10 June 2010

Raging the Windy City à la Wind God Gau Pt. 2

After seeing Taste of Peru featured on DD&D and finding out that it was mere walking distance from M's place, I immediately added it to our itinerary. So we skipped breakfast and walked over to ToP on Saturday.

 We accidentally arrived 30 mins early so we spent a little time browsing the store next door. As soon as it opened we sat ourselves and began perusing the menu. The complimentary aji was fantastic although I felt it was a little odd that they served it with generic Italian bread.

It had a spicy kick to it, but this being one of my favorite table sauces, I'm not quite sure if this aji was as good as the aji at El Serrano in Lancaster. We ordered two appetizers: the Peruvian tamal and the Papa Relleno.

I cut off the end of the tamal and put it on my plate along with the sweet onion salad. Unfortunately I didn't think ahead when I did this and due to the nature of how tamales are made I got mostly masa with one piece of chicken (it was also stuffed with olives, peppers, and other goodies). The masa was tender and different, but nothing I would rave about. What really stole the show was the onion salad marinated (pickled?) in fresh lime juice. The whole table agreed that they should serve a big bowl of this by itself as an appetizer. It was terrific.

The Papa Relleno, on the other hand, blew us all away. It was an ostrich egg sized beast with a thin mashed potato shell that may or may not have had an egg wash stuffed with ribeye, walnuts, raisins, eggs, and olives. Now this is what I love about regional cuisine. Putting seemingly, to the average American at least, random ingredients together and the resulting dish turns out to be wonderfully harmonious plate of food.

You had tender beef, crunchy nuts, sweet raisins, salty olives, and some eggy eggness for good measure all performing their rendition of STOMP on your taste buds. Add in the fact that this also came with another heaping serving of that great onion salad and this dish had us all eagerly anticipating our entrees. When M emailed me a few days after I got back from Chicago saying that they had already eaten there again, I almost threw my monitor out the window. Why oh why do I live in the culinary wasteland (for the most part, anyway) that is Harford County, MD? Bah, I'll stop my whining, on to the entrees. We ordered three to share: their most popular dish Lomo Saltado, the Seco de Cordero, the Arroz con Mariscos and a side of yucca fritas.

The yucca fritas were a wonderful spin on traditional french fries. These fries had more textural contrast than any potato fry I'd had before. A great golden crunchy shell on the outside with an uber light fluffy tender interior. Dipped in the aji they were great. As my voice memo states: Daddy like the fried yucca in me belly.

The Arroz con Mariscos is basically the Peruvian take on paella. Since I'd been dying to try paella again, only having had it once at Sala 19, I immediately went for that first. ToP's rendition took a big hulking sh!t all over S19. They could learn a thing or two from these guys... How to not suck for one thing. The seafood was all cooked perfectly, nice and tender, and the different flavors were easily distinguishable from one another. My favorite piece was the mussel which was fresh and flavorful, but I loved the tiny scallops and whole body squiddies.

Since I was the food-blogging guest I claimed the snow crab claw which yielded a lovely piece of sweet and tender claw meat.

The Lomo Saltado was good, but not great. It's rib eye sauteed with tomatoes, onion, and french fries and cooked with beer. It makes me sad knowing that a lot of people have dined at ToP and only sampled their most famous best-selling dish when there are numerous better dishes on the menu.

The meat was tender and the fries were fine and it was a nice melange of flavors, but I wasn't really blown away by any one thing on the plate. This dish benefited greatly by having some of the aji mixed in. I wonder how this dish would've been if they used yucca fritas instead of the plain old french fries... Something to ponder.

Last but not least the Seco de Cordero, which is lamb stewed in red wine, pumpkin, beer, ancho chile, and red peppers was another great dish. It reminded me of some of the preparations of goat I've had, which isn't a bad thing.

It was super gamey, which I love, and the rich gravy was terrific. How could it not be with all of those fantastic ingredients? I loved the addition of peas which added a nice sweetness to the dish.

The unanimous favorites of our meal were the Papa Relleno, the Yucca Fritas, and the Secco de Cordero. We were all very pleased with our meal and felt it was a great way to start the day. We dropped MG off back at the apartment and let our food settle for an hour or so. M and I took the opportunity to plan out the rest of our dining adventures for the day. M's choice was Ba Le a Vietnamese bakery of sorts he used to frequent when he first moved to Chicago and lived nearby. I'd been wanting to try Banh Mi (LINK) for a very long time so I readily agreed. I thought a stop at Hoosier Mama Pie Company would follow nicely to satiate our sweet tooth. After that it was up in the air really, but the ultimate plan was to hit up the Map Room for awesome beers and then take up reservations I had made for a late dinner at Nightwood. Day planned, we headed out.

Upon arrival at Ba Le I was really taken aback by the bizarre decor featuring supermodels posing with/oogling Vietnamese sandwiches.

The interior sort of reminded me of a more toned down Rice to Riches. I wanted to try a traditional Banh Mi so we ordered the #1 Ba Le Special which featured pate, ham, headcheese, pork roll, mayonnaise, house pickled daikon & carrot, cilantro, jalapeno ,onion, soy sauce, salt & pepper. M's all-time favorite was the #9 the star of which was lemongrass marinated strips of grilled pork. As is the case at most authentic Vietnamese bakeries the combined price for the two sandwiches was a whopping $6.50. $5 footlong eat your heart out. We also picked up some beverages from the sliding glass cooler opposite the ordering counter, one of which I remembered seeing on SE:NY.

I went for the Ba Le Special to establish a baseline for what a traditional Banh Mi is. The shining star was the amazing French baguette. It achieved the perfectly crisp but not overly-so crust along with a spongy soft interior. The first flavor that hit me was the ultra-fresh cilantro, then the saltiness from the meats kicked in, and a nice crunch from the pickled veggies. Honestly, If it weren't for the accoutrement it tasted to me like nothing more than a quality American coldcut. Fortunately after tasting the #9, I could see why M ordered this and only this.

Now this was a righteous sandwich. The Special was cast aside to be forgotten. The smoky grilled flavor of the pork combined with the sweet hoisin and the snap of the green onion. We devoured the #9 without coming up for breath. A damn fine sandwich indeed.

The beverages turned out to be a great impulse buy. The Che Bap tasted exactly like creamed corn coconut rice pudding. Since I love all of those things it shouldn't surprise you that I really enjoyed the drink.

I especially liked crunchy pop from the corn kernels. Now the Che Sam Bo Luong featured sea weed, logan, pearl barley, red dates, and sugar. I'm struggling to find words to describe it.

It was like an aquatic microcosm of strange and delicious floaty things. After emerging from this culinary aquascape unscathed, we could've taught Jacques Cousteau a thing or two.

The logan was our favorite thing, having a crisp texture kind of like an onion. Before you go quaffing this stuff by the gallon I feel I should warn you that the dates have pits. I found that out the hard way. Ow...

At this point any normal person would've disposed of their trash in the designated receptacles and headed out the door, but not us. We had all kinds of potentially delicious oddities to try. We went back in and starting pointing and grabbing and ended up with a large styrofoam tray of spring rolls, a pork bun, a glutinous rice pork sandwich thing, and a banana leaf wrapped pyramid filled with all sorts of hidden treasures.

The spring rolls were some of the best I'd had. I liked that they provided a separate container for your chopped peanuts so we could portion them out as we pleased. I just dumped the whole thing into the sauce, we had no time for portioning! Fresh mint is essential in any good spring roll and here it really popped and the sticky rice paper... sticky. It just all tasted really fresh. I'd gladly gnaw on a gangrenous stump if it were dipped in that sauce.

Unfortunately the other three items we tried were all failures, although some moreso than others. The pork sandwich thing was coated in a banana leaf for who knows what reason and could not be extricated so the only bite I took had to be pulled apart from the tough leaf with my teeth.

One bite was more than enough of that. I was expecting the pork bun to have a sweet hoisin-laden filling, but instead it was filled with what seemed like peppered finely chopped pork and quail eggs.

The bun itself was good, fresh and chewy, but this was another item where one bite was more than enough. Finally, the pyramid was pretty much the same filling but this time it was stuffed in a pyramid of glutinous rice flour.

The more I dug into it the more I lost my appetite for it.
What can I say, a jiggly white congealed triangle just doesn't get my taste buds firing.

If I were to patronize Ba Le again, my go-to order would be the spring rolls and a #9 with a cup of Che Bap. We didn't waste any time getting to Hoosier Mama Pie Company.

Luckily, we got there minutes before they closed so it was pretty empty. We browsed the menu and I was sad to see they had run out of their Bourbon-Pecan Chess Pie. M left the ordering up to me, but as soon as he saw the little sign saying they offered ice cream, he immediately added in an order for each. So our final order ended up being a slice of Apple Pie with vanilla bean ice cream, a slice of Strawberry-Rhubarb pie with sour cream cinnamon ice cream, a slice of Sweet Cream Pie, and a slice of Chocolate Chess Pie. Booyah.

We both heartily agreed that, aside from the Apple Pie which was more cinnamony, all of the pies were entirely too sweet. The highlight of this place was definitely the crust which was nice and thick and flaky. The crust was the same on all offerings except the Chocolate Chess which had a plain flavorless crust.

My favorite was the Strawberry-Rhubarb, then the Sweet Cream, the Apple, and in a distant fourth the Chocolate Chess. The latter tasted to me like those individually wrapped Little Debbie fudge brownies sans the chopped nuts.

The Sweet Cream, which is their signature offering, tasted like sweetened condensed milk and, while good, was just way too sweet.

The Apple Pie had large chunks of apple whereas I prefer layered thin slices and, as I mentioned earlier, a nice hefty dose of cinnamon that offset the sweetness. I enjoyed it, especially paired with the vanilla ice cream, but my dad's girlfriend's Apple Pie blows this out of the water. This was M's favorite since it wasn't overly sweet. He ranked them Apple, Sugar Cream, Strawberry-Rhubarb, and lastly Chocolate Chess. Overall we both agreed this place is pretty over-hyped. Good pie, but nothing to go out of your way for.

We left with stomachs bulging to the point of bursting. But I felt good. We were two skinny white dudes feasting on pie and rocking out to some Wu-Tang clan. Two hip slightly pregnant dudes on top of the world. We both agreed we may have overdone it a bit consuming as much pie as we did, so the chances of us making out res at Nightwood were looking bleak, so we ultimately decided to head over to the Map Room as planned and see where the night took us from there.

I was going to keep on truckin' with this post but Mrs. Micro and I are headed to NYC for the weekend to partake in the 2010 Big Apple BBQ Block Party so I won't have a chance to write any more. So I leave you hanging here, you'll just have to keep checking back for part 3 of my trip to Chicago! See you all next week.

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theminx said...

If you liked that Banh Mi, you would have loved the BLT Banh Mi I made for a cook-off this past weekend.

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