A Little Pick Me Up

Friday, December 19, 2008

On one particularly cold and snowy night, we ran many blocks up Clark Street to find a sweet little cafe that our friend Danielle recommended. Finally, we made it to Pick Me Up Cafe and hurried in out of the cold. When I first stepped in I got a feeling of instant warmth. Not just from being indoors; the whole place felt cozy and friendly. It was not crowded that night, but some tables were full with a great mix of people. Families with small children and college-aged kids.

We were seated in a cute booth and ordered some drinks. I had hot apple cider that was crisp and sweet, and just delicious enough to make me forget about the weather outside. Gordon had a smoothie and Brynn had a delicious, rich mocha drink. They offer organic coffee and prepare beverages way better than most coffee shops.

The menu at Pick Me Up is just as diverse as its patrons. There is a full breakfast section available all the time, classic American diner food, and entrees inspired by Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisine. We started with an appetizer of cheese fries that were golden and extremely indulgent.

I tried the falafel wrap which was good and came with a side of vegetarian chili that was terrific. I could have just had a bowl of the chili to eat, it was that hearty. I felt that the falafel could have been seasoned more, but I can't complain otherwise. Gordon had a giant sandwich that was comprised of three different types of deli meats. This sandwich was nearly too tall for him to eat, but don't worry. He put up a brave fight and thoroughly decimated it. We had this meal before leaving for Christmas, and no one can remember what Brynn ate Seriously... everyone is blanking. We all got distracted because we exchanged gifts over dinner. At least that's my excuse.

The staff of Pick Me Up is comprised of hip, tattooed folks who are friendly and don't mind putting up with customers who can't decide on what to get. They will also gladly make recommendations. And you can get food from them anytime as the cafe is open 24 hours. With most entrees under $10 each, you can afford to splurge on a fancy drink or appetizer. There are many vegetarian and vegan options as well as manly and meaty items that have been Gordon-approved. Next time you're down for a good meal, find yourself a little Pick Me Up.

In Today's Review:

Pick Me Up Cafe
3408 N Clark St

Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 248-6613

Eat this burger!

Alright, I'm sneaking in a special post to tell you about this veggie burger I ate a few weeks ago. My mom came to town from Baltimore and took me to Eleven City Diner, a restaurant for which I already have much love. Their face-sized latkes and all day breakfast menu are legendary.

But I never tried the Star Veggie Burger before this trip. And it was outstanding! The burger is HUGE and is nestled in a toasted and buttery roll. It tastes like fresh bakery made bread on there. The best part is that the burger is topped with slices of cool and creamy avocado, which is just perfect. Seriously perfect. Complete with a side salad, this meal is no wussy vegetarian dish, but a hearty dinner! If you are not too hungry, splitting it for two would be a great snack.

Ok, I'm done. I just really needed to sneak that in there.

In today's mini-review:

Eleven City Diner
1112 S Wabash
Chicago, IL 60605

Zapatista Za-pa-tis-ta WOO WOO!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A true South Loop gem! Zapatista Cantina serves up fresh, authentic Mexican cuisine with style. As you approach the restaurant, located at Wabash and 13th, you will see its bright and sunny orange awning. During warmer months, the awning provides shade for patio diners and is packed every evening. Inside, the walls of Zapatista are painted rich oranges and reds and covered with black and white photos of Mexico. In the back dining area, pointy star-shaped light fixtures dangle from the ceiling and cast streaky shadows on the walls. When we dined there, the front seating area had a display of skull decorations for Dio de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. This place has a lively vibe and is perfect for large gatherings.

But, wait! Besides food and scenery, this place is about history. Zapatista is named after the revolutionary figure Emiliano Zapata who fought for land reform in Mexico during the early 1900s. He's the guy who said: "It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!" He was pretty bad ass. Ok, now back to the fine dining. As an appetizer, you should absolutely have the guacamole. Each portion of cool guac is made to order, and you can even see the guacamole girl create your order fresh and from scratch. If you aren't too hungry, try the tropical salad. It is made of crisp lettuce and sweet mango and orange pieces lightly tossed in a tangy pineapple-cilantro vinaigrette. The flavor combination is very pleasant and perfect for a quick meal.

If it's fajitas that you want, bring a friend and order the Fajitas for Two dish. Chicken, steak, fish, shrimp or veggies come in a giant sizzling bowl with the tortillas and all the fixings on the side. It is plenty to share and has a neat presentation. And if you care about where your food comes from, you will be pleased to find out that Zapatista uses only organic, antibiotic-free chicken raised on independent farms. Order anything, like the enchiladas, Suiza Style and it comes with a delicious coating of melted Chihuahua cheese. Do it.

Sometimes you don't really want a big meal, you just want to kick back and have some drinks. Zapatista has a full bar featuring a mile long list of tequilas. When you go there, you must have my most favorite cocktail ever as of this date: El Bijote Famoso. It is one-third mojito, one-third margarita, and one-third pina colada all blended with ice and limes! Crisp, cool, and refreshing! Plus, it's an original concoction, so you won't be finding this anywhere else. This drink comes by the glass or liter, so it's also perfect for sharing. But, really, it's perfect anytime. It's that good. Come on a Monday for $5 margaritas or a Tuesday for $5 mojitos.

By the end of the meal you will feel that food baby start to kick. But if you happen to be crazy like we are, it won't stop you from ordering dessert. Try the chocolate tamale; it is a little molten chocolate cake wrapped in a corn husk and served with a bit vanilla ice cream. Or the tres gelatos featuring mini-scoops of mango, vanilla, and burnt caramel ice creams served on a cinnamon wafer. Then you can check-in to the hospital for that diabetic coma. What a way to go.

In today's review:

1307 South Wabash Ave
Chicago, IL

Disappointment in the South Loop

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Basmati lust. That is a term a friend from high school came up with to describe our insatiable cravings for Indian food. Spicy curry, naan bread, samosas, mango lassis... I can't get enough! But I definitely did have enough of India Grill. Words cannot describe how excited I was when India Grill opened its doors in the South Loop; there aren't many Indian places around the loop, especially the South Loop. However, my expectations were way too high.

India Grill looks impeccable and expensive, something that is also unusual for the South Loop. When my friend Duncan and I walked into India Grill at 6pm on a Wednesday, we were the only people there. Its fancy appearance might be off-putting to the Columbia College students leaving from their nearby classes looking for a cheap meal. Hungry, we sat down right away to order dinner. I ordered Navrattan Korma, a traditional vegetable dish in a creamy sauce along with some buttered naan. Duncan ordered a curry of beans and lentils and of course we wanted rice. These two vegetarian dishes were very reasonable, I believe only $8.99. I took note that most dishes containing chicken or lamb were around $12.

When our food arrived, I was kind of shocked. Both of our curries were more like soup; extremely watered down, thin and runny. As I spooned the Navrattan Korma onto my plate, I was even more dismayed to see the vegetables in it were nothing more than the frozen vegetable medley that you get at the grocery store. You know, the chopped green beans, corn, and diced carrots that were a staple of elementary school hot lunches. I could tell that the dish had potential, the flavor was quite nice. I can only imagine how delicious it could have been, had it not been watered down to nothing and chock full of thawed, flavorless veggies. The same goes for Duncan's dish, the beans and lentils were just floating in what was basically a runny broth. It's a shame, I wanted this place to be a hit! But, unfortunately it lacked the flavor and richness that is what makes me love Indian food so much. That aside, I do have to say that the naan bread was delicious, golden and baked perfectly. The only true upside to this meal.

As if I couldn't be any more shocked, when we got our bill we found that our plate of rice was not included in our meal and was an additional $5.99. From my personal experience, any place that charges extra for rice has hardly been worth it. Most times it is included, and they only charge you a small fee if you request an extra portion. At least at another Indian restaurant I went to, they told me in advance that rice would cost extra. And I can even understand a couple dollars, sure. But $5.99... I repeat, not worth it. No wonder the thousands of other twenty-somethings in the area seem to be avoiding this place. It is expensive and not rightfully so. Maybe it was just a bad day, a new cook, or some other excuse. This is entirely possible, but I don't know if I will be going back to shell out $11.99 on their buffet just to give them a second chance.

In today's review:

India Grill
1112 S. Wabash Ave.
Tel: (312) 662-1111

Karyn's: Vegan and Savory

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

So, Chicago might not be a vegetarian's best bet for food; this city is full of steakhouses, BBQs, and chicken shacks. But you would be surprised at how many quality vegetarian and vegan restaurants can be found with only a small search effort. One such place is Karyn's Cooked, which is located very conveniently off the brown line Chicago & Franklin stop. Karyn's was started by a former model of the same name turned vegan raw food specialist. She has another location that serves up all raw food entrees in Lakeview, but this River North location is all vegan hot entrees.

First of all, this place is sweet and cozy. Talk about a great first date location, Karyn's is intimate with soft lighting and a slick atmosphere. When we arrived it was pouring rain and we ran in soaking wet. I ordered some hot tea, an organic tropical green flavor, and was surprised to learn that Karyn's does in fact carry honey. The strictest of vegans do not eat honey because it is produced by bees. Our friendly waitress asked if we had been to this restaurant before and when we all responded that it was our first time, she told us to wait a moment. A few minutes later she returned with a tray full of samples. There was chili, mac and "cheese" and two soups. We were incredibly thankful for the samples, being that we do not eat all-vegan food very often if at all.

I ordered the "meatball" sub which was a hearty blend of chickpeas covered in marinara sauce and served on a wheat bun. The dish was full of flavor and really satisfying. It came with potatos and mac and cheese on the side which means that I was completely full after this. Brynn ordered a bowl of the spicy chili that came with a hunk of cornbread. It was so rich that Brynn had a hard time finishing this simple looking meal. Gordon had a tasty wrap with slices of seitan and veggies with the same sides as mine. Was it any good? Gordon went back two days later for more. That should answer your question.

As if the meal alone wasn't enough, our waitress came back with dessert samples. We tried a chocolate cake, "cheese"cake, and a cookie. The desserts are so sweet and creamy that it is truly hard to believe they are 100% vegan. Despite the deliciousness, we were so full there was no room for dessert. Actually... well Gordon took a slice of chocolate cake for the road. The overall theme of this post is to try something new. Many people hear "vegan" and think of hippies and carrot sticks and blandness. Karyn's proves this to be completely untrue! Even if you are unfamiliar with vegetarian foods, you will find something to love at Karyn's Cooked.

In today's review:

Karyn's Cooked
738 N Wells St
Chicago, IL

(312) 587-1050

Oasis: A Rough Amidst Diamonds

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Head downtown to Madison and Wabash. What do you see? About a half dozen jewelry stores, of course! But if you go inside Wabash Jewelers, skip the tennis bracelets and head straight to the back, you will find yourself at Oasis. We admit, this joint looks out of place. Oasis looks like it was excised from the food court of a suburban mall and transplanted in the back of this Jewelers' Row mainstay. Despite its looks, Oasis serves up some great Mediterranean and Middle Eastern classics in large portions and affordable prices.

The first thing I noticed about the menu was lots of vegetarian options! I had a delicious falafel sandwich served in a warm pita and chock full of expertly spiced diced veggies and tzatziki sauce. This giant pocket of food was a bellyful and cost about $6. Brynn's marinated chicken special was also huge. A gigantic portion of chicken was served over rice, stewed and seasoned chickpeas and fresh lemony hummus. Seriously, this dish can feed two hungry people. Gordon enjoyed a lamb gyro that had the same pita-veggie-tzatziki combination as my falafel sandwich.

The best part of our Oasis dinner was the freshly baked baklava. Every Tuesday, a basket of fresh baklava is sold in individually wrapped portions. These golden treats were pretty much perfect. Flaky and sweet but not too sweet like some baklava is because it has been practically soaked in honey. A tasty dessert; my only complaint is that the two pieces per portion are not big enough! Make sure if you try out Oasis, go on a Tuesday.

In today's review:

Location: 21 N. Wabash

Grocer, Butterfly, Toffee, YES

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Hop off the blue line Grand stop and you will find yourself in a neighborhood you might not understand. Brand new luxury apartment buildings shouldered by overgrown dark alleys, boutique eateries next to abandoned and boarded up appliance shops. Despite the confusing atmosphere, this area of W. Grand Avenue has a lot to offer hungry passers-by. Yesterday, the three of us wound up on this side of town hoping to sample some gourmet pizza concoctions at Coalfire. Little did we know, this pizzeria is only open for dinner at 5pm, and not for lunch.

Disgruntled, we kept walking and stumbled across the Green Grocer, a specialty market store owned by a couple from the neighborhood. The Green Grocer offers a wide array of all natural food products as well as locally grown vegetables and meats. Gordon stocked up on some fresh salsas, Brynn purchased some chai spiced caramels that were out of this world, and I ogled the locally made Mayan hot chocolate mix. And of course, we all indulged in the vegan baked goods samples. Talking to one of the co-owners, we discovered that the Green Grocer offers free weekly food preparation classes, one upcoming lesson is about how to can your own preserves. As with all specialty stores, expect to pay a bit more for the higher quality. A great place to go for the out of the ordinary snack or unique treat. Next time you are headed to a party, pick up some spicy salsa or five-cheese garlic spread and treat your friends to a tasty all natural appetizer.

At the suggestion of our Green Grocer friend Cassie, we walked east on Grand to a Thai and sushi restaurant called Butterfly. From the street, Butterfly appears quite unassuming, but like I mentioned before, this whole street is full of surprises. Inside, the decor mimics the colors of the Monarch butterfly with high-backed black chairs and orange upholstered booths. Vases filled with stalks of bamboo and stone Buddha statues give the place a fancy but not rigid atmosphere. The restaurant feels like a great first date kind of place. For an appetizer we enjoyed Thai escargot with garlic bread. Or should I say Gordon enjoyed the escargot while Brynn & I enjoyed the grilled garlic bread. The curry sauce was creamy and spicy with hints of coconut, and its bright orange color complemented the interior decor. Being the vegetarian of the group I ordered a good old Thai classic: Pad See Eew with tofu. The dish features wide flat noodles, broccoli, snow peas, and scrambled egg. The thick and savory sauce brought all the flavors together nicely without being greasy. Gordon and Brynn will add their words on their entrees soon.

On our walk back to the train we passed a shop that we could not refuse: Terry's Toffee. When you walk into the Grand Ave. location of Terry's Toffee you notice that the shop itself is incredibly tiny. But, they sure know how to use space wisely! A display table offers sample chunks of each available flavor of rich and homemade toffees that range from the classic British recipes to funky combinations. The Chai-cago Spice flavor features dark chocolate covered toffee infused with chai flavors of cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom. My favorite flavor was definitely Lavenilla which -- as the portmanteau alludes -- is toffee infused with lavender and vanilla flavors then dipped in white chocolate. A masterpiece! Looking around the small shop, we noticed posters advertising the Oscar awards. Upon asking the owner, we found out the Terry's Toffee is so special and delicious that gift bags are given to the Oscar ceremony's celebrity presenters. The autographed 8x10s of smiling Hollywood celebrities on the wall attest to this toffee's nation-wide fanbase. All three of us left with a couple goodie bags for friends and family... or ourselves. I definitely grabbed a bag of Mazel Toffee for my Bubbie. Milk chocolate and matzah pieces surrounding toffee chunks = perfect for Chanukah!

In today's reviews:

The Green Grocer

Location: 1402 W. Grand Ave.

Location: 1156 W. Grand Ave.
Tel: (312) 563-5555

Terry's Toffee
Location: 1117 W. Grand Avenue
Tel: 312.733.2700

Our Favorite School Year Tradition

Monday, September 15, 2008

Over the last school year, my two dearest friends Gordon & Brynn have accompanied me to various restaurants in the Chicago area every Tuesday afternoon. It has become quite a tradition, carrying on into this brand new school year. Since I am no longer in school -- and have a shiny diploma to prove it -- I can stop writing essays and get to blogging. Tomorrow is our first official adventure of the school year, so I am sure there will be much to discuss.