Superior Al Pastor at Taqueria Chingón

You may know by now, if you a frequent reader of the blog, that we are always on the hunt for the best tacos al pastor, near and far. And in Chicago, we may have found a new top contender in Taqueria Chingón (2234 N Western Ave Chicago, IL 60647). Taqueria Chingón is a counter-serve pickup or takeout spot, and we particularly liked their nice outdoor space, especially in these Covid-stricken times. We arrived on a weekday right after they opened at noon, and there was already a small line forming, a good sign of things to come.

The menu at Taqueria Chingón is limited: tacos, appetizers (quesadillas, ceviche), plus a few sides (nopal, frijoles) and desserts (churros, flan). For tacos, there is a full range, from the classic beef asada and chorizo alongside some more esoteric options like duck carnitas and vegetarian al pastor, made with mushrooms. All of the tacos are $4-6 dollars, which is a little steep for tacos, but hear us out, for a change, it is actually worth it!

The al pastor tacos ($5) are a thing of beauty, and they contain all of the factors we think one needs in a perfect taco. First, the homemade tortillas are pliable, and thick enough to handle the fillings, but not too chewy. Second, to creat the tacos, juicy pork is shaved right off of a spit (trompo) with a nice charred bark. Usually, al pastor tacos are pre-cut from a trompo and finished on a flattop, or never on a trompo to start with, but we think it makes all the difference. Finally, the taco has to have some pineapple on top, alongside the traditional onion and cilantro topping. A good al pastor taco is more than the sum of its parts, and Taqueria Chingón certainly delivered on every part. We enjoyed these tacos so much that we even went back to get another. Not wanting to give the other tacos on the menu short shrift, we also tried the cochinita pibil: stewed Yucatecan pork, which was spicy and flavorful.

Overall, Taqueria Chingón was a stunner, and everything we tried was at the highest level. It reminded us of taquerias in Mexico City: high marks for both style and substance, which was the goal of the owners. Taqueria Chingón is definitely going into our Chicago taqueria rotation and we recommend you visit if you get the chance.

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Filipino Specialties at Nipa Hut

Though Cleveland is much smaller than Chicago, we are always heartened to see how much diversity is really tucked away in the city and surrounding area’s restaurants. We had a craving for Filipino food recently, and were happy to find that there were actually two Filipino options in the Parma area: Nipa Hut (6775 W 130th St, Parma Heights, OH) and Mely’s Kainan (5382 State Road, Cleveland, OH 44134). We were craving Halo-Halo (pictured below), so we opted for Nipa Hut, since we saw it featured prominently on the menu (very scientific, I know).

Nipa Hut is primarily a grocery store, but also with a separate seating area to dine in, but it did not appear to be open when we went. Instead, during our Covid-era visit the only option was to pick up food from their ready made take-out selection. However, this restriction was not too big of a deal since the take-out section actually consisted a large number of refrigerated items, as you can see below. From these we selected: pancit bihon ($7.95), chicken afritada ($9.95), Laing (taro leaves in coconut milk), and we finished up with pickled papaya salad. Other options included chicken adobo (soy and vinegar marinaded chicken with thousands or variations), menudo (pork stew, different than the Latin American menudo, a tripe stew), fried sardines, palabok (noodles in a shrimp sauce) and kare-kare (peanut curry stew). We brought home our choices to reheat in the oven, and overall they held up very nicely. We were really surprised by the Laing, which we had never tried before – it was both tangy and creamy, with a nice shrimp paste kick – all complementing the slightly chewy, toothsome taro leaves. The pancit, a rice noodle dish, is one of our go-tos because its mix of stir-fried meat and veggies is so comforting (in this case chicken and bell peppers). The chicken afritada, a homey stew with a delightful savory sauce of tomatoes and spice, was surprisingly complex, and the chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender.

And now for dessert, which for us, was the main event. We ordered a halo-halo ($6.99) to go for each of us (and who wants to share?), which we enjoyed in the car before it melted. This dessert was made to order, and not available in the takeout counter. Halo-halo is a frozen Filipino sundae-like dish that means “mix mix” in Tagalog, and it is an idiosyncratic combination of lots of different sweet delicacies all contained in a single cup. No two places make it the same, though there are often common elements, like ube ice cream and jellied fruit. Our Halo-Halo contained: puffed rice, a scoop of ube ice cream, a slice of flan, shaved ice, condensed milk, jackfruit pieces, chickpeas (!) and bright-green pandan jelly. The beauty of halo-halo is that the combination of elements is more than the sum of its parts, trust us!

Nipa Hut was also connected to a sizable grocery store filled with any sort of Filipino grocery your heart could desire. We were also extremely intrigued by the large selection of ube frozen treats, including a frozen ube pie, which we really regretted not buying. Within the aisles of Nipa Hut, there was a staggering assortment of Filipino sauces, canned goods, and treats, and a selection of jellied fruits to make your own halo-halo! There were also more esoteric inclusions tucked away, including balut, a fertilized chicken egg. We highly recommend Nipa Hut if you are in search for Filipino ingredients, hearty comfort food, or even a little halo-halo as a treat.

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Celebrating the Bengali New Year – Pahela Baishakh

BangladeshApril 14 or 15 is celebrated as Pahela_Baishakh (also spelled Pohela/Poila Boishakh), the start of the New Year in Bangladesh (April 14) and across some eastern Indian states (April 15) with significant Bengali populations. Pahela Baishakh is traditionally celebrated with large processions with floats (especially in Dhaka), but in both 2020 and 2021, Covid has sent the merriment and public celebrations indoors. However, you can still use the occasion of Pahela Baishakh to make a Bangladeshi feast. One of the most iconic dishes for New Year is panta ilish, a dish of soaked rice (panta bhat) and fried “Hilsa Herring”/ilish fish. If you want a bit more inspiration for a complete feast, you can find entire Pahela Baishakh menus on Whisk Affair, India Today, and With a Spin.

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Crescia al Formaggio: Italian cheese bread for Easter

We are very familiar with sweet carb-y options on the Italian Easter table including the colomba, marzipan lambs, and pastiera. However, we are excited to learn about some more savory Easter dishes popular in Italy. In Central Italy, one version of this Easter bread goes by many names including Pizza di Pascua, Crescia di Pasqua, and Crescia al Formaggio. Crescia al Formaggio (as it is known in the Marche region, literally translating to cheese growing/rising) is a leavened, dome-shaped bread filled with an assortment of cheeses, including Parmesan. This bread is traditionally baked on Good Friday, and is then eaten on Easter, especially with a side of charcuterie. While we might not have enough room to make this cheesy bread this Easter, we think it sounds like a delicious treat year-round. Check out recipes from King Arthur, Our Italian Table, MA Kitchen, and She Loves Biscotti.

Pizza di Pascua By Germana Caranzetti

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HaiSous: Innovative Vietnamese in Chicago

When we were living in Chicago we frequently visited HaiSous (1800 S Carpenter St., Chicago, IL, 60608), a Vietnamese restaurant in Pilsen run by husband-and-wife team Thai and Danielle Dang. We really enjoyed our food and overall experience at HaiSous and its sister restaurant Ca Phe Da (right next door) each time we visited. And we were not alone in our praise: HaiSous gained accolades as a Michelin Bib Gourmand Pick and as James Beard award nominee.

Dining at HaiSous Pre-Covid

The restaurant is still open during Covid, so we wanted to heartily recommend them to those still in Chicago. We are happy to see they still have some takeout options (both curbside and delivery) of their best-loved dishes (available Thursday – Sunday 4pm-8pm), along with both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks including their famous Cà Phê Sữa Đá – Iced Vietnamese-style Coffee. During Covid, they have also pivoted Ca Phe Da to a new concept: Dang Good Wings, which has a pared-down menu of coffee drinks and HaiSous’ famous chicken (plus waffles)!

Green Papaya Salad

HaiSous used to have a set prix fixe menu, along with a rotating menu of a la carte Vietnamese favorites. You can still get some of our favorite dishes for takeout including: Crispy chicken wings with caramelized fish sauce and chili and Vietnamese Fries (6pc/18pc $15/$38). Papaya Salad (seen above) – shredded green papaya with beef jerky, fresh herbs, sesame and chili ($13). And of course, the classic Bun Bo Hue – a rice noodle soup from the region of Huế – beef/pork broth with lemongrass, chili and annatto oil ($15).

Pho in simpler times

Alongside their takeout options, HaiSous has developed some additional innovative experiences, including a multi course meal with a pre-recorded cook-along demo for $40 per person. According to the site, “you cook one dish along with us, we’ll make the rest! Watch as many times as you’d like, it’s pre-recorded.” Each month there is a different menu, so you can keep coming back for more. March 2021’s menu includes a cook-along for Bún Đậu Phộng Gà, a savory dish of rice noodles, peanut hoisin sauce, chicken and Thai basil. Along with the March cook-along, you receive the following pre-made dishes: green papaya salad and Chả Giò, a Vietnamese egg roll with a lettuce wrap, plus a pandan waffle with whipped coconut mousse for dessert. HaiSous new menu and cook-along experience looks amazing, and we wish we were in Chicago to try it. If you do, let us know what you think!

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Nan-e Nokhodchi for Nowruz

This weekend is the Persian New Year’s festival of Nowruz, falling on March 20, 2021. Earlier on the blog, we have talked a little bit about the festive savory dishes eaten on Nowruz. However, in doing our research into what we should make, we also came across these intriguing cookies – make with chickpea flour, and flavored with rosewater and cardamom – Nan-e Nokhodchi (or shirini nokhodchi)! We have to admit that we have never incorporated chickpea flour into cookies (or sweet dishes) before, so we are very excited to try these someday. Plus, chickpea flour is naturally gluten free. Here are some tasty recipes for Nan-e Nokhodchi from The Washington Post, Ahead of Thyme and The Delicious Crescent.

Shirini-e Nokhodchi by Alice Wiegand

 

 

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Grace Young’s Chinatown Stories: One Year Later

It is hard to believe that it has been 1 year since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Restaurants were one of the first sectors hit, as restaurants were ordered closed in cities across the US in March 2020. Restaurants in Chinatowns across the US were among the first hit by declining restaurant patronage, even before the dine-in bans, largely due to racism and xenophobia. In March 2020, chef and food historian Grace Young started making a video series documenting the effects of the early pandemic on Chinese restaurants in NYC. These videos were produced with the Poster House Museum in NYC who contacted Grace to work with them in conjunction with an exhibit on Chinese posters, “The Sleeping Giant: Posters & The Chinese Economy.” Grace sprung into action, and with photographer Dan Ahn, interviewed restaurant owners and other leaders in Chinatown about how the epidemic was already affecting their lives and businesses. It is especially poignant to look back on these stories now, as Asian Americans have increasingly been the target of violent crimes in the US.

You can view all eight videos in the series on Vimeo, which ended in October 2020. Grace’s projects brought welcome publicity to the restaurants and businesses, earning widespread media coverage, including a GrubStreet article which called her the “unlikely voice of Chinatown.” Unfortunately, some of the restaurants featured, including French-Malaysian restaurant Aux Epices, closed even over the course of Grace’s coverage, and their future remains uncertain. However, Grace’s video coverage of this community was only the start. In December 2020, she started an Instagram campaign to highlight Chinese restaurants around the world, #savechineserestaurants. In January 2021, Grace also started a Go Fund Me to support legacy restaurants in NYC’s Chinatown, to which you can still donate. Grace’s coverage of these businesses during the early throes of Covid-19 is a poignant record of the effects of the virus on one community’s food culture. Unfortunately, one year on, Chinatown NYC is still a long way from recovery.

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Sephardic Fazuelos for Purim

Today at sunset marks the start of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Haman. Many of the treats enjoyed on Purim have to do with Haman in some way, including the more-famous, triangular, filled Hamantaschen cookies. Fazuelos, fried dough formed into a spiral shape, are also a popular Sephardic Jewish Purim recipe, found in Italy, Morocco, Israle and Turkey, among other places. These fried dough treats go by many different names throughout the Mediterranean: Fazuelos, fijuelas, deblas, or orecchie di Ammon. The last of these, the Italian name, “orecchie di Ammon,” gives a clue to why they are so popular on Purim, since this name literally translates to “ears of Hammon” in Italian. You can find recipes for fazuelos at Kosher Cowboy and Jamie Gellar (who provides the video below.).

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For The Culture Issue 01: It’s Personal + The Pandemic

The first issue of For the Culture is out! For the Culture is a new food magazine dedicated to African, African American, and African Diaspora women and femmes in the food and wine industry. The first cover features historian and author, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, and the overall theme of “It’s Personal + The Pandemic.” The magazine is edited by chef and cookbook author Klancy Miller, and features work by all Black women writers and photographers. Miller describes the magazine as filling a void in the food media world, and serving as a place to celebrate and amplify Black voices. The magazine was first funded through a crowdsourcing campaign and a bake sale in 2020, and the first official issue just came out in January 2021. The first issue is centered on personal stories of the pandemic, and contributors from around the world weighed in with their experiences. The original theme was only “It’s Personal,” but Miller later modified it to include the pandemic as 2020 went on, which has obviously affected the food and wine industry and communities of color (and their intersections) particularly severely. I treated myself to a copy of For the Culture for my birthday, and I highly recommend this beautifully photographed, written and researched magazine. Get your copy on the For the Culture website here for $25.

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Mandu-guk (Korean Dumpling Soup) for Lunar New Year

February 12th rings in the Year of the Ox across countries celebrating the Lunar New Year, including Korea. For Lunar New Year in Korea, Seollal, there is a full menu of delicious dishes to ring in a prosperous, healthy, and happy new year. One of the classic festive dishes to eat on Lunar New Year’s Day in Korea is Mandu-guk, Mandu dumplings (filled with meat and veggies or tofu) in beef or anchovy broth. It is also popular to have this dumpling-laden soup with rice cakes (ddukguk/tteok), when it is then called tteok-mandu-guk, and a ddukguk-only soup is also popular on Lunar New Year. You can make Mandu-guk with either store bought or home-made mandu dumplings (recipe for mandu from Maangchi). Check out these recipes for Mandu-guk from My Korean Kitchen, Maangchi and Korean Banpsang. Since it is going to be so cold here this weekend, we think that some hearty dumpling soup may just be what we need. Happy Lunar New Year! 

Mandu guk by Kirk K

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In Bibi’s Kitchen by Hawa Hassan takes readers on a trip of East Africa

We wrote previously about highly enjoying Hawa Hassan’s Somali recipes on Bon Appetit, so we were delighted when we learned that Hassan was releasing her first cookbook, with Julia Turshen, in late 2020, In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean. We bought In Bibi’s Kitchen for ourselves for Christmas, and are happy to report that it is delightful, both as a cookbook, and as an intimate insight into the lives of the featured cooks. The recipes in the book cover the eight African nations that border the Indian ocean: South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Comoros, Tanzania, Kenya, Somalia, and Eritrea. Hassan is a Somali-American chef and entrepreneur, and wanted to shed some light on the culinary traditions of East Africa, and we are so happy that this under-explored culinary region is so nicely featured in her new cookbook.

The rich trans-Indian Ocean culinary and cultural exchange is apparent in these recipes, which mix Indian, Middle-Eastern and Sub-Saharan African flavors (and tons of warm spices). We especially loved that Hassan included recipes for the spice blends in the book including the cinnamon, cumin, and cardamom redolent Xawaash (similar to Yemeni Hawaij spice blend). Another aspect of the book we particularly enjoyed was that each chapter starts with an interview with a grandma – or “Bibi” (living in Africa, or abroad) – about her life, cooking, and recipes. As an additional bonus, the on-site photographs by Khadija Farah, and food photography by Jennifer May are simply gorgeous. We have only tried a few recipes from In Bibi’s Kitchen, so far, but they have all been excellent and utilize mainly ingredients which can be obtained in a well-stocked grocery store. Vogue UK has a sampling of 3 recipes: Ma Gehennet’s Shiro (chickpea stew) from Eritrea, Zanzibar Pilau (rice) from Tanzania, and Ma Kauthar’s Mango Chile Sauce from Kenya. This weekend we aim to try a new recipe from the book: a Somali-inflected pasta dish called Suugo Suqaar (recipe here), which she previously demo-ed on Bon Appetit. Don’t delay, you can buy In Bibi’s Kitchen, from Bookshop.org here.

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Issho Ni: Ramen and more in Cleveland

Issho Ni Ramen Sushi & Hibachi (34302 Euclid Ave, Willoughby, OH 44094). We are always on the hunt for good ramen in Cleveland, and we are sad to admit that it is a little bit hard to find. We had heard good things about Issho Ni, in the eastern Cleveland suburb of Willoughby, so we finally decided to bite the bullet and make the trek all the way out to the east side. If you blinked, you would miss it, since Issho Ni is an unassuming restaurant in a strip mall just off of I-90. But appearances could be deceiving. The menu at Issho Ni was pretty extensive: ramen is only one of the options, there is also a full hibachi menu, and a wide variety of sushi rolls. Plus, as a bonus in these COVID-19 times, we really liked that you could order and pay in advance.

Despite the large menu, we were all in on ramen, of which there were five different varieties: Issho Ni Ramen (no broth, topped with an egg yolk $14.55), Kuro (Black) Ramen with pork broth ($14.55), Kiiro (Yellow) Ramen ($12.47) made with a rich pork and chicken broth, Spicy Tonkatsu Ramen ($13.51), and a lighter choice of soy-based Shoyu Ramen, which could be made vegan (without an egg $11.43). We decided to get two varieties: the black ramen, which was seasoned with black garlic oil and squid ink, and the spicy tonkatsu ramen, marked with four hot peppers, piquing M’s interest. There was also the option to order extra broth or noodles, along with other extra helpings of other toppings (or to omit ingredients). We ordered our ramen for takeout – and greatly enjoyed the contact-less takeout service – we placed our order online, and they brought it right out to the car for us. They were certainly attentive to the details, and we appreciated how they put the toppings/noodles and the broth in two separate containers, so they would not get soggy.

It took about a half hour to drive home, so unfortunately, we are sure that the ramen suffered a little bit from the transportation. However, we found that the ramen broth was still pretty hot by the time we got home. The toppings were generous: in addition to the roast pork, we got a soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and green onions. The tonkatsu broth that was the base of both of our ramens was rich and delicious, and the black garlic also added an unexpected umami flavor. Additionally, the roast pork on top had a nice char and umami flavor. The only mark against them, is that the noodles were not as springy as we would have liked, and were a little tough. However, we have to say that, overall, this was one of the best bowls of ramen in Cleveland so far, especially taking the broth into consideration. Based on our first experience, we look forward to trying all of the varieties of ramen at Issho Ni at some point in the future. We are so glad that we gave Issho Ni a try, and think it is a great addition to the ramen scene in Cleveland.

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Japanese Shortbread Dove Cookies – Hato Sabure, 鳩サブレー

There is a bit of Japanese theme going on at ETW this month, since January is M’s birthday month and we were supposed to be in Japan right now, if Covid-19 were not occuring. In lieu of a trip to Japan, we are indulging in lots of Japanese food this month. When looking for an easy dessert to make to go along with our Japanese green tea, I came across these dove-shaped shortbread cookies called Hato Sabure, 鳩サブレー (translating to “dove sable cookies”). These cookies were created by the Toshimaya company in Kamakura, Japan in 1887 when European-style sable cookies were introduced into Japan, as the country opened to foreign influence. Hato Sabure has grown over the years into Toshimaya’s iconic cookie, and the bird theme carries throughout the shop and its decor, as you can see below. I love a good cookie as an accompaniment to a cup of tea, so I am happy to report that these sable cookies went perfectly with our Japanese green tea. The recipe I used for Hato Sabure was from the ever-reliable Just One Cookbook. I didn’t have any bird-shaped cookie cutters, so I made them into dinosaur shapes, which I think taste just as good!

The Toshimaya Store by Marc

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KFC for Christmas in Japan

I hope those who celebrate had a wonderful Christmas. We have been partaking in some serious rest and relation these past two weeks, and since we are unable to travel, the blog is relatively slow. However, we wanted to drop a fun Christmas-related tidbit that we have been meaning to share a while now. Did you know that KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) is associated with Christmas in Japan? It is the result of a long-running publicity campaign, first started by a Japanese franchisee Takeshi Okawara in 1970. The festive KFC “party barrel” of chicken served as a stand-in for the American turkey dinner. Colonel Sanders even looks like Santa, an association made in Japan as part of the marketing campaign, that you can see below! This special proved to be popular, and soon caught on across the country. Now there are hundreds of KFCs in Japan, and the long-running association between fried chicken and Christmas in Japan is set in stone.

Colonel Sanders by Mark

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Pisto: The original Neapolitan Pumpkin Spice

Between the two of us, M has the stronger love of pumpkin spice, and every Fall he has to get his fill of this seasonal flavor. What Americans now call pumpkin spice – a variable mix of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and clove – is similar to many spice blends around the world, and we just learned of another international pumpkin spice cousin: Neapolitan Pisto (Italian Wikipedia). The key ingredients of the Pisto spice blend are cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, star anise, and coriander. Pisto is a key component of the popular Roccoco and Mostaccioli (below) cookies, which are eaten around the Christmas holidays. Mostaccioli [recipe] are diamond-shaped spicy cookies coated in chocolate, and Roccoco [recipe] are ring shaped with candied fruit. Other Neapolitan holiday cookies like susamielli use Pisto as a major component. You can buy pre-blended Pisto in Naples, but we have never seen it for sale in the US. Fortunately, you can find recipes online like this one from SBS / Italian Street Food.

Mostaccioli by Caleb Lost

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Cadbury Chocolate for Diwali

India Flag

Today marks the start of the Hindu celebration of Diwali, the festival of lights. The holiday is celebrated throughout India and the Indian diaspora, usually with festive foods and a variety of small sweet treats, called Mithai. However we were interested to learn that a popular alternative to Mithai in India is chocolate, and Cadbury chocolate in particular. Writing for the New York Times, Priya Krishna describes the long-seated dominance of Cadbury, a British confectioner now owned by the multinational brand Mondelez, and their sweet milk chocolate “Dairy Milk” bars, in India. The company first got its foothold in India during British colonization, and it is still the main player in the Indian chocolate market. While many other food categories are dominated by local companies, Cadbury has only been growing in recent years. While Cadbury may still be synonymous with chocolate in India, Krishna describes a small handful of artisan Indian and Indian-American chocolatiers are trying to beat the company’s monopoly in India and the diaspora with their innovative small-batch chocolates.

A Cadbury Chocolate bar by Trevor Coultart

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Minestra Dei Morti: Soup of the Dead

In Italian Cuisine, there are many special treats to commemorate Day of the Dead / All Souls’ Day / Commemorazione dei defunti on November 2nd. However, most of these are sweet – called in Italian “sweets of the dead” or i dolci dei morti – including pan dei morti, torrone dei morti, Frutti di Martorana, and ossi dei morti! Shockingly, from time to time, even the Eaters are in the mood for something a bit more savory. For that craving, we turn to the far northern Italian region of Lombardy, which celebrates Day of the Dead with Minestra dei Morti, or “Soup of the Dead.” This is a humble pork broth soup served with vegetables and chickpeas, typical of cucina povera or “peasant cuisine” meant to make humble ingredients stretch. The legumes, strangely enough also have connecttions with the dead, being linked with funeral rites and offerings for the dead since antiquity. Typically this recipe was made with a whole pigs head, coinciding with the typical season of the hog slaughter, though you can go for a more standard cut of pork nowadays. We plan to make the recipe from Memorie di Angelina this November 2nd.

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The End of an Era: Sokolowski’s University Inn Closing?

Poland

Sokolowski’s University Inn (1201 University Rd. Cleveland, OH 44113) is pretty much the definition of a Cleveland classic. The restaurant opened in 1923 and was Cleveland’s oldest family-owned and -operated restaurant. However, that run might be over soon. Due to a combination of personal issues and the threat of Covid, the third-generation owners decided now was the right time to get out of the business, and the building is now for sale. Tremont, the neighborhood where Sokolowski’s sits, is rapidly gentrifying, so the land alone would surely earn a pretty penny.

We visited Sokolowski’s right before we left for Chicago for the year, and we are glad we got to experience this stalwart in its full glory before it closed, pre-Covid. Sokolowski’s bread and butter was its cafeteria line, at which you could grab classic Polish and Eastern European dishes to make yourself a tasty and reasonably-priced meal. Typical fare included kielbasa, stuffed cabbage, pierogi, and chicken paprikash. Other American (meatloaf, Salisbury steak) and Italian (chicken piccata, eggplant parm) dishes were also on offer, along with a smattering of veggies and desserts. The restaurant itself was something of time capsule, filled with dark wood, knickknacks, and religious paraphernalia. The restaurant also boasted an enviable view of Cleveland and the Cuyahoga River from high atop a hill.

Going to Sokolowski’s is a right of passage for every Clevelander, and it even won a James Beard award as an “American Classic” in 2014. Sokolowski’s definitely represented the Cleveland of another era, and was one of the last of the old-style Eastern European restaurants hanging on. With the recent(ish) closure of the Slovenian restaurant Searle’s Country House in 2017, the closing of Sokolowski’s marks the end of a culinary era for Cleveland.

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The Optimist’s Creed (of Donuts)

optimists_creed_1939

I came across this intriguing bit of ephemera in a scrapbook dating to the 1930s, and I became curious about its origin. Turns out this “Optimist’s Creed” is a longstanding advertising campaign of Mayflower Donuts. It seems equally at home in the Great Depression as it does in 2020, doesn’t it? Mayflower Donuts was founded by Doughnut impresario Adolph Levitt in New York in 1931, and eventually blossomed into a chain of Mayflower Doughnut shops across the US. Levitt had previously invented an automatic doughnut fryer, which he sold to other doughnut shops around the US, eventually opening up his own Mayflower chain. Mayflower featured prominently at World’s Fairs throughout the 1930s, including Chicago in 1933-4 and New York in 1939-40, as the company tried to drum up publicity. You can see the Optimist’s Creed hung on the wall of a Chicago Mayflower shop circa 1949, from Calumet 412. Despite its former popularity, as of this writing in 2020, the Mayflower chain seems to have disappeared. If you are a fan of the Optimists’ Creed you can buy a mug or print from Vintage Menu Art.

Chicago Mayflower shop circa 1949, from Calumet 412.

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Chengdu Impression: Sichuan in Chicago

Chengdu Impression (2545 N Halsted St., Chicago, IL 60614) is one of the places we could have sworn we have already written about. When we were back in Chicago, it was one of our go-to spots to take friends craving Chinese cuisine. In the past few years, the number of options for regional Chinese in Chicago has really exploded, and we are so happy about it. Sichuan food – known for its spiciness, both in terms of heat and the unique numbing effect of the Sichuan pepper – in particular is now available at several restaurants throughout Chicago, and Chengdu Impression is a standout. Since the restaurant opened several years ago we have been there at least 5 times (and maybe more), which is saying something, since we are usually on the hunt for something new.

The Chengdu Impression menu includes both Americanized Chinese favorites (orange chicken and General Tso’s) along with a section of Sichuan dishes. We never tried ordering the American Chinese dishes, choosing to stick to the Sichuan side of the menu, but we assume they are good, too! Over the course of our many visits we started to settle on some favorites. First up is a classic dish, the mapo tofu ($13.50, above) tofu cooked in a spicy sauce with the signature numbing Sichuan peppercorns. The version of this dish at Chengdu Impression is our favorite in the city.  We also like to start off with a small appetizer portion of Dan Dan Noodles (spicy noodles in a Sichuan peppercorn sauce, below). Another one of our favorites was the dry chili chicken ($14.50), breaded chicken pieces with a mix of chilies, which we have had at other Sichuan restaurants, but we love Chengdu Impression’s version because there is not too much superfluous breading, and still a nice amount of spice. A dish that was new to us was “Ants Climbing a Tree” aka Ma Yi Shang Shu ($13.95), a savory dish with vermicelli glass noodles, ground pork and a spicy sauce. For those looking for something different, a great vegetarian option is the YuShiang eggplant ($12.95) sauteed with sweet and sour sauce (you can also get YuShiang dishes prepared with meat).

The Sichuan dishes at Chengdu Impression are fresh and authentic, with generous portions. On one or our trips we even with with someone who had lived in Chengdu, and he was pretty impressed. We absolutely loved trying a new Sichuan dish every time we visited, and we can’t wait to be back in town so we can continue to work our way through the menu. Fortunately, the restaurant is still open, as of September 2020, for takeout. And if you are going to the iconic Chicago Blues Club, Kingston Mines, in the future, Chengdu Impression is literally the perfect place to eat, right across the street.

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