Monday, February 25, 2013

Smoque BBQ

Location: 3800 N. Pulaski Rd., Chicago, IL
Smoque BBQ on Urbanspoon

A Quick Word:
In Chicago, BBQ restaurants are hard to come by.  With the motto, "Low and Slow", Smoque BBQ has slowly, but surely been establishing themselves as some of the best in the city.  In fact, it has even been featured on the Food Network.  Tourists and locals flock from all over to the Irving Park neighborhood, several miles outside of the main downtown Chicago.  After the long trek, you are greeted by a smokey smell that fills the air.  Their meats have been smoking for hours... some longer than 12, but all are smoked until they are perfect.  Unfortunately, in my experience, I was encountered by an "over-smoked" pulled pork sandwich that was unpleasant to taste.  But after looking past this flaw, I tasted some mouth watering brisket and incredible sides.  With plenty of seating, customers can lounge around in this relaxed, BYOB atmosphere.  The food comes on metal trays, giving you that southern style feel.  Overall, I decided on giving Smoque 4 miles... mainly because of the huge miss on the pulled pork, but also because rib tips weren't offered on the menu (my favorite).

Smoque BBQ's menu;  "Add A Taste" Option is an awesome feature!
What I Ate:

Sliced Brisket Sandwich

The brisket at Smoque BBQ has been cooking for over 12 hours and comes out fall apart tender.  You can choose either slices or chopped and of course it comes with a side of their BBQ sauce (described later). There is a a heavy smoke flavor that penetrates all the way through to the center of each slice.  You can tell they use a full brisket packer cut because of the thick fat layer that remains on some of the slices.  Overall, the main flavor appears to be black pepper.  This may be a key part of their spice rub, but obviously this secret is not shared.  Regardless, add some of their vinegar based BBQ sauce and enjoy this amazing sandwich.  Next time I will be ordering the brisket dinner for sure.

Pulled Pork Sandwich

I also ordered a half of the pulled pork sandwich so I could try more of Smoque's meats.  The pulled pork was smoked over apple and oak wood which was a little confusing since the oak would defnitely overpower the apple... and it did.  After biting into the sandwich, I was left with an ashy smokey flavor that was more unpleasant that tasty.  BBQ sauce was definitely needed to cut some of that smoke flavor.  And also, the pork was drier than expected.  Definitely will not be getting pulled pork here again.

Macaroni & Cheese

The mac and cheese here is amazing.  It is definitely some of the richest mac and cheese I have ever eaten.  I am unsure which cheeses they use, but a strong sharp cheddar defnitely overwhelms the palate.  The consistency is my favorite part.  Rather than "soupy" like other restuarants, this side dish's cheese tightened up just enough to make it more creamy and thick.  There is a bread crumb crust to the mac and cheese which gave just enough crunch to add a contrasting texture.  Definitely order this side!


The slaw at smoque is interesting... it is simply made of cabbage, a little red onion, and a vinegar based dressing.  The cabbage is extremely crispy probably because they don't mix the dressing together too early or maybe there is just enough turn around that the slaw is frequently being made fresh.  Whatever it is, a crunch accompanies every vinegary-based bite.  Definitely a good palate cleanser in between BBQ bites.

BBQ Sauce

I was pleasantly surprised to see a more vinegary based BBQ sauce offered at Smoque.  I understand that different regions have their own specialty so I guess vinegar based was that far off.  Anyway, the BBQ sauce had almost no sweetness to it.  In fact, it was very peppery.  I personally like sweet BBQ sauces or mustard-based BBQ sauces.  The one at Smoque was neither, but it still had a nice background heat that made me add more and more to each bite I took.

The DOs/DON'Ts:
- At first, the restaurant appears confusing.  Walk in, look at the huge chalkboard menu on the wall (somehow I missed this completely and ordered from the paper menu near the register), order at the cash register, and let them know you are dining in.  Someone will tell you which table to sit at.  Wait for your number to be called and enjoy!  After eating, one of the bus boys will come clean up after you so no worries.
- Plenty of free parking around and not much public transportation so driving is ideal.
- BYOB --  you know what that means...

- Avoid the pulled pork... all you taste is smoke and dry meat at best.  I was disappointed, but maybe just got an overcooked batch?

How far would I walk for this food?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Belly Shack

Location: 1912 N. Western Ave., Chicago, IL 60647
Belly Shack on Urbanspoon
A Quick Word:
Belly Shack is a unique sandwich joint located in the bucktown/wicker park neighborhood.  The restuarant combines both Puerto Rican and Korean cuisines.  From kimchi to the famous chicago jibarito sandwich, the chef brings together some incredible flavors that I would never expect to work.  Unfortunately, some of those combinations don't work too well... and are definitely a stretch at best.  In fact, some items I wouldn't come back for ever.  When regarding the atmosphere, the one word that describes it is chill.  There is an open air kitchen allowing customers to watch all the madness take shape in the back.  Everything is help yourself... so make sure to grab some water, chopsticks, and napkins before grabbing a seat.  And, don't forget to clean up after yourself.  Because of just OK food and strange restaurant location with no parking options, I decided on giving it a 3.0 mile for now... with room to grow once I try some other options.

What I Ate:

#5. Boricua

I thought starting my jibarito quest during lent would be difficult.  But I stumbled across this vegetarian option at Belly Shack. The Boricua was originally made vegetarian, but has adapted to offer meat options as well.  Anyway, this spin on the jibarito is built with the same fried plantain base (substitutes for bread).  It is filled with thick cut marinated tofu, a sweet hoisin sauce, brown rice, and a vegetable combination that I believe included mushrooms and bok choy.  The brown rice was a great addition to give the vegetarian jibarito more substance and also an earthy flavor.  Unfortunately, the tofu does not work.  It was mushy and just kept falling out of the sandwich, taking the veggie mix with it.  The sandwich was very juicy probably because of the vegetables making the plantains soggier as you eat the sandwich.  I will definitely not be back for this sandwich, but I am interested in trying some of the other options.

#12. Kimchi

The kimchi at Belly Shack is supposedly a family recipe and it is honestly amazing.  The veggies were perfectly fermented with each bite containing an amazing crisp to it.  There wasn't much spice to it unfortunately.  I personally like spicy kimchi.  Definitely add some to the jibarito to make it a little bit better.  And for $4.00, it was an awesome addition to my meal.  I recommend this side for sure.

The DOs/DON'Ts:
- Just some tips on ordering... after ordering at the cash register, grab your number and take any seat.  Then head over to the area with water jugs and help yourself to some ice water and your own silverware and napkins.  And after you are done eating, just bus your utensils and plates to the bins near the water jugs.  I guess there is no reason to tip here?

- There is literally NO parking around this location.  It is underneath a train stop and all the side streets are permit parking only.  Be prepared to circle around a lot or for a short trek from wherever you do find parking.

How far would I walk for this food?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ghareeb Nawaz

Location: 2032 W. Devon Ave., Chicago, IL 60645 and 807 W. Roosevelt Rd., Chicago IL 60608
Ghareeb Nawaz on Urbanspoon
A Quick Word:
Ghareeb Nawaz Express is the sister restaurant of the well-established Ghareeb Nawaz located in Chicago's Devon Avenue.  The new location recently opened near UIC which is a huge addition for all the students' late night cravings.  Ghareeb offers huge portions for low prices.  Some people refer to it as the "Jim's of Indian Food," meaning it is a popular fast food joint that offers memorable cuisine for the lowest prices possible.  From butter chicken to huge portions of biryani, Ghareeb doesn't disappoint for the cost.  However, the express location is limited in terms of sides and entrees.  Lacking fresh naan is a huge downfall and also really expensive samosas that appear to be from the freezer just disappoints. And wait??? No paneer dishes??  Because of these big misses, I could only give Ghareeb a 3 mile rating.  They have some easy fixes that would change my rating for the better.

What We Ate:

Chicken Boti Paratha

This was without question my favorite dish of the night.  I am still unsure what Chicken Boti is, but it had a nice curry spice and was more like a tandori chicken rather than a curry.  For only $2.99, you get a smaller portion of the chicken boti that is topped with raw red onions and then served with a huge paratha.  I suggest ordering biryani and adding it to the paratha along with some raita.  Roll it up into a "bombayritto" and enjoy.  This is another filling creation and one I highly suggest making!

Butter Chicken

A typical order of butter chicken is what we experienced at Ghareeb.  It was a lot more sauce than chicken and some of the pieces of chicken seemed to be thrown into the sauce rather than cooked with the sauce.  Regardless, it had a nice spice to it and was even better the day after.  I added some of the butter chicken sauce to the burrito I made and that was amazing.  I believe this only costs $4 or $5 which is a steal for butter chicken.

Chicken Biryani

The chicken biryani from Ghareeb is one of the largest take out portions of rice I have ever seen.  They fill an entire "to-go" container to the brim.  The rice was well seasoned and wasn't dry at all.  It had tons of chicken and is definitely a meal of its own.  Unfortunately, I was cheap that day and didn't spend the extra $1 for boneless chicken.  I suggest paying the extra buck because there are so many small pieces of bone in the rice that it gets frustrating after a while.  I will definitely be ordering this again--just without bones.

Lamb Khorma

I was pretty disappointed with the lamb khorma entree I ordered.  The lamb was extremely fatty and any sort of meat was also more cartilaginous than anything.  There was a strong game flavor that was actually overpowering as if the meat was old.  The sauce was just as bad, with the strong game flavor being the overwhelming flavor that filled my mouth.  I thought eating rice would help dull the sharpness of that meat, but it didn't help. Do not order this dish.

Channa Masala

My friends and I are addicted to their channa masala.  It just seems to be healthier than some of the more creamier versions I have had at other Indian restaurants.  This time unfortunately was little more oily than we were wanting (but just pour some of it off like we did).  The chick peas were a great consistency--soft, yet firm enough to make the meal substantial.  It wasn't spicy at all which was disappointing.  It varies every time we go, but is still worth the gamble.  A great vegetarian dish.

Veggie Biryani

My roommate also ordered a biryani... but this was the vegetarian option.  Rather than pieces of chicken, it was mixed with a bunch of curry flavored chick peas.  It had similar seasonings to the chicken biryani but lacked the annoyance of bones.  This dish only costs $3 and is a steal for the size of the dish.  I swear it will feed 2 or 3 people for at least two meals.


Huge parathas for $0.75.  I suggest ordering a couple extra for left overs.  Unfortunately no naan and when they do, I think it is just store bought naan that is warmed on the stove.  Get the parathas.

The DOs/DON'Ts:
- Definitely come for late night food.  They are open till midnight or later on most days and offer their entire menu (except samosas if they ran out).
- There isn't much seating (since it is a small part of the adjoining book store), so I suggest ordering ahead of time and just carry out the food.  It is just as good and they definitely do not skimp on portions.
- Do stick with the classics and the parathas if you don't want to be disappointed.

- Surprisingly, parking is difficult around here.  So just be aware.

How far would I walk for this food?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Jibarito Stop

Location:  Location varies on daily basis.  Follow them on Twitter: @TheJibaritoStop
The Jibarito Stop on Urbanspoon

A Quick Word:
I recently stumbled across another one of Chicago's Food Trucks -- The Jibarito Stop.  This food truck prides themselves in being the first mobile Puerto Rican restaurant in the city.  After getting excited for a jibarito sandwich and waiting several minutes for them to open, I was extremely disappointed when their menu was lacking any sort of jibarito for that day.  I guess they are really limited in terms of what they offer and it changes on a daily schedule.  Anyway, they do offer some great flavored stews and just OK empanadas.  Overall, this food truck was average.  There wasn't anything that memorable about any of the food.  The drivers of the truck were nice about opening a little before their scheduled 11AM time to accommodate customers.  However, when comparing to the other trucks in the city, I would consider them better than a lot, but still fall short of the more established ones.  Keep working on it and hopefully I can try a jibarito soon!

What I Ate:

Pollo Guisado

After finding out the truck wasn't carrying any Jibarito sandwiches, I decided to still give them a try and order the Pollo Guisado.  This is a chicken stew dish that is made up of several chunks of chicken breast that has been cooked with potatoes until soft and tender.  It comes with a side of rice and beans.  I was pleasantly surprised with the size of the dish.  At about $7.00 for the stew, it actually came with more than I needed for lunch.  The stew was well seasoned with a lot of garlic and tomato paste flavoring coming through.  The rice on the other hand was extremely bland.  I highly suggest adding the sauce from the stew to the rice and also cutting up some of the fried plantains to add a wonderful sweetness to each bite.  If there isn't a jibarito on board, I actually recommend the chicken stew.

Fried Plantains

The fried plantains came with the meal at no additional cost.  They had a pleasant sweetness to them but where still a little unripe in my opinion.  I have had plantains at several restaurants and I enjoy them being a little more mushy and sweet.  They were still pretty good though and definitely a good amount to accompany the main dish.

Beef & Cheese Empanada

I was pretty disappointed in the beef and cheese empanada.  The dough was not well seasoned and the filling just appeared to be ground beef with a little pepper.  I didn't taste any cheese and even more disappointing was the so called hot sauce that came with the empanada.  Definitely missing a lot of thought when preparing.  It was a little oily and the crust wasn't crispy, probably because it was wrapped and sitting in the foil for a while.  I wish trucks could cook on board.

The DOs/DON'Ts:
- Follow them on Twitter to find their current location.
- They do take credit card which is great

- Don't expect them to have everything on their websites menu.  I have seen them around a couple of times and their menu is much more limited.  It is disappointing.

How far would I walk for this food?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Naf Naf Grill

Location: 309 W. Washington St., Chicago, IL 60606 & 1739 Freedom Dr., Naperville, IL 60563
Naf Naf Grill on Urbanspoon Naf Naf Grill on Urbanspoon
A Quick Word:
I was first introduced to Naf Naf Grill at their original Naperville Location.  Once I heard they were coming to downtown Chicago, I knew I would be making frequent visits.  Naf Naf's claim to fame is their pita.  They have pita bakeries at each of their locations with workers making fresh pita bread constantly.  Their pita comes out like pillows and steals the show when concerning the overall meal.  The falafel is made frequently and they offer other options other than the typical shawarma.  The Loop location serves their meals "chipotle style" in cardboard to-go bowls.  Overall, I could only give Naf Naf a 4 mile rating because of their disappointing hot sauce and just OK food when dealing with cost and quantity.  I would definitely walk the 5 miles for just their pita, but I would do the same for Sultan's Market's prices and Pita Inn's hot sauce.

What I Ate:

Schnitzel Bowl

At the Chicago Loop location, Naf Naf serves their meals more like Chipotle.  You choose either a sandwich or a bowl, a protein, and then a bunch of veggies and toppings are added.  For my meal, I choose the bowl.  It begins with a basmati rice base layer that is topped with my choice of protein... the schnitzel.  I asked for everything on top including a cabbage based "slaw", pickles, tahini, and a hot pepper sauce.  The schnitzel is a chicken breast that has been pounded thin, lightly coated with sesame, and fried.  It is not deep fried so it doesn't have a crisp but the flavor is amazing and the meat itself is extremely tender.  The overall size of the bowl is significantly smaller than Chipotle bowls, so I suggest asking for extras of certain items... like the rice.  The hot sauce is just ok at Naf Naf, nothing comes close to Pita Inn's hot sauce.  I would definitely come back for the bowl, I am now just aware of the size and cost issue.


The nice part about the falafel is that they are made fresh and made frequently.  The ground chick pea patties are seasoned well and just fried enough to give that crunchy crust but remain that soft, grainy center.  You can choose the falafel as your main protein or you can just order them separately like I did.  Each costs $0.50 so I suggest ordering at least four of them.  They are on the smaller side when it comes to size, but they are packed with flavor and can be eaten plain.  Now I just wish they offered a decent hot sauce to accompany them.


Naf Naf Grill has the best pita I have ever eaten.  They make their pita in house which makes all the difference.  Workers are constantly making fresh pita dough and forming them into that round pita shape.  Each pita is as soft as a pillow.  They are fluffy and served warm.  Honestly, the only way to describe this pita is PERFECT.  Order extras at $0.75.  Definitely worth it!

The DOs/DON'Ts:
- Order extra pita... If you somehow leave the restaurant without eating pita, I will think you are crazy.  And you will be missing out.
- I suggest asking for extras because at the Loop location, they aren't very generous with their spoonfuls of ingredients.

- Parking around the Loop area is insane... It is extremely limited and costs a fortune for just a few minutes.  Try not to drive.
- They are closed on weekends so don't get fooled like I did.

How far would I walk for this food?


Crumbs Bake Shop

Location: 303 W. Madison St., Chicago, IL 60606
                 Multiple locations in the city (one of the most popular is 2nd floor Water Tower Place Mall)
Crumbs Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

A Quick Word:
Crumbs Bake Shop is another one of those New York based cupcake shops that have now infiltrated the Chicago area.  With I believe 5 locations in Chicago, it has become more and more popular,a probably because their cupcakes LOOK the best.  I want to keep this simple... so in my opinion, these cupcakes cannot live up to their looks when concerning taste.  Dry and somewhat old tasting is all I need to say.  I was disappointed.  If you end up trying them out, let me know what you think.

What We Ate:

Cupcakes (see flavors below)

(In clockwise order, starting from top left:  
Coffee Toffee, Chocolate-covered Strawberry, S'mores, Half and Half)

For one of my friend's recent birthdays, we decided to try crumb's signature cupcakes as opposed to the typical birthday cake.  When you first see them, these cupcakes look incredible.  Each cupcake is a piece of artwork.  The cupcakes range in price from $3 to $5 depending on whether or not the cupcake is filled and also the complexity of the cupcake as a whole.  Some are more simple with sprinkles decorating the top while others are towering with graham crackers, marshmallows, or chocolate chips.  In terms of taste, these cupcakes were disappointing.  They were dry, making them extremely crumbly. To be honest, they just tasted somewhat old.  I know they offer smaller bite-sized cupcakes which may help keep them more moist.  There are dozens of flavor combinations... beyond what is listed on their website.  But just be careful because the cupcake's taste and consistency doesn't live up to their delicious looks.

The DOs/DON'Ts:
- I suggest ordering the miniature cupcakes.  This way you can try them all, and at the same time, hopefully they are more moist than the larger cupcakes.
- If you are looking for presentation... crumbs is definitely the best.  So if you want a beautiful cupcake that tastes OK, then definitely come here.

- Try some of the other local cupcake spots before heading to Crumbs.  This is the second time having them and the second time being disappointed.

How far would I walk for this food?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Little Goat (Bread)

Location: 820 W. Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60607
Little Goat on Urbanspoon

A Quick Word:
Little Goat is a new type of restaurant to hit the city...  Half diner and half bakery.  People flock from all over the city and country to try the sister restaurant, The Girl and the Goat, and I assume the same will be said in a few months about Little Goat.  For this review, I am focusing on Little Goat Bread... the bakery side of the business.  Little Goat Bread opens early, serving coffee from its Ferrari red espresso machine.  They offer scones with the most unique ingredient combinations and also signature sandwiches made with house-made breads.  From a broccoli cheddar bread and apricot masala scones to her bagels with cinnamon cocoa butter, there is definitely something for everyone.  The atmosphere is very laid back in the bakery with plenty of space to walk around (when it is not crowded), a small store (where you can purchase marinades, coffee, shirts), and of course a bar just in case you need a quick drink.  The reason I could only give it 4 mile rating was mainly the cost.  Spending nearly $20 for lunch is a little overkill for a student's budget.  Yes, it may be way cheaper than Girl and the Goat but I think I was hoping for the similarly incredible food (which Little Goat definitely offers), but just a little lighter on my wallet.

(On the left, the Ferrari red espresso machine; On the right, the bakery in action)

What I Ate:

Tomato-Apple Soup

When walking into Little Goat, I was set on trying the goat chili until reading the other options on the menu.  The soup that stood out was the tomato-apple soup which is made from exactly what the menu item is called plus some seasoning of course.  Overall, the soup was good, very healthy tasting with minimal cream if any at all used.  However, the apple was non-existent... I think the tomato's acidity really cut the sweetness of the apple.  Calling it tomato soup would have been just fine, but I guess the apples is what draws everyone's attention.  The tomato-"apple" soup may be a disappointment for some, but I still enjoyed it, especially when dipping the house-made breads into it.

The Shrimp Sandwich

The shrimp sandwich lived up to all they hype it was receiving from other people's reviews/recommendations.  Served on their house-made potato bun, the shrimp sandwich was generously made with shrimp, a spicy mayo, cabbage, pickled peppers, avocado, onion cream cheese, and my favorite part... a masa chip.  The shrimp was served cold and had more of that shrimp salad sandwich feel to it.  It was lightly sautéed and then butterflied to help cover more sandwich area.  All of the condiments gave incredible flavors, especially that generously applied onion cream cheese.  The masa chip was a great touch, giving that crunch factor to the sandwich and also adding a complexity from whatever seasoning was on it.  I absolutely loved the sandwich and will recommend it to everyone... and honestly, the price on the sandwich seemed more reasonable than the price for soups.

Bacon and Gouda Bread

The bacon and gouda bread was the free sample they gave out as I waited.  It was a country style bread that I guess had gouda baked right in to it.  I could definitely see the huge chunks of bacon which gave a strong enough bacon flavor throughout.  It would probably make an awesome sandwich bread.  Definitely check this bread out.


Served from one of those Ferrari red espresso machines you only see on TV, I was excited to try their coffee.  The flavor of the Americano was amazing... very bold, yet had that slight sweetness come through at the end.  No bitterness like chain coffee shops.  It comes out a little too hot for drinking, but thats the best way to brew coffee.

The DOs/DON'Ts:
- Quick lunch? Definitely check out the bread side of the restaurant, rather than the sit down diner side. (a review of the diner side will be a later post)
- If I lived nearby or walked by Little Goat in the AMs, I would definitely stop here for my coffee rather than spending it at a chair coffee shop.

- Don't drive... parking is ridiculous on Randolph St. unless you valet park for dinner.  There are plenty of pay-at-the-box spots on nearby streets, but it is still difficult to find one of those metered spots.

How far would I walk for this food?