Thursday, May 30, 2013

Akai Hana

Location: 3223 Lake Ave, Wilmette
Cost: About $20 per person

I don't know about you guys, but the first time I'd heard about sushi was from the TV show Doug. See, Doug's wacky grandma came to town, and Doug learns to try new things (in this case sushi). It's quite the heartwarming take home message. The point of this tale is that I went to a sushi restaurant without much back story otherwise. I hit up Akai Hana the other weekend with my parents. It's an old standby for my family.

Akai Hana is just off the Skokie Blvd. exit of 94. It's easy to get to from the city, but ultimately if you don't find yourself in the northern suburbs, I doubt you'll make your way there. If you find yourself in them there parts, the restaurant is in a little strip mall next to a Japanese market. The restaurant has a sushi bar, plenty of seating, and an excessive amount of hard wood and bamboo decor. The staff is kind and quick although our waitress wasn't the best communicator. The price is standard with the occasional specialty roll in the low teens and the normal stuff around $8.

The Food
We got some Tuna Teriyaki to start. It was a little overcooked but soaked in enough sauce to mask any other flaws.

The Tuna Teriyaki

We had an assortment of rolls. Since my memory is failing me and their online menu is lacking, I'm not sure what absurd nickname was given to each of these. We had one with tuna, avocado, and tempura flakes. Another was a california roll of sorts topped with soft shell crab. The next was a salmon and mango combo. Finally we had an avocado roll wrapped in salmon and topped in roe. Things were simple and crisp throughout.

I've been to Akai Hana many times. We didn't get any soups this time, but I'd recommend the Tempura Udon. The sushi is simple and tasty. I've had better and more creative, but it sure is reliable. I'm giving Akai Hana 3 out of 5 Pearls.

Akai Hana Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 27, 2013

Old Oak Tap

Location: 2109 W Chicago
Cost: About $20 per person

Once in a while I get these emails from my friend Schneider. They more or less explain that his girlfriend has granted him a night on his own and that he wants to get dinner. Along those lines, Jeremy, Scottie, and the two Jeffs made a trek out west to get some beers and bar food at The Old Oak Tap.

Old Oak Tap has this really cool setup right off of Chicago Avenue. There's clearly room for a large patio, but it was packed up when we went. Instead we stepped into a dimly lit bar with a fireplace on the left hand wall and plenty of group seating options. We got this little table with leather armchairs next to the fire. The service was knowledgeable, quick, and welcoming. Our bill probably came to $20 per person not including the beers we had. To that point, the beer list is intriguing.

The Food
Although we wanted to order pretty much every appetizer on the menu, we landed on the Fried Pickles. It came with this Green Goddess dressing and was the right balance of breading and pickle.

The Fried Pickles

For entrees we went with with Shrimp Po' Boy, the Old Oak Burger, the Bistro Filet Sandwich, and the Chicken and Waffles. The waffles had a sweet potato base and were topped with a crispy thigh, andouille sausage, peach jam, maple aioli, and gravy. The Po' Boy was very buttery and came with this avocado corn relish that rounded things out well. The filet was a good steak sandwich in that you could take a bite without the whole steak coming out of the sandwich. It was topped with blue cheese, arugula, and an onion ring too. The burger was nothing to scoff at either. With a perfectly cooked medium rare patty, special sauce, and sweet onion jam there was a good base to the sandwich. I couldn't pass on the fried egg and bacon add on option. The drawback was that it was a big mess that fell apart on me rather quickly.

The Chicken and Waffles

 The Bistro Filet Sandwich

 The Shrimp Po' Boy

 The Old Oak Burger

Between the beer list, atmosphere, and collection of well designed bar food there wasn't much not to like about Old Oak Tap. I've talked about it with some of my friends that are locals, and they suggested a few other (cheaper) spots with similar stuff. Still, I was a big fan and am giving them 4 out of 5 Pearls.

Old Oak Tap on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Great Sea Chinese Retaurant

Location: 3254 W Lawrence
Cost: About $15 per person

Like many of my dine out driven friends, I've got a laundry list of places to hit up. When someone recommends that I check out their favorite spot, I jot it down on this list. In the rare case that I get to pick where we go to dinner I reference the list. There was this one spot that my buddy Alex told me about a week or two after I first started JEC. He told me this was his favorite place to get chicken wings and that the Chinese food wasn't bad either. When my parents wanted to meet somewhere north in the city to "split the distance" I told them to meet me at Great Sea.

Great Sea is this dinky little spot on Lawrence in Albany Park. You'd easily miss it if you weren't looking. There's plenty of street parking, and driving is probably your best bet. I don't think they take reservations, and we got in at just the right time. There's not really a hostess. Rather, the owner hollers at you from a counter in the back of the restaurant to ask how many are in your party. It can be rather confusing, especially since so many people take out chicken wings from that back counter. The cost is what you'd expect with most entrees in the $12 range and a huge platter of wings at $16.

The Food
We got the ball rolling with a small order of the Egg Drop Soup. To be clear, the small bowl was way more than enough for the three of us. We also got the Spring Rolls and the Egg Rolls. The soup was rich and salty. The spring rolls were bland and dry so I would avoid them. The egg rolls were crispy, well stuffed, and flavorful.

The Egg Drop Soup

 The Spring Rolls

The Egg Rolls

We split the Mongolian Beef, the Cashew Chicken, the Shrimp Fried Rice, and of course the Chicken Wings. The wings are the house specialty and if the rest of the meal had been garbage, it would still be worth going for the wings. They're lollipopped and dressed in a sweet and spicy sauce. Everything else was standard and possibly too oily. The cashew chicken was missing cashews, but we were so content with everything else we didn't bother sending it back.

The Shrimp Fried Rice

 The Mongolian Beef
The Chicken Wings

 The "Cashew" Chicken

Great Sea may just have some of the best wings in the city. The other food is solid too. The trek to Albany Park isn't convenient by any means, but I'll be making it again soon. I'm giving them 4 out of 5 Pearls.

Great Sea Chinese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Max's Deli

Location: 191 Skokie Valley Road, Highland Park
Cost: About $18 per person

I played a lot of baseball growing up. I was a pitcher and third baseman for the most part because I had a strong arm. I would hit a lot of singles because I didn't have that powerful of a bat for home runs, and I was too slow to stretch anything into a double. Now I play 12 inch softball in the suburbs on the weekends and the tables have turned. Well, it's more like I have less back and knee problems than the majority of 40 year olds in the league. Either way, I play center field now and often throw out some over ambitious guy hobbling around third. Because half of our team lives or works in the suburbs, we play our games in Highland Park.

After a practice a few weekends back, Ian, Ryan, and I piled into the car to make the short trek back to the city. Ian suggested we grab some food first which is how we ended up at Max's Deli.

Max's Deli is a rather large deli in the middle of this strip mall right off the highway. When you walk in, there's a deli counter and take out area to the left and a large dining room to the right. It looks just like Zweig's Deli used to look in Buffalo Grove. I don't think you can make a reservation, and with the exception of the morning weekend brunch rush, you're probably not in for a long wait. The cost is relatively cheap with half pound sandwiches just breaking $10

The Food
To nosh before our sandwiches got there, they gave us some complimentary dill pickles. They were round cut, large, and medium salty. I also ordered the Matzo Ball Soup to get started. The broth was simple and the ball was a little dense.

 The Pickles

The Matzo Ball Soup

Ryan got the Corned Beef on Challah, Ian got the Lean Corned Beef on Rye, and I got the BBQ Brisket on Challah. Although this may be sacrilegious, I've come to realize that I'm just not that fond of corned beef. These guys loved their sandwiches, but I would suggest you go for the brisket. It was juicy and doused in entirely too much of a sweet and tangy BBQ sauce. The toasted challah soaked it all up nicely. It also had this excellent texture where I didn't end up tugging at the meat at all.

The BBQ Brisket on Challah

 The Corned Beef on Rye

 The Corned Beef on Challah

Max's Deli has solid sandwiches at very reasonable prices. Amongst many other great north suburban delis, I think it holds its own nicely. If you live in the city, it's probably closer to go to Manny's which I would strongly suggest, but if you're in the area, Max's isn't bad either. I'm giving them 3.5 out of 5 Pearls.

Max's Deli & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Location: 5505 Park Pl, Rosemont
Cost: About $30 per person

My friends Amanda and Sal moved out to Arlington Heights together a few months back. Since many of their friends (myself included) live in the city, Amanda picked a restaurant in Rosemont to celebrate her birthday. She wasn't sure exactly where we should go, as long as it was in MB Financial Park. I got there a bit early and walked around to check the area out. I was nothing short of blown away. I'd never seen a group of restaurants pander to poor American taste before in my life. There was a corny themed Greek, Irish, American, BBQ, German, and Mexican restaurant. Like one article in the Tribune put it, its the "Epcot of Eats." Thankfully, instead of choosing My Big Fat Greek Restaurant, Amanda decided on Kings, the bowling alley / sports bar / 60's American soda shop themed spot.

Like all of the neighboring restaurants, Kings is huge. We were situated in the bar area at a long table for our party of 12. We had a reservation which wasn't really necessary. If we'd gone bowling that might've been required. As far as parking goes, there's this one gigantic, confusing, communal garage where I got to relive that one Seinfeld episode.

The service was great. The beer list was one of those that looks like it's extensive but really just has a variety of InBev products. They do have frosted mugs though. The cost is reasonable with lots of burgers and sandwiches around $12. As expected, the portions are large and befitting of the setting.

The Food
To start we split a few of the Appetizer Samplers which had some spinach and artichoke dip, wings, buffalo chicken wontons, and cheeseburger spring rolls. The best item was the dip but there were only 4 crackers, making for somewhat of an issue. The other items mostly just made me feel bad about myself but tasted alright because they were properly fried.

 The Appetizer Sampler

The entrees I got to try were the Loaded Potato Pizza, the Steakhouse Burger, and the Steak Tip Sandwich. Amanda liked her pizza, but I don't know if mashed potatoes on top of crust will ever taste good to me. It was dry and salty. The burger had mushrooms, onion strings, and a horseradish mayo. If it hadn't been cooked past my liking it would've been great. The steak tip sandwich had a sweet glaze with plenty of jack cheese and sauteed onions on a thick ciabatta bun. The bread was somewhat crunchy and the steak was hard to bite off cleanly making the sandwich a mess to eat. The taste, however, was spot on.

The Loaded Potato Pizza

 The Steakhouse Burger

The Steak Tip Sandwich

You can tell from my intro that I was biased from the beginning of the meal. Each dish was solid except for one or two significant flaws. I'll go anywhere to celebrate a birthday with Amanda, but if you don't have to, I wouldn't haul out there for the food. I'm giving Kings 1.5 out of 5 Pearls.

Kings on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Fat Rice

Location: 2957 W Diversey
Cost: About $35 per person

My long time best friend, Josh, and his fiance, Lonnie, are two of the more frequently appearing people on JEC. They both don't like Mexican food, typically stay away from treif, and Lonnie admittedly is somewhat less adventurous. The other night she was busy with school, and Josh and I took the chance to hit up somewhere with some menu items that were a little out there. That's how we ended up at Fat Rice.

Fat Rice is a small corner spot in Logan Square. They've got a bunch of bar seating and a few tables in the crowded L shaped dining room. We took the bar spots to avoid any wait. There was no problem parking on the street.

The bar tender took care of us nicely. The beer list wasn't all that extensive, but with Lion Stout I was good to go. Our food took a really long time, but we got the largest, most complex dish on the menu which made the whole thing very understandable. It will probably run you around $35 per person with lots of splitting to be done.

The Food
The menu is broken down by dish size. We started with some of the small, in house pickled dishes. The Sichuan Eggplant was our favorite, followed next by the thick slices of pickled Smoky Tofu and Mushrooms, and then the Sour Chili Cabbage.

The Sour Chili Cabbage

 The Smoky Tofu and Mushrooms

 The Sichuan Eggplant

A large dish is probably good for 2 people to split for the whole meal. We decided to go with the extra large item, The Fat Rice. This cast iron dish came packed with sausage, roasted pork, chicken, prawns, salted duck, littleneck clams, and a tea egg over a bed of sofrito rice. I thought it would be a mess, but there was plenty of each item and all of them were identifiable. The duck was moist with some crispy skin left on. The prawns were gigantic (heads on). The sausage had a kick and was probably my favorite item. All of the ingredients married well and left a base of rice soaked in pure deliciousness. Plus, when the cast iron crisped up the rice on the edges, it made me want to chip off any remaining scraps I could find.

The Fat Rice

The food at Fat Rice is great for sharing, and they've got some combinations that you might not try elsewhere. My only regret was that we didn't have more people to try the rest of the menu with. I guess that's what going back is for. I'm giving them 4.5 out of 5 Pearls.

Fat Rice on Urbanspoon

Friday, May 3, 2013

Top 10 Mexican Restaurants

My original thought for a May themed post was to talk about outdoor dining options, but anyone in Chicago right now can see that that’s just ridiculous thinking. I think it snowed last week right after the 70 degree showing the day prior. It's been 80 the past two days, but we've got some days in the 50's in the forecast. That being said, Cinco de Mayo is right around the corner, and I’m going to give you my Top Ten Mexican Restaurants instead.

You can also check out this post on a new site I've been contributing to,

10. Flo
They’ve got some of my favorite chilaquiles in the city without question. It’s not in the most popular part of the city, but the food will bring you over anyways. It’s a great option for Mexican brunch that doesn’t require you to wait too long or push over a pregnant woman while fighting for a table (not that I’d ever do that). 

Many of my friends call this their favorite spot. It’s probably the champion of tex-mex in Pilsen, one of the most heavily Mexican populated neighborhoods in town. There’s no flash or flare, just big plates of heavy flavors. 

An excellent place to get cheap tacos and drinks. If you want to stray from the tacos, I’d go with the duck enchiladas. Opening a taco joint in Wicker Park leaves one open to the criticism of “it’s not Big Star.” Well, I’d need to go a few more times before making that comparison, but my ranking speaks for itself. Still, it’s a great spot to kick back and unbutton your pants.

My only suburban stand out on the list. I think Chimichangas are my favorite Mexican dish, and although they call them Fried Burritos, they make em mean. You’re probably more apt to sit next to a family with crying children, but it’s worth the risk.

The only pricey option on this list, so don’t go expecting any tacos or burritos. You probably won’t be able to find the dishes on this menu elsewhere in the city. Rick Bayless makes his annual trip to Mexico to fill his saddle bag with ways to show off Chicago’s take on these classics. The only catch is the popularity makes it a real logistical nightmare to both get a reservation and to walk in.

This animated spot promises huge portions at minimal prices. I’d go with one of the whole fried red snappers or the skirt steak. Make a reservation, bring a huge group, and go crazy. The margaritas could use a bit more booze though, so make sure to be liberal when you order.

Who doesn’t love enjoying their taco amongst a sea of hipsters in a converted gas station? If you’re in the drinking mood they always have a $3 whiskey shot, and Schlitz goes for $1. The chips, guac, and pickled onions make for a great snack if you’re not in the mood for a huge meal either.

This garden apartment turned insanely popular Mexican restaurant has some of the best seasonal small plates in Lakeview. Make sure to bring a bottle of tequila or wine to have them make margaritas or sangria for you. The menu is anything but traditional, but you’ll be happy with the twists.

Brought to you by Chicago’s biggest name in the kitchen, Rick Bayless, this little sandwich shop brings creative flavors that hit home every time. The menu changes seasonally and has some killer sopas on it too in case you don’t want a sandwich. The churros, soft serve, and hot chocolate make for some of the better Mexican dessert around too. I’d suggest getting there early because the lines get loooooong.

These spicy sandwiches have kept me braving the drive west for some time now. With a toasted bun Chihuahua Cheese, and your choice of meat (I’d go with the Atomica or Al Pastor) you really can’t go wrong. Be forewarned that your clothes will stink like delicious Mexican food, so leave your jacket in the car. You can probably leave your wallet there too since it’s so darn cheap.