Antique Taco: What’s in a Name?

26 Jul

Antique Taco is not your average taqueria. With options like mushroom and kale tacos and chili cheese curds, it is a delicious, if pricier taco option for lunch or a casual dinner. Should you give it a try? Read on and see.

What’s in a Name?

At first Antique Taco posed a challenge for me; I had a little trouble getting past the name. Who wants to eat an antique taco? I’ll take a fresh one thank you. But the place has generated such a buzz that I had to give it a try. And let’s be honest, I can be a little too literal, or so I’ve been told. Who worries about eating an antique taco?

Photo of Antique Taco Outside Mural

Your Brain on Antique Taco

The Place

Antique Taco is located in Wicker Park on a stretch of Milwaukee Avenue filled with a wild assortment of businesses, from cheesy furniture stores that have been there for decades to relative newbies like the Copenhagen Cyclery, which sells bikes I pine for. The restaurant occupies a corner store front with two walls of windows and a welcoming, quaint, striped awning. Inside, the white muslin drapes and rough-around-the-edges farmhouse furniture give the place a vintage vibe, hence the name, Antique Taco.

Photo of Antique Taco's Crispy Fish Taco

Crispy Fish Tacos

The Food

Like I said, this is not your average taco shop. The menu puts food into categories they call tacos, baskets, mas, treats and beverages. From the taco section, my friend Michelle and I ordered the crispy fish and the rib eye tacos. Two tacos come in an order, so if you want to try more than one kind, bring a friend who likes to share. One of the best things about these tacos is the ample, toothsome tortilla. It’s got great rustic flavor and is substantial enough to handle the taco fillings without falling apart. Both the rib eye and the crispy fish taco were delicious, with multiple layers of flavor and texture. The crispy fish taco has a tempura breading and comes with smoked cabbage and Sriracha tartar sauce. The rib eye taco is served with the traditional salsa, cilantro, onions and queso enchilada.

Guacamole and Chips

Guac and Chips

The baskets come on one of those old school card board baskets berries used to come in when I was a kid. The corn off the cob salad is crunchy, salty and tangy. The guac and chips are exactly what you except, but don’t eat any of the baskets too slowly or your bowl becomes a soggy mess. The next time I visit I plan to order the chili cheese curds from the Mas category. What’s not to like about beer battered cheese curds, chorizo chili and crema fresco?

In the beverage category, Antique Taco serves agua fresco or fruit “waters” that are typically Mexican. I loved the Agua de Jamaica, which is a sweet hibiscus drink that comes with an old fashioned spiral striped paper straw that is so very vintage, but that is the tactile equivalent of fingers down a chalkboard for me. Since we were there for lunch, I was a good girl and ordered my agua de jamaica sans vodka but there’s no reason YOU should. The margaritas sound awfully nice and fresh as well.

The Service

If you’ve read my blogs, you know how I feel about counter service. It makes a meal seem casual, and I prefer to be waited on. But in some instances it is done well and at lunch or at BYOBs, I can overlook it. At Antique Taco the wait staff will bring your meal right to your table as it comes out of the kitchen, so there’s no real pacing your meal. This is an eat it and move on kind of place. The service at Antique Taco was friendly and fast, perfectly fine for lunch or a week night dinner.

Should I Stay (Home) or Should I Go?

As usual, as you read this paragraph the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I go should be playing in your head. Definitely give Antique Taco a try for lunch or a casual dinner. The food, though a little pricey for tacos, is great. The menu offers some classic offerings served with a special Antique Taco twist. Go with a friend who likes to share so you can try out as many of the interesting things on the menu as possible. Or, go if you can’t wedge yourself into Big Star. Versus the Big Star walk up window, there’s no comparison. Antique Taco wins. Don’t agree with me? Let me know.

Antique Taco is located at 1360 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.
Antique Taco on Urbanspoon

Black Bull Tapas: Summer on a Plate

26 Jun

To me, summertime and Spanish food go hand in hand, so when my friend Benjie suggested we grab a table on newly opened Black Bull’s patio, I could not say no. And Black Bull did not disappoint.

The Place

The restaurant’s long bar, high tables, tile accents, and dark wood give the place a friendly and comfortable feel. The atmosphere doesn’t exactly transport you to a tapas bar in Madrid, everything’s too new, but it does give off a good vibe. And though the restaurant only has a half dozen or so tables on its front patio, the whole front of the restaurant opens up so the ambiance inside spills out onto the sidewalk and vice versa.

Black Bull’s Padron Peppers

The Food

The majority of Black Bull’s menu includes the typical dishes you’ll find in every Spanish tapas restaurant in Chicago, like patatas bravas, croquetas and the torilla, but a handful dishes, like grilled figs with pickled cherries and Cabrales give the menu some uniqueness.

For two people, we ordered four tapas dishes, which was filling but not overly so. The Pulpo a la Gallega, grilled octopus with olive oil, paprika and potatoes, was tender with that slightly smoky flavor Spanish paprika imparts. Pimientos de Piqullo Rellenos de Bacalo, rich red Piquillo peppers stuffed with salt cod and smothered in tomato sauce were meaty and flavorful. The Pimientos de Padron, diminutive green peppers that are blistered in hot oil then lightly salted, came with a lemon aioli. They were hot, crisp, and somewhat sweet, but every once in a while one would surprise you with bite of spiciness.

Vieiras and Pulpo at Black Bull

My favorite dish was the Vieiras a la Plancha con Citricos y Nueces; the scallops were seared perfectly, leaving behind crunchy bits of caramelization and were served with a nice accompaniment of sweet and crunchy citrus and herbs.

Drinks and Service

Like just about everything about the place, the service was solid. The server was there when we needed her, was knowledgeable and regardless of the newness of the restaurant knew her way around the menu.

Of course, being a tapas bar, Black Bull has a wide selection of adult beverages. They get kudos from me for serving beer in both pint and half pint sizes, though I don’t know who told them a “caña” is a pint.

Should I Stay (Home) or Should I Go?

In case it isn’t obvious to you, when you read this section you’re supposed to hum the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go.  Are you humming it?

Black Bull gets a thumbs-up from me. The atmosphere is lively and inviting. Overall, Black Bull offers a selection of good, solidly executed dishes. Both old tapas standbys and the restaurant’s unique creations are cooked and presented well, and though not cheap, the prices are reasonable, the only item on the menu over $10 is the Iberico ham.

The spot that Black Bull occupies, on Division between Ashland and Wood, has seemed like a revolving door for restaurants, but I hope Black Bull sticks around, I have yet to try their Sangria.

Black Bull is located at 1721 W. Division in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood.
Black Bull on Urbanspoon

Leopold: Think Outside the Waffle

25 Jun

Be honest. When someone mentions Belgian food you think of those thick waffles served with gobs of whipped cream and maybe a few strawberries swimming in mysterious pink gel, don’t you? I did until I set foot in Leopold Restaurant in Chicago’s West Town Neighborhood.

The Ambiance

On my first visit to Leopold, when I stepped off busy Chicago Avenue on a hot, sunny day and entered the cool elegance of the restaurant, the contrast was surprising. Leopold’s interior is dim, subdued, cool and welcoming. Comfortable chairs upholstered with white leather and rustic chandeliers help give Leopold a look that is clean and elegant. The restaurant is long and narrow; you walk past the front dining area to get to the long bar that anchors space in the center of the restaurant,between front and rear dining areas. The bar’s central location gives eaters there a great view of the nattily dressed patrons dining at the tables, as well as what is going on throughout the restaurant. Of course, given my penchant for eating at the bar, that is where my father and I sat for our meal.

Mussels and Fries at Leopold

The Food

Leopold describes itself as a purveyor of “Belgian Inspired” cuisine. I can’t tell you what that means given that I’ve never been to Belgium, nor have I ever had food that claims to be real Belgian food. However, I can tell you that I’m totally up for what the restaurant serves (authentic Belgian or not) and the menu is great for sharing at the bar.

My dad and I started out with a selection of house made charcuterie and cheeses that included pork confit, a rabbit and pork terrine, a Dunbarton Blue cheese and a Smoked Toussaint cheese. All was delicious, and I still think about the creamy, rich confit. Like in many restaurants these days, not enough bread came with our meats and cheeses, but we had no trouble getting more.

Next up were the Moules and Frites, or as I would call them, mussels and fries. Two preparations were offered and we ordered the more traditional white wine with herbs option. The mussels came steaming hot along with a healthy serving of crispy fries and a ramekin of dill aioli. I can’t say which I liked more, the mussels, the fries or the aioli, but all together they were a great combination of flavors and textures.

Will the real Belgian waffle please stand up?

One of the things I like about eating at the bar is that I don’t feel compelled to order the full gamut of appetizer, entree and dessert. So, after mussels we moved right on to dessert. And you guessed it, we ordered the Belgian waffle. This was no foam rubber waffle; it was crispy on the outside, warm and fluffy on the inside and sandwiched between was Black Dog’s salted peanut ice cream. Once you’ve had Leopold’s Belgian waffle, you won’t go back to a pale imitation.

The Service

One of the things I enjoy about eating at the bar is that often you’ve got a bartender, sometimes two, practically at your fingertips. Leopold’s bar staff is extremely knowledgeable about the food and especially the extensive selection of beer, wine and cocktails served at the restaurant. And they exude a low key style just like the restaurant does.

Should I Stay (Home) or Should I Go

Especially if your idea of Belgian food is a waffle, go to Leopold and expand your horizons. Leopold is a great spot for eating at the bar; it is comfortable, elegant, and the menu is well suited for sharing. It’s not the cheapest place to go for a mussels and fries, but it’s a great choice for a date or special occasion.

Leopold is located at 1450 West Chicago in the Westown neighborhood of Chicago.

Leopold on Urbanspoon

The Store Front Company: Two Out of Three Aren’t Bad

28 Apr

I’m usually not one to visit a newly opened restaurant. I like to give a place the chance to settle in, to work out the kinks. But a last minute plan change left me with a birthday girl in search of a celebration worthy restaurant, so off we went to the Store Front Company on its second official day of business.

To be honest, I can’t recall what was in the Store Front space previously, but it is now done up all in white with black for an open, arty and clean feel. Tables were adorned with tiny vases of small yellow flowers, the only color in the décor, and giant, abstract, black and white paintings decorate the walls.  The dining area is open and airy and a long bar runs along one whole side of the restaurant. Now, if you’ve read Foody Chronicles, you know that I’m a sucker for a good seat at the bar, but for a birthday celebration, we booked a table, a good choice since in this instance the bar would have been a lonely place.

The Gist of It

Our black clad waitress welcomed us to our table immediately and explained the Store Front Company’s menu. The restaurant describes its food as farm modern and its seasonal menu is divided into shares, cheeses, firsts and seconds. Though the menu is not extensive, there are only a half dozen or so dishes in each category, and each dish has a variety of interesting components to it, like rosehip catsup or pine nut brittle, giving each selection a complex flavor profile.

Foie Gras Bombe

Okay, I’ll Share If I Have To

You guessed it; the shares are plates of bite sized morsels that are meant to be shared. The share plates provide just a bite or two for each person, but the offerings are packed with flavor. We ordered the quinoa fries and the foie gras bombe, the quinoa fries because for the life of me I could not envision how you would make a fry out of a tiny grain of quinoa. And the foie gras bombe because we couldn’t resist something called a foie gras bombe.

Quinoa Fries

Quinoa Fries

The appealingly green quinoa fries were warm and soft on the inside, lightly crunch on the outside, and served with a Madeira granite for a great combination of crispy and soft, hot and cold. The bombe turned out to be a half sphere of foie gras seated on a disk of brioche with sweet and tangy pickled peaches and anise hyssop stuck in the middle to cut the richness of the foie gras. Bite sized bliss.

Getting to First

Pork Hash with Six Hour Egg

We moved on to the firsts which were about the size of an appetizer and selected carrots with warm house ricotta, pine nut brittle and baby kale; pork cheek hash with a six hour egg, rosehip catsup and cracklings; and cassoulet bisque with duck confit and preserved tomato jam. Yes, I said six hour egg. Did that get your attention? It got ours. The egg is cooked at a low temperature for six whole hours and comes out soft and creamy. Combine that with the hash and you get a rich, flavorful dish. Though the egg was the highlight of our firsts, the carrots would not be ignored. The orange and burgundy colored carrots were visually impressive and delicious.

On Second Thought

Duck Dr. Joe Jurgielewicz Farm

This brings us to the seconds, and where I’ll take a detour into service.  The Store Front Company presents itself as a high end restaurant and delivers on that in most respects but misses the mark on service. Dishes were cleared too soon, courses went missing, and there was an overall lack of consistency in the service. The place serves beautiful food and offers and elegant ambiance, but needs to hire some staff that can bring the same level of quality to the service. Fortunately, 2 out of 3 aren’t bad and our seconds were great.

Just listen to the list of Seconds we ordered, they’re making my mouth water as I think of them. Cauliflower Agnolotti with hedgehog mushrooms, sherry cream, anise and ancient (yes, ancient) gouda was petite but packed a lot of flavor. Monk fish with short rib fried rice, tamago, scallion and pomegranate glaze was an excellent choice for those who like a little meat with their fish. And the Duck Dr. Joe Jurgielewicz Farm which was a seared breast, confit leg, Parisian gnocchi, blackberries and escarole and was worth the wait. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  Everything was indeed wonderful and it was beautifully presented, just not all at the same time.

Should I Stay (Home) or Should I Go

Parsnip Cake

Give this Bucktown hot spot a try. With its stylish black and white décor, the Store Front Company Restaurant is a great choice for a special occasion or a romantic dinner. The menu is interesting, flavors are rich and complex, and the kitchen gets an A for presentation, but the portions are small. I am hopeful that given a little time the management will improve the service so that it matches the rest of the experience.

Their unlikely Parsnip Cake is on my mind, so I’ll be back for a seat at their bar.

The Store Front Company is located at 1941 W. North Avenue in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago.
Storefront Company on Urbanspoon

Urban Belly: Yummy for My Tummy

27 Mar

I’m not a huge fan of counter service in restaurants. Frankly, I like to be served. But I’m willing to ignore my aversion to restaurants with counter service in some cases. This restaurant is one of those cases. Urban Belly, in its unlikely location within a strip mall on California Avenue in Logan Square, is not new. In fact, some say it’s been eclipsed to by Belly Shack, its younger and hipper sibling in Bucktown. But Urban Belly has a personality all its own, and this pan-Asian BYOB restaurant is worth the trip.

How Strip Malls Have Changed!

The day my friend Viju and I headed to Urban Belly, it was a rainy, cold day so at least we were happy about the convenience of strip mall parking, but as soon as we stepped into the restaurant the strip mall disappeared. Urban Belly’s interior is welcoming, with an earthy, solid, and tranquil feel. The side walls are dark gray accented by a deep red front wall. Chunky communal tables are made from salvaged wood and the high ceiling gives the place a cavernous feel that is grounded by the weight of the place’s colors and furniture.

Like its sibling Belly Shack, Urban Belly has a well organized counter service system. Customers order and pay first, then gather their water and utensils and sit down in the location of their choice. The counter staff is friendly and efficient if not overly welcoming.

The menu is simple, earning Urban Belly bonus points in my book. Diners choose from dumplings, noodle soups, rice dishes and sides, and each day the restaurant offers a small selection of specials. There are no vegetarian items on the menu, but a few items can be prepared as vegetarian or “pescetarian”.

With counter service, there is no prolonged pondering over the menu. Standing in front of the counter staring up at the menu on the wall is not something I want to do for long, so we made our decisions, ordered, and took a seat. Urban Belly is BYOB, so we were sent to our table with short, stout wine glasses and an opener for the beverage we brought with us, a nice sparkling pear cider. Aside from Viju and me, the place was filled with Logan Square hipsters out for a week night meal, but the place was not overly crowded.

urban belly restaurant wrinkle beans and dumplings

Wrinkle Beans and Squash Dumplings

The Goods

Urban Belly is nothing if not efficient. Our food started to come out almost as soon as we sat down. The restaurant sends food out as soon as it is ready, so if you want to pace your meal the only way is to do your ordering in courses. The first item to arrive was the Asian Squash and Bacon Dumplings which we ordered without the bacon to fit the needs of my vegetarian buddy. The dumplings were sweet and delicate, almost appropriate for dessert, and the portion size was more than healthy for two people to share as an appetizer.

Almost immediately, the rest of our order arrived: a big bowl of udon noodles with shrimp, chorizo and red curry broth for me, and udon noodles with shrimp, coriander and sweet lime chili broth for Viju plus a bowl of wrinkled green beans to share. Everything was hot, spicy, and delicious and the pear cider turned out to be an excellent alternative to wine or beer that could have competed with the flavors of our meal.

Urban Belly SoupMy big bowl of noodles was silky, rich and spicy. Viju’s bowl was just as flavorful but lighter, and with a brighter flavor. The green beans were sweet and savory at the same time, wrinkly, tasty goodness. One bowl of noodles would have been enough to share, so we each took home leftovers neatly wrapped to go.

Should I Stay (Home) or Should I Go?

It is no wonder Michelin selected Urban Belly to be one of its Bib Gourmand restaurants for 2012, this restaurant does what it does well. Food is delicious, the atmosphere is comfortable and enjoyable, and the BYOB policy makes the place affordable if not cheap. My dinner buddy Viju said, “I like the concept of the restaurant quite a bit. You order, you sit at a communal table, food arrives and you can chat with new people around the table and see where the conversation takes you. I think it’s brilliant and food is pretty good as well”.

Try it out, you won’t be sorry

Urban Belly is located at 3053 N. California Avenue in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago.
Urban Belly on Urbanspoon

Autre Monde Cafe: Berwyn’s Mediterranean Hot Spot

26 Mar

With its natural wood bar, vintage French movie posters, and eclectic feel, Autre Monde Cafe could be in some trendy Chicago neighborhood, but it’s not. It’s in Berwyn, and that’s a good thing. If it were otherwise, I’m sure I’d never have gotten in on a Friday night without a reservation, even at the bar.

Autre Monde Restaurant Berwyn

Autre Monde Restaurant, Source: Chicago Magazine

The Best Seat is at the Bar

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, in many restaurants my favorite seat is at the bar. Often, a restaurant’s ambiance can feel more vibrant at the bar, the service can be more personal, and you can get a better feel for the restaurant’s personality. This is true of Autre Monde, a Mediterranean restaurant in west suburban Berwyn.

My sister and I walked in on an unseasonably warm Friday evening a little before 7, so of course the restaurant was buzzing with people, but we were able to find seats for two at the bar right away. The bar was full and the bartender a bit overwhelmed, so another staff member jumped in right away to get our drink order. Autre Monde has a unique cocktail menu as well as an extensive wine menu that includes wine from the typical Mediterranean countries like Italy and Spain, but also includes wines from Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. With the help of the knowledgeable staff, we each ordered a glass of wine and got down to studying the menu.

Mediterranean Bliss

The menu at Autre Monde includes both hot and cold small plates, entrees that can be eaten solo or shared, and daily  specials written on a chalk board above the bar. Since I have a hard time with long menus that could pass for novels, I appreciate the brevity of Autre Monde’s menu, but in spite of its conciseness, there is plenty to choose from. We started with a cheese plate; creamy Burrata cheese served with crunchy garlic, a tomato fondue and toasted bread. The rich and creamy Burrata was complimented wonderfully by the tangy tomato and crispy bread drizzled with olive oil. Next up was the Grilled Octopus L’Escala. The tender octopus was cooked perfectly and was served with roasted grape tomatoes that burst in your mouth. One benefit of eating at the bar is that I don’t feel obligated to order a full meal and at a restaurant like Autre Monde, you can eat at a leisurely pace by ordering at will, plate by plate.  Autre Monde’s menu is filled with items like house made flatbread, braised smoked lamb shank and goat cheese tortelacci, but we were completely satisfied with two small plates and I did not feel compelled to order anything more… except dessert.

Autre Monde Cheesecake with Lavender and Honey

Cheesecake with Lavender and Honey

Hauntingly Good Cheesecake

I’m typically not a huge cheesecake fan. Too often, restaurants serve a dense triangle of flavorless paste that passes as cheesecake. This is definitely not the case at Autre Monde. Their cheesecake is a delicate round cake drizzled with honey, sprinkled with lavender and served with a sugar cookie. To be honest, Autre Monde’s cheese cake has been plaguing my thoughts for a week now. When you go to Autre Monde, order the cheesecake, but you have been warned, the lavender, lightly sweet honey, and crunchy sugar cookies will haunt you.

Should I Stay (Home) or Should I Go?

A place like Autre Monde would be a hot spot whether in the city or in the ‘burbs. The menu is strong, the wine list is excellent, the ambiance is vibrant, and the staff is well trained. If you don’t live in the Western suburbs, try it out the next time you see a show at Fitzgerald’s or visit friends in or around Berwyn.

Autre Monde Cafe is located in Berwyn, Illinois at 6727 West Roosevelt Road.

Autre Monde Cafe on Urbanspoon

Simply It? Afraid Not: Mediocre Vietnamese Food in Lincoln Park

29 Feb

A Meal with a Purpose

Finding a good, quick meal before the theater is challenging. I want to eat something that’s not too heavy or I’m liable to fall asleep during the darkness of the performance. I also want to be close to the theater so I don’t spend half the evening in transit, and I never know whether I’ll have to make a mad dash to the theater because dinner took too long. It was the need for a good, quick pre-theater dinner in Lincoln Park that brought my sister, a friend and me to a BYOB Vietnamese restaurant called Simply It.

Simply It occupies two store fronts on a part of busy Lincoln Avenue thick with bars and pubs. Its non-descript rooms are bright white and well lit, all the better to see the non-descript room densely packed with tables. When we arrived at 6:30, the place was already crowded, which I took to be an indication of the quality of the food, but I fear it was instead an indication of the popularity of the neighborhood. In spite of the lack of ambiance, I was optimistic about the meal. After all, the menu claimed connection to Pasteur, one of Chicago’s better known Vietnamese restaurants, we were seated at one of the nicer tables by the windows, and very important at a BYOB, our wine was opened right away.

Simply Its Chicken Puff

Puff Quest

It was time to order. Simply Its menu is extensive, too extensive in my opinion. Faced with such a huge number of choices, I am usually stymied. Fortunately, between the three of us, we made some decisions and flagged down a waitress. We started with the chicken puffs. My friend Pam is on a quest to find puffs similar to the ones we had at a restaurant in a dusty little town in Cambodia. She is pursued by visions of these puffs and periodically orders something that she hopes will recreate that experience. I remember that restaurant as well, but unfortunately, all I remember is the lack of Western style bathrooms and the restaurant owner’s dog staring at me from his perch atop a nearby, thankfully unoccupied, dining table.

The chicken puff was lightly crispy on the outside, and though the filling was a little hum-drum, when dipped in the plum and chili dipping sauces, you end up with a good combination of flavors. Though nothing like the famous cambodian puffs, these were not bad. We then moved on to the shrimp and papaya salad. The flavor was good but the green papaya lacked the tender crunchiness that I look for in a good green papaya salad.

Simply Its Papaya Salad

‘Fine’ Food

Our two entrees were Clay Pot Chicken and Simply It Special Noodles. Both dishes were fine, unfortunately, ‘fine’ is not what I’m looking for in a restaurant. The veggie burger I make at home when I don’t feel like cooking is ‘fine’. The Clay Pot Chicken was described on the menu as simmered with ginger and caramelized sauce in a clay pot. I typically love anything that is cooked in a clay pot; the pot usually gives the dish a little added something. But in this case it didn’t seem that the clay pot was used for anything but serving the dish and there was no caramelization to be found. The noodle dish was also ‘fine’. I would assume when a restaurant has a signature dish, Simply It Special Noodles, the dish should be special. This dish was simply not.

Should I Stay (Home) or Should I Go?

Simply It Restaurant is ‘fine’. Yes, they are BYOB and don’t charge a corkage fee. And they’re quick; we made it to the theater on time, but their food, service and ambiance are uninspiring. Chicago has so many other great BYOB restaurants to choose from, give one of those a try.

Simply It is located at 2269 N. Lincoln in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Simply It on Urbanspoon

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