Category Archives: Reviews

Our favorite Bay Area matcha at Third Culture Bakery

When we were in LA and San Francisco this past month, one of our goals was to find the best Matcha latte in each city (and across both). Matcha is powdered green tea, made from specifically shade-grown tencha tea leaves. At, home we make our own matcha drink every morning using Sugimoto Tea Reserve Mizuki Matcha, however, we are always on the lookout for good tea on our trips. After our searches, we can say hands-down that our favorite matcha stop on our most recent trip was Third Culture Bakery (2701 Eighth St, Berkeley, CA 94710).

Third Culture Bakery is the brainchild of Sam Butarbutar and Wenter Shyu, who wanted to pay homage to their upbringings in Indonesia and Taiwan in the cafe’s flavors. Third Culture has a variety of matcha lattes ($5), and you can get all kinds of add-ins, including caramel and strawberry lychee for and extra 50 cents. My personal favorite was the caramel swirl, seen in front here. There was also an unusual offering – the roasted matcha latte ($5) – which has a tan hue, and a roasted hojicha-like flavor. At Third Culture, they prepare the matcha in a traditional bowl with a whisk, which is one of the tell-tale signs that you are getting a made-from-scratch matcha latte and not a powdered mix. The matcha itself is also very high quality – smooth and not bitter at all – and you can taste the difference in every sip. If you want even finer matcha, you can order a special ceremonial-grade matcha ($7).

For those looking for options other than matcha, there are also cold brew or pour over coffee selections, and even some decaffeinated options like sodas with house-made syrups. The other key offering at Third Culture Bakery are their mochi baked goods (made from sweet michiko rice flour), which have gotten a certain amount of fame in the Bay Area. You can get mochi muffins in flavors like black sesame (pictured in front above), ube, chocolate, and matcha, alongside mochi doughnuts and waffles. We are particularly fond of the mochi muffins, especially the chocolate, and the “original” flavor (seen in back, above), which is lightly scented with pandan and topped with black and white sesame seeds. These mochi treats have a delicious chewy texture, and a savory heft that complemented the sweetness.

The inside of the shop is cute and colorful, with a small selection of merch, and a large kitchen. You can enjoy your treats to go, or sit outside on a row of outdoor seating built into the steps between the store and the sidewalk, which we happily did on a lovely sunny day. We highly recommend Third Culture Bakery, since we have tried a fair number of matcha lattes in the past few years, and this is definitely our favorite so far. We love their mission, style, baked goods, and most importantly, their matcha!

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Where to find Semla in Chicago

When Andersonville’s storied Swedish Bakery closed in 2017, Chicago collectively let our a huge gasp. Where could we get our Swedish treats? In stepped Lost Larson, with their modern take on Scandinavian baked goods. For Lent in Sweden, sampling Semla (plural semlor) pastries is a must, and Lost Larson has their own rendition (seen below). Traditionally, semla are eaten on Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday and also throughout Lent on Tuesdays. Lost Larson’s version has an almond cream filling, chopped almonds, and whipped cream all in a house-made cardamom brioche. Yum! They were fresh and full of almond flavor, definitely the most delicious version we have ever had. The semla at Lost Larson frequently sell out, so it is recommended that you place your orders in advance for pickup on the Lost Larson website (at either location). Plus, their new Wicker Park cafe (2140 W Division St.) is extremely charming, so we recommend that you pop in. If you need any more convincing, Lost Larson also has one of our favorite matcha lattes in Chicago (also seen below).

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Puerto Rican mofongo and more at Cleveland Mofongo

Owing to a large Puerto Rican population in Northeast Ohio, Cleveland actually has some pretty great Puerto Rican food spots. We have tried quite a few, and one of our our favorites is Cleveland Mofongo (11621 Lorain Ave, Cleveland, OH). We have written about mofongo before, and this emblematic dish consists of garlicky, fried mashed plantains (traditionally pounded in a wooden mortar and pestle, called a pilón) with savory fillings. As the name would suggest, the key thing to order when you go is mofongo. I mean, sure, you can order a salad or empanadilla (preferably guava and cheese), but only as accompaniments to the mofongo.

At Cleveland Mofongo, you can get a variety of mofongo fillings including: vegetarian, pork, chicken, shrimp, salmon, steak, bacalao (dried cod), or even surf and turf (prices range from $10-15.50). The mofongo comes with a simple side salad, or you can also substitute rice and beans, or make the whole dish into a rice bowl. So what’s the verdict on the mofongo? We love mofongo, and can be pretty picky about it, and Cleveland Mofongo lives up to the hype. This mofongo is not too dry, or greasy, two common failings, and the fillings are ample. The roast pork is our go-to-and it is flavorful and tender. Cleveland Mofongo has even gotten the stamp of approval from a Boricua who knows a thing or two about mofongo.

But, truth be told, they really do have a pretty large menu in addition to the mofongo: salads, tacos, quesadillas, sweet empanadillas for dessert, and adobo chicken wings are on offer. Plus, if you are into that sort of thing, they also have brunch featuring American staples like french toast and omelettes. Everything we have ordered so far beyond the mofongo, including the appetizer platter with empanadillas (little fried empanadas), tostones (fried, smashed plantain rounds), and yuca are delicious accompaniments, too (pick 4 for $13.50)! There is a new dining room at Cleveland Mofongo, which is usually full, but we have opted for takeout during the pandemic. You have to call in your orders, and sometimes they are so busy that it takes a while to get through. One time, actually, we were not able to get through at all over the course of an hour, so you may have to be a little persistent, or lucky! We are glad they are doing so well, and if you can, give Cleveland Mofongo a try for a little taste of Puerto Rico.

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Celebrating the New Year in Japan with Kagami Mochi

A few years ago in Chicago, our friends shared kagami mochi with us, one of the many traditional foods and decorations used to celebrate the new year in Japan. Kagami mochi, meaning “mirror mochi,” is a two-layered stack of white mochi (pounded rice cakes), topped with a citrus fruit, usually a daidai or mikan. A symbol of the new year for centuries, they are called mirror mochi because they somewhat resemble old copper mirrors, and the double stack is considered auspicious. The kagami mochi may be simple stack, or may sit on wooden stands (sanpō) where they are festooned with paper chains (gohei) and other accoutrements. In Japan you can buy kagami mochi throughout December pretty widely, and you can also find it at some Japanese grocery stores in the US. If you don’t have access to this, you can make your own mochi at home. It is then considered auspicious to then “break” the mochi (kagami biraki) and eat them on January 11th!

Kagami Mochi by Midorisyu

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Eggs as Street Food in India

Even though it would be unusual in the US, Having an omelette as street food is pretty intuitive, since eggs are cheap, nutritious, tasty, and quick to prepare. Nowhere in the world is the egg-based street food culture as distinctive and varied as in India, and Priya Krishna has a rundown of some of the most iconic egg dishes in India on Bon Appetit. The state of Gujarat, in Northwestern India, is also particularly known for its egg-based dishes. A typical Gujarati egg street food dish from the town of Surat is Anda Ghotala, eggs mixed with tomatoes, garlic and ginger. If you are in the US, Egg o holic restaurant in the Chicago area (along with other locations around the US) specializes in Gujarat’s egg-heavy cuisine.

One type of eggy street food, the bread omelette, is popular throughout India, with endless variations by region. The bread omelette even went viral across the world on Reddit in 2019, introducing it to a large fanbase outside of India. Check out the video to watch a real master at work making bread omelettes at a street stall in Delhi. Elsewhere, in Goa, you may enjoy the local version of the bread omelette, Goan Omelette Poi. We think that the US should start embracing the egg street food culture!

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Pa Lian: A taste of Burma in Chicagoland

Prior to visiting Pa Lian (254 E Geneva Rd, Wheaton, IL) we had only sampled Burmese cuisine a few times before, and there are no Burmese restaurants in Cleveland, so it had been a while. So when we heard there was a new Burmese restaurant opening up in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, one of only 2 in Illinois, we were really intrigued! Burmese food is a delicious marriage of Southeast and East Asian flavors, with a touch of spices from the Indian subcontinent, a combination that can’t be beat. Pa Lian opened last year and has been introducing the suburbs to Burmese food, while serving a small, local Burmese community. Currently, Pa Lian is takeout-only and you can order online by Grubhub or by phone. The first time we visited Pa Lian was in May, and we ended up taking the food out to eat in a nearby park with a friend, and we were all impressed. Since then, we have been back a few times, and have never been disappointed. The menu at Pa Lian consists of Burmese favorites including a wide array of noodles, salads, and curries over rice, alongside Burmese-style tea and coffee. We are impressed by the variety of the Burmese dishes at Pa Lian, and while the menu isn’t huge, nearly every dish is new to us.

Our favorite dish from Pa Lian so far is Nangyi Dok ($12.50), a complex noodle dish (lower dish in the photo below), consisting of rice udon noodles, which are light and springy, topped with curry chicken, fried onion, carrots, cucumber and hard-boiled egg, and even the unusual topping of chickpea powder. Another standout noodle dish is Shan Noodles ($13.50) thin noodles topped with curried chicken, gai choy (a green leafy vegetable similar to bok choy), fermented black beans, peanuts and sesame (top dish in the photo below). In each of these noodle dishes, the combination of the springy noodles with the piquant curried chicken, vegetables, and fermented elements make for a surprisingly complex and delicious combination.

Perhaps the most famous Burmese dish is Tea Leaf Salad ($13.50, pictured in top photo), also known as lahpet, and we love Pa Lian’s rendition. This is a dish that is unlike anything else you can get in other countries, and involves fermented tea leaves topped with fava and yellow beans, peanuts, sesame seeds, tomatoes, cabbage and lime. This salad is tangy and refreshing, and the fermented flavors make for an extremely interesting flavor profile. The tea leaf salad is completely vegan, and vegans and gluten-free diners will find many options at Pa Lian. The papaya salad ($15.99) with the unique addition of Thai eggplants, is another favorite salad, bright and tangy. Along with tea leaf salad, another Burmese national dish at Pa Lian is Moh-Hin-Gar ($12.50) a spicy soup with thin rice vermicelli in catfish broth, topped with boiled egg, lime, cilantro, and crispy lentils. This warming dish is perfect for a chilly day, but we even enjoyed it in the 80-degree heat.

We are intrigued by Pa Lian’s comprehensive Burmese menu and are looking forward to trying some of the other dishes including Pe-Eih-Kyar-Kwe ($5.99) Burmese fried bread with vatana (cooked yellow peas) and the goat and split pea ginger curry ($17.99) Pa Lian’s dishes are a combination of salty, sweet, sour, tangy and spicy, and we are absolutely hooked. Be sure to visit Pa Lian when you are in Chicago’s western suburbs, you won’t regret it! Plus, if you are in the market for Burmese groceries you can also visit Papa Win (1730 E Roosevelt Rd, Wheaton, IL), a small Burmese grocery store nearby.

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The Best Pastel de Nata in Newark

When we drove to New York last month, our route took us through Newark. Newark has a very large Portuguese community, and as a result, has some of the highest per capita availability of Pasteis de Nata (in our estimation). The Ironbound neighborhood, in particular, is a stronghold of Portuguese identity, and is home to dozens of bakeries serving these Portuguese cream tarts. While traveling in and out of Newark, we were able to sample a variety of local bakeries, from the under-the-radar, to the more well-known. As with our previous Pastel de Nata ratings we assessed the pasteis on the texture and consistency of the filling, the flakiness of the crust, the value, and of course, the overall flavor.

Among those pasteis de nata sampled in Newark, the clear winner was Canela (180 Wilson Avenue, Newark, NJ). When we sat down at Canela, they were out of pasteis, and cooked us up a fresh batch from scratch. The name of the bakery means “cinnamon” in Portuguese, and the tarts are given a customary dusting of cinnamon when fresh out of the oven. It is not advisable to eat pasteis de nata piping hot, so we let them cool down a little bit before tasting. Though perhaps a little bit deeper than those we have eaten in Lisbon, the crust was flaky and solid, the cream was smooth and flavorful, and the nata boasted a nicely broiled top. All of the elements added up to more than the sum of their parts, the true test of a successful pastel de nata. These were some superlative pasteis, and we had to struggle in order to not eat all of our pastel haul at once.

On the second time we visited Canela, we chatted with the proprietor who said that he himself once worked at Pasteis de Belem, perhaps the most famous purveyor of pasteis de nata, located just outside of Lisbon. However we found that Canela’s were much better! And the quality was no fluke, Canela’s offering were just as good the second time around. There are other pastries, coffee, and salty snacks (salgadinhos in Portuguese) available at Canela, including coixnhas, however we were so enchanted with the Pasteis de Nata that we didn’t even sample anything else. Canela is cash only so make sure you are prepared in advance, and the pasteis will only set you back $1.75 apiece. Trust us, it will be worth the trip: this was definitely one of the best pasteis de nata we have ever had in America!

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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21st Century First Nations Bannock

One of the most emblematic foods of the First Nations in Canada is Bannock, a type of flatbread made with wheat flour, lard, baking powder and sugar. Versions of Bannock are found on both sides of the Atlantic, though the version in Canada may not be related to the Scottish version, and may predate it. Different Nations make their own versions and it is closely related to Fry Bread in the US. Check out this recipe from Eat Drink Breathe which has been adapted from Chef Andrew George Jr.’s book Modern Native Feasts. In the video below, Jean Cunningham from Alberta shows us how to make Cree Bannock.

Though Bannock is a traditional food for First Nations Canadians, new versions are being re-imagined in the 21st Century. You can find Bannock at restaurants at Indigenous-run restaurants in Canada, including Kekuli in British Columbia, which has several locations. We were delighted to learn about the recent appearance of Bannock doughnuts at new First Nation-owned café owned by the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation in Prince George, British Columbia.

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Pastry Post-Doc: The iconic Hawaiian guava chiffon cake

Today, August 21, is Statehood Day in Hawaii, which represents the anniversary of when Hawaiians voted by referendum for US statehood in 1959. To celebrate today, we are going to explore one of the most iconic treats from post-statehood Hawaii, guava chiffon cake. This dessert was created by Herbert Matsuba at Dee Lite Bakery in Honolulu in the 1960s, and has remained an island favorite ever since. The cake has spread with the Hawaiian diaspora, and is also popular in the California Bay Area, especially the classic guava cake from Aki’s Bakery (also sadly now closed). The traditional Hawaiian guava chiffon cake is bright pink from guava puree, and is topped with a guava jelly. The original Dee Lite bakery was bought out by Saint-Germain Bakery in 1990, which unfortunately closed in 2018. Here is a recipe from the Honolulu Advertiser, which aims to replicate the original Dee Lite recipe, as does this Guava Rose recipe. The New York Times shares a version adapted from Alana Kysar’s book “Aloha Kitchen: Recipes From Hawai‘i.” While we can’t go on a trip to Hawaii anytime soon, this may be the next best thing!

Guava chiffon cake from Dee Lite Bakery in Kalihi, Honolulu. William Yamada puts frosting into a chiffon cake. photo by Craig T. Kojima for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin

 

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Watermelon Ice for Ferragosto in Sicily

ItalyAugust 15, Ferragosto, is a national holiday in Italy, and one of the biggest events of the year. It originally was celebrated in Roman times as Feriae Augusti, the festival of emperor Augustus, however it was later syncretized with the Catholic holiday of the Assumption of Mary and moved to August 15. It is a day of food and fun, and also marks the peak of summer vacation for many Italians (and the closing of all of the shops for at least 2 weeks). Each region of Italy has different specialties for Ferragosoto. Watermelon is popular as a refreshing treat throughout the country, but particularly in Sicily, where it is used for the Ferragosto specialty Gelo di mellone (in Sicilian dialect: gelu di muluna/miluni). Gelo di Mellone is an iced watermelon dessert, similar to granita, but thickened with cornstarch. Traditional toppings include pistachios, chocolate shavings, and sometimes jasmine blossoms. It doesn’t seem very hard to make, and there is no special equipment needed. Check out these recipes from Food Nouveau, Italy Magazine and Memorie di Angelina. We are entering the dog days of summer here, and we think we may make some this weekend!

Gelo di mellone

Gelo di mellone from Italian Wikipedia

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What is Fiori di Sicilia?

We recently put in an order for tea from one of our favorite Chicago purveyors, Rare Tea Cellar, and one of their varieties is Sicilian Wild Flower Chai, featuring the the flavor “Fiori di Sicilia,” which literally means “Flowers of Sicily.” We were intrigued, so we took a chance (and it turns out we love the tea)! We looked up the extract, and it is not from any Sicilian flower per se, but is actually a combination of citrus and vanilla extracts. You can buy Fiori di Sicilia from King Arthur, or a variety of online sources. Food 52 has a cookie recipe that calls for Fiori di Sicilia, and it can be easily substituted for vanilla extract in most sweet recipes. If you are feeling especially DIY, An Edible Mosaic has a recipe to make your own Fiori di Sicilia extract. A similar flavoring is called Panettone Extract, which combines both vanilla and citrus flavors, along with some additional spices. This variety is also especially popular in Brasil, where it is known as Essência de panetone.

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