasty bean free version, as it should be. The not so Sloppy Joe is a hollowed out roll stuffed with a ground beef mixture with the option of onions and cheese to go with it. I liked the idea but the roll was rather cold making the sandwich that too. 

Lunch at The Left Bank 

Tacos El Norte (Lake Bluff)

Lake Bluff is another suburb with a very nice beach except it cost money to enter and that just doesn't feel right so I don't go there. But I do like to stop at Tacos El Norte if I'm in the area. They seem to have a few locations in Lake County though the menu seems to vary by location. This one shares a building with a Panera Bread which seems to be busy during lunch while Tacos El Norte brings in the crowds for dinner. I've stopped here a few times for the Taco de Julio which is a seared piece of ribeye with a cheese skirt served with sautéed jalapeno and onion. An excellent specialty taco. 

Julios Taco at Tacos El Norte 

Homer's Ice Cream (Wilmette)

For our last stop we head back to Wilmette to hit up the institution that is Homer's Ice Cream. They've been serving the area since the 1930's so if you grew up in Wilmette you've been to Homer's. You can find their excellent ice cream at other spots in the Chicagoland area but their old school cafeteria like feel is a big part part of the charm. They also serve food like burgers and gyros and fries but none of that is homemade like the ice cream is. Homer's has the best cookie and cream I've ever come across. It's loaded with fully intact Oreos and it’s extra thick and creamy. I also love their peach which is a summertime special. Usually I'll get them in hand packed pints as they supply dry ice for free allowing me to bring them home without them melting. They're a pretty good deal too at under $12 for two. One of the North Shore’s most iconic businesses, it’s always busy in the summer.

Peach Ice cream at Homer's 

See ya next time @chibbqking 

Monday, July 17, 2023

Nomonomo Japanese Pub + Grill

-Grubbing in Chicago  
Japanese Pub Grub in Logan Square

As we all know by now 2020 messed a lot of stuff up. Particularly in the restaurant industry. But three years later and we’ve got a little bit of normalcy back though it’ll likely never be quite the same. The pandemic forced lots of spots to close and many of them never reopened but Nomonomo Japanese Pub is no longer one of them. It first opened amid the pandemic and closed not too long after that.

Recently Opened in Logan Square 

If you're familiar with Ramen Wasabi this is its sister restaurant along with Menya Goku on Montrose too. I got to go once during its first iteration but it was all to go so all I had was a bowl of Niku udon that hit the spot on a cold winters night. I had looked forward to returning for more but they eventually closed and the space sat empty for more than a year if not longer. I pass by it all the time since it’s a short walk from my house and I always wondered if and when they would return and if not when another spot would move in. Then out of nowhere I passed by one day and they were suddenly open again. I was excited enough to go over there a day later and try some of the skewers and also the udon. They also have small plates featuring a nice selection of Japanese bar food. But it’s the skewers grilled over binchotan charcoal and udon that dominates the menu. We started with a few skewers including a shishito slathered in tare sauce on the rec of our waiter plus a few of the chicken options and a couple specials including a Tsukune (ground chicken) stuffed with cheese. I liked them all and have been back a couple times since my first visit. This is a good spot for solo dining. 

Yakitori at Nomonomo Japanese Pub

I like the fact that they decided to do udon instead of ramen since you can just go next door if you want ramen. Udon is becoming really popular with places that specialize in it popping up across the country. I fell in love with udon on a trip to Japan. Having enjoyed their Niku Udon before I figured the other udon options would be good here and they were. My recent visit was on a hot day so I focused in on the broth-less udons by pairing the Mentaiko Udon with their yaki udon mixed with kimchi and pork. I preferred the Mentaiko udon which is made by tossing a spicy cod roe into the housemade udon noodles. You get a little bit of heat mixed with the taste of the sea. It packs a nice umami punch. I liked the yaki udon too but it was wetter than I would’ve liked. The little bite size pieces of pork were tender and the kimchi was crunchy while the noodles were slightly chewy which is how they should be. I'm really glad to have this spot back as it's a great place to go when I don't want to go far even though I would happily drive here if it wasn't near. But like I've said on the site before, Logan Square is the city's best food neighborhood and it just keeps on getting better. 

Mentaiko Udon / Yaki Udon 

Nomonomo Japanese Pub
2115 N Milwaukee Ave
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 697-4286

Monday, July 10, 2023

Big Star Mariscos

-Grubbing in Chicago  
Mexican Seafood in West Town

There’s not many restaurants in Chicago that are more polarizing than Big Star. Some love it and others do not. The “new age” taqueria is about to turn 15 years old next year. Love it or lose it, it’s become one of the city’s most well known taco spots since it debuted back in 2009. It was one of the first of it's kind as far as these new school taquerias go. There weren't a ton of spots like Big Star when it opened but fast forward to today and they're everywhere. It’s popularity allowed them to expand to a second location in Wrigleyville and they also opened a seafood focused bar and restaurant last year in West Town. Of course it came with buzz but like all of the trendy spots that buzz was eventually replaced with buzz from newer spots. I was surprised to find a mostly empty house on a weekend visit when the sun was and out and people were about. 

Recently Opened in West Town

Even though mariscos is in the name of the restaurant it’s not all seafood. I understand why in that we’re in the Midwest and some people won’t eat seafood but the menu feels a little watered down because of that. In fact we first visited over the weekend around 2p and we couldn’t order half of the seafood options bc they were only serving the brunch menu. A brunch menu consisting mostly of stuff that wasn’t seafood. Items like breakfast tacos and what not. It was pretty annoying when you consider that mariscos is more commonly lunch in Mexico in large part bc you eat it when you’re at the beach and what not. Basically we went there with intent to try two of the more interesting seafood options and were told we had to come back after 3p for either of them. We did so in part bc we had our minds set on some grilled shrimp and Pescado Zarandeado but it’s a bit of a head scratcher that they don’t do seafood for lunch on the weekend unless you just want tacos or some ceviche.

Camarones Borrachos at Big Star Mariscos

The two previously mentioned dishes are the reason to check out Big Star Mariscos. First up is the Camarones Borrachos. The name translates to drunken shrimp due to the use of tequila or beer when cooking them. The menu describes these as Mexican white shrimp (shell on) with a chipotle-mezcal salsa served with garlic rice, green onion, cilantro. The shrimp come grilled and are tossed in a spicy garlicly sauce with a nice zing. My major complaint is the shrimps weren’t easy to peel. I had trouble getting the shell disconnected from the meat but the flavor was there and the rice was pretty good mixed with the sauce. Pescado Zarandeado was the other other dish that caught my eye. It's a product of the Nayarit, the Mexico State clamped between the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental and the Pacific Ocean. The name comes from the zaranda which is what they traditionally used to grill the fish which is split in half and cooked over a live fire. I doubt Big Star grills theirs over wood or charcoal but they do a pretty textbook version otherwise. Seabass is rubbed with a guajillo adobo and served with caramelized onions, smashed cucumbers, cilantro and their made on-site corn tortillas. It’s a dish meant to split but we found it easy to eat the entire thing between just two of us. I would come back just for that and maybe a margarita in the sun it just sucks I cant do that before 3p.

Pescado Zarandeado 

Big Star Mariscos
551 N Ogden Ave
Chicago, IL 60642
(312) 521-5169

Monday, July 3, 2023

More Burgers in Illinois

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Burgers in the Heartland 

Is there any food more American than the burgers? Today we celebrate one of our country's greatest culinary inventions - cheeseburgers. As I've typed many a times on this site, the Midwest is a hotspot for burgers. You'll find the largest concentration of old school burger spots in the Midwest region. States like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois offer up endless options. Local places that have been serving their communities for decades on end. Here in Illinois you'll find a large number of old school burger spots in the central part of the state. It was back in 2015 that I first introduced the internet to the smashed crispy burgers of Central Illinois. The smashed burger has become a national phenomenon since that post first dropped. You can find one just about anywhere these days but today we head back to the land where they were abundant long before influencers were a thing. 


Dairy King (Breese)

Our first stop is Breese, Illinois (pop. 4641) where there’s not one but two iconic burger stands that sit across the street from each other. First up is the local Dairy King which has been a part of the Breese community since 1951 when it was a small ice cream shack in the back of another business. The old building was torn down and a new one with a drive-thru lane was built. They have a couple signature items including the Cheese Squeeze which is two smashed beef patties with American and Swiss cheese plus grilled onions, lettuce, tomato, mayo. If melts aren’t your thing go for a classic cheeseburger which gets a textbook smash. A large selection of the locally made soda pop called Ski is the other big draw, along with ice cream. The soda pop comes from the nearby Excel Bottling plant and is avilable in different flavors like citrus and a cheery that was developed for Dairy King. They sell the largest volume of fountain Ski including an exclusive Rainbow Ski which is a mix of flavors and a bunch of crushed ice. A legendary stop in the Metro-East region of the Greater St. Louis metro area.

Cheeze Squeeze and Rainbow Ski at Dairy King 

Wally's (Breese)

You'll find Wally's right across the street from Dairy King. They opened in 1951 in a converted gas station. We arrived around 10:45a about 15 mins after opening and it was already packed with locals picking up lunch on the job and families coming from soccer and such. Many were leaving with boxes of burgers to bring elsewhere. The meat is ground on site and formed into thinner patties that are cooked up to 50 at a time on weekends. It’s best to get a double which is less than $4 and better than most burgers of any price-point. Although these weren’t smashed they were full of flavor and carried the aroma of a slider. I knew I would like me some Wally’s just from the looks of it but I was surprised just how good it was. One of the best anywhere but some still prefer the spot across the street.

Double Cheeseburger from Wally's 

Fairview Inn (Fairview Heights)

We drove over the Mississippi River from St. Louis into Fairview Heights Illinois: home of the Fairview Inn, a dive bar known for it’s burger. Fresh balls of beef are smashed on a tiny four wheel flattop behind the bar. Pictured below is a double that almost melts in your mouth due to the softness of the beef and the bun. A real deal contender that’s relatively unknown outside of the area. Both the bar and the cheeseburger reminded me some of Green Gables in Hudson which served one of the best burgers in the state before burning down in a fire. Hopefully this place doesn't meet the same fate. 

Double Cheeseburger at Fairview Inn

Bill's Toasty Shop (Taylorville)

I finally got to visit this Central Illinois classic that I’d been trying to get to for years but it just never worked out despite the fact it’s open 24/7. Bill’s Toasty Shop has been at it since 1932 and shows no signs of slowing down. Burgers come in 1/4, 1/2, 1 lb and 1.5 lb portions with the 1/2 pounder pictured below. It’s a classic setup with a long counter with seating for about 10 and a few tables lined up against the wall behind it. The grill is at the front near the window and there’s pretty much never a time when burgers aren’t being cooked on it. Fresh balls of beef are lightly smashed and full of flavor from the veteran flattop. This was one bad ass burger and the handspun milkshakes are also great.

Cheeseburger at Bill's Toasty Shop

Fulgenzi's Pizza & Pasta (Springfield)

Double Smashed Crispy Burger, Slim Jim Sandwich, Chilli, and a housemade tortellini soup (not pictured). That was our lunch spread at Fulgenzi’s in Springfield across the street from the State Fairgrounds in the former location of the local legend that was Custard Castle. The space was taken over in 1979 by a local alderman who turned it into an Italian restaurant but kept around the regionally loved smashed burgers that made Custard Castle so popular. Central Illinois style Chilli, yes it’s a thing, always spelled with two L’s, is very popular in these parts too. The most glaring characteristic of Central Illinois style "chilli" is the puddle of grease on top of each bowl. This is called oleo oil and it comes from the suet used. You’re supposed to use all the oyster crackers you get with it to soak up all the oil. Other than that it’s ground beef, kidney beans and whatever other secret ingredients are used. I’ve seen recipes calling for tomato juice and other interesting stuff. Honestly I’m getting to old to eat this but I had to document it and gave it a taste too. I like it but it’s without a doubt a heart stopper. Despite numerous trips down here I’d never heard of The Slim Jim Sandwich which is another regional specialty which the lady taking our order told me is a relic of another long gone town favorite, Tops Big Boy. A Slim Jim is grilled hot ham, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sauce which here is thousand island dressing but elsewhere around town some spots use tartar sauce which is basically what Bob’s Big Boy Sauce was back in that chains heyday. No room for a Horseshoe but they have those here too. There's lots of interesting food stops down in the State Capital.

Lunch at Fulgenzi's (click pics to enhance)

See ya next time @chibbqking 


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