Lunch Out @ Grand Oriental

After an awesome first dim sum experience in San Francisco recently, I was writing a post about it and was about to say "it's too bad we don't have a place with dim sum in Cincinnati," and then - as one should do when one wants to be sure about information on anything - I googled.  And it turns out, you can get the dim sum experience (the fact that it is an experience is key - it is more than just the food), at Grand Oriental on Fields Ertel just off I-71.  A group of six of us went this past Sunday and we had a great time - I'd recommend you try it too.

The Food:  At Grand Oriental, you don't choose food from a menu, you choose it from carts.  Each cart carries 10 or 12 options - one carries silver steaming containers, another has plates of meats and buns, another has rice soup, and the list goes on.  As each cart comes by, the waitress shows you what she has and does her best to explain what is in each dish (some waitresses spoke better English than others).  I said to our car as we were coming in that I think the trick is to be patient, review all of your options, and then choose.  But, so many things look appealing, and the people offering the food seem to want you to take it so much, that I forgot my own advice and just ordered constantly.  Thankfully, while in SF it was about $70 for 2 of us at lunch, this was $70 for 6 (you can ask the prices, but they don't have numbers right on them, so if you're not careful you could go overboard).

In our first round of choices we took sticky rice, which is (duh) sticky rice with some sort of beef and comes wrapped in a lotus leaf and was very good.  Next was BBQ pork, which is glistening red on the outside and in a brown sauce and quite tasty.  I realize only now that I did't try the ribs with black bean sauce, but I did have the bean curd meat roll and it had a unique texture that I liked and bet I would like even more if I had it again. Texture is big with authentic Chinese food, and while it may take some getting used to for many people, it is definitely worth an attempt or three.

In another wave of ordering we got shark's fin dumpling (not actually shark's fin, they just look that way - its shrimp and cilantro), which was an excellent example of how well done we've found dim sum shrimp dishes to be.  They're so succulent and delicate, never overcooked.  Jellyfish was offered, and I'd never had that, so what the heck (it reminded me of the texture of pickled radishes that is called for in some pad thai recipes - kind of firmly gelatinous - I liked it).  At some point we got some spring rolls that were normal and good, as well as two uses of the same BBQ pork - one that was cooked in a roll that was glazed with something very sweet and another in a steamed bun.  Niether of these were big hits at our table - the balance of sugar and salt didn't seem quite right.  Oh, and a shrimp and chives dumpling that was another great choice.

I'm sure I'm forgetting things - we ate a whole lot of bites.  And just as we were thinking we were done, we were brought some sesame balls for dessert - they're a doughy ball a bit smaller than a racquetball that is rolled in sesame seeds and has a sweet red bean paste in side.  It tastes almost like fig, but not so strong.  I actually like it best without the bean inside, but it was good either way.  We were sure it was over until one more plate arrived which was a delicious bite sized custard tart - just barely sweet and at the same time accentuating the egg that made the custard possible.

All in all, an excellent meal!

The Ingredients:  There is no menu on Saturdays and Sundays when they serve dim sum (although after we asked our our 20th question they gave us a list of the offerings and their prices), but there was no mention of any local or organic ingredients - and since that usually leads to higher prices, most places usually tell you, so I'm going to guess they don't use any.  But, we will definitely be back, so we'll ask next time.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  Grand Oriental is located in between a car wash and a HH Gregg (go left at the entrance after the car wash - you can't see it easily if you just came from 71), and it is easy to get lost out amongst all the strip malls.  From the outside it is nothing special, but when you walk in it is actually full of character.  Ornate walls that are carved so you can see through them are painted with reds and blacks and gold, and help the space feel cozy and expansive at the same time.

You sit down at Grand Oriental, and simultaneously your drink order is being taken as waitresses with carts are lining up around your table.  With at least 400 people at the place we ate in SF, there were at least a dozen different kinds of carts.  There were only a handful here, but that makes much more sense seeing as there were maybe 50 people in the restaurant.  Going with a group turned out to be a good decision because you get to sample a lot of food without paying too much.

The staff here was very friendly, and really seemed to enjoy that we were enjoying ourselves.  We were talking on the way home about how much of a difference that makes, when the staff enjoy themselves and smile.  One of the owners, Kenny, helped explain what several dishes were, and then happily brought us 2 desserts on the house.  He seemed to particularly enjoy our reactions to eating things that are clearly not on the average menu - I'm thinking of the jellyfish first.  Explaining that some things are acquired tastes, he told us that someday we'd like the chicken's feet too.  I believe him.  As we were paying, the other owner, Kenny's brother Henry, recommended an article from the Wall Street Journal on dim sum which I haven't read yet, but I'll check out soon.  Between the owners and the waitresses, they made this meal a lot of fun and we really appreciated it.

The Last Bite:  Other reviewers had noted that the BBQ pork was a favorite, and everyone at our table really enjoyed that dish.  But, the sticky rice, shark's fins dumpling, and bean curd meat roll were all happily gobbled up, amongst others.  The experience is different and fun, and if you haven't tried it I think you simply must.

Grand Oriental on Urbanspoon


Lunch Out @ Pomodori's

I used to pick up pizza by the slice every now and then from Pomodori's several years back, and Sarah remembered it being good many years ago, but neither of us had visited in a long, long time.  Restaurant.com provided the ridiculously cheap coupon (I think it was $3 for a $25 coupon), and we decided to give it a go.  We've visited enough pizza places in the past several months to have a pretty good idea of what spots may stay in our rotation, and it doesn't look like Pomodori's will be on that list.

The Food:  We started with the Bruschetta Caprese - a crusty ciabatta with halved grape tomatoes, bits of fresh mozzarella, and herbs.  It was fine, but there was something about the flavors that just didn't quite mesh.  It could have used more salt.  Then, about half way through eating this and deciding on pizza, we realized that the coupon makes it so you have to order $35 of food, so we ordered enough for 2 lunches for 2.

A caesar salad was our next choice, and it was straightforward and good.

For pizzas, we picked from the wood-fired choices - a "Spinach" (which is not nearly so simple - it has mushrooms, red onion, garlic, and bacon) and a traditional "Margherita."  We had a problem with the Margherita - there was a very bitter aftertaste that we are pretty sure came from the tomato sauce.  It made it hard to enjoy any of that pizza.  For a pizza place to have sauce that has gone bad, that is pretty disappointing.  Plus, the "fresh mozzarella" did not have have the consistency of what we know as fresh mozzarella.  It seemed more like the typical mozzarella you'd find often find shredded and ready for pizza topping.  But, the Spinach pizza was actually quite good.  Every bite was buttery and the crust was nicely bubbly and soft.  This was the only redeeming part of the meal.

The Ingredients:  No mention of local or organic ingredients here.  Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, while they talk about fresh ingredients on their menu in several places, we were served some not-so-fresh options.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  Pomodori's is located across the street from the humongous chunk of vacant land between McMillan and Calhoun streets in Clifton (what the heck is going on up there - weren't they supposed to build a park or something?).  It's sort of an odd shaped building (inside and out), but it has plenty of parking.  The service was fine, nothing of note.

The Last Bite:  There are so many better pizzas within minutes of Pomodori's (ZZ's, Dewey's, and Adriaticos to name a few), let alone further away, that I don't think we'll return.  But, I can see how students around UC might make the choice.  If you do go, we'd recommend the "Spinach" pizza.

Pomodori's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon


Existential Eating #23

If you have any suggestions or ideas for future Existential Eating strips, please email or comment below.  Sadly, our current collective imagination will run dry.  If its related to food, it can be the topic of an Existential       Eating comic strip.  Just share your idea and Ramsey will do his best to draw it up (probably, someday).


Lunch Out @ Cathay Kitchen

After a recent trip to San Francisco, where we were blown away by an exciting dim sum lunch, as I was writing the post-trip blog post, I googled dim sum in Cincinnati.  The clearest option for dim sum (carts and all) was Grand Oriental, but Cathay Kitchen was also listed as a choice.  Since we were meeting some friends for lunch, Cathay Kitchen was a closer option (they were at the Florence Antique Mall, which was their favorite part of the trip) and we went for it.  I even called ahead to make sure they had dim sum, but I should have known better when the response was a yes, but not a confident one.  This trip turned up some respectable, somewhat authentic Chinese food - but not carts and options galore for dim sum.

The Food:  We had hoped not to order off a menu at all, but since there were no carts (more below on the setting), we settled in for a more typical meal.  The one note of dim sum on the menu was a starter of dim sum, which we ordered.  We also chose some chicken curry pot stickers and shumai dumplings, trying to recreate the multitude of appetizer options we had come in hopes of.  Then, we ordered 3 entrees to split - Mongolian beef, kung pao chicken, and sweet and sour pork.

The chicken pot stickers came first and were straightforward and good.  They came with a simple gyoza-esque sauce that was mostly soy sauce.  Next up were the shumai dumplings, which are one of the many kinds of beautiful looking bites that are about the size of a marshmallow.  The dough that holds the pork inside is twisted at the top and they came in a steamy silver container.  One member of our table (cough *Ben* cough), bit into one just a bit too quickly and then just about spat it back out it was so hot (not spicy hot, but the juices inside the dumpling were scalding).  After learning from that mistake, we all made little holes to let out some steam and then enjoyed the dumplings just fine.  Lastly, the dim sum, which was made up of two different dumplings - one was a light shrimp offering and the other was some sort of sausage with water chesnuts that looked like a little tree stump.  Both of these were just OK in my opinion.

Our three entrees came out and we dug in.  The Mongolian beef was probably my favorite option - the meat was very tender and along with stir-fried onions and chili peppers it had just a bit of a kick.  Kung pao chicken (which I've been meaning to cook for a while, as it is Ezra Klein's favorite - and then I just learned his recipe was adapted, just barely, from Fuschia Dunlop's) is a simple dish, and they did a nice job with small, succulent pieces of chicken to go with the peanuts and chilies in a brown sauce.  I led our dining team astray a bit with the choice of sweet and sour pork.  I was imagining some of the pork I'd been reading about at over-the-top Chinese banquets, not pork that was battered just like sweet and sour chicken at Panda Express at the mall.  It wasn't horrible, but it wasn't very exciting either.

The lunch specials also came with egg rolls, which were standard.

The Ingredients:  Nothing listed as local or organic here, and the language barrier was pretty substantial with our server, so I don't think we would have gotten far in asking.  If we ever return, maybe we'll try.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  Cathay Kitchen is smack dab in the middle of a strip mall, just off the interstate.  It's next to an empty storefront and several other small businesses.  We walked in to a completely empty dining room at noon (which did have about 5 tables full at 1:30 when we left).  Needless to say, this is not a place you'd likely come for a romantic dinner (even if the website tells you that's the case).

Our server was kind and smiled sheepishly just about every time we talked (the language barrier was substantial).  There was another staff person who came over to answer some of our questions when we asked about what was the most authentic on the menu, what she liked, that sort of thing.

The Last Bite:  It's highly unlikely we'll be back to Cathay Kitchen because it is so out of the way for us and doesn't have anything special that we could tell.  If it was in Cincinnati and within 10 minutes of Northside then it just might be the best Chinese restaurant around (until I try Chung Ching in College Hill, which I've heard is good).  If we do go back, we'd probably stick to the Mongolian beef.

Cathay Kitchen on Urbanspoon


Tasty Links #14

These links are awful old, but that doesn't make them awful.  I've been not posting this for too long...

1)  The politics of sustainability in academia (hat tip: Twilight Greenaway)  They'r complicated - and the Farm Bureau has a lot to do with it.
2)  A great review of Farm Fresh Delivery by wine me, dine me.  Another excellent option to increase your local food consumption, especially if you're busy!
3)  Maybe you caught this in Saveur, but Barry Estabrook's explanation of how food get's to your plate is very cool.

And now your video - very loosely connected to food...

MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON from Dean Fleischer-Camp on Vimeo.


Dinner Out @ Yat Ka Mein

I had been to Yat Ka Mein one time several years back, and since that was before I was really, truly paying attention to what I was eating, and certainly before I'd read Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper and been really interested in Chinese food, it was time for a return visit.  I've been on the lookout for some authentic options, and I was hoping this visit might take me in the right direction.  A recent trip to Cathay Kitchen in search of dim sum did not turn out as planned (post coming soon), but Yat Ka Mein did not disappoint - in fact, it was very good!

The Food:  Taking a quick scan of the dinner menu, Yat Ka Mein has a good mix of typical American Chinese options - sesame chicken, sweet and sour chicken, etc.  But, they've also got enough things you probably have not heard of that made me believe their might be a higher level of authenticity here.

We ordered the brisket soup, ho fun with chicken, and veggie fried rice (so we'd have something with a bit of vegetables).  The ho fun came out first, and it had tender chicken, thick tasty noodles, and was was covered in a light gravy-like brown sauce.  I added sriracha to give it a kick, while the crisp bean sprouts and carrots add texture.  Our brisket soup followed quickly, and had a lightly aromatic broth (I bit into a small piece of anise that gave away that secret).  This was very good - Sarah tasted first and said "oh, you're going to like this."  Meat was flaking apart, and went well with the Chinese broccoli and thin ramen-esque noodles.  Finally, the fried rice was simple and tasty and came with lots of veggies - we found zucchini, mushrooms, broccoli, onion, napa, bean sprouts, peas, scallion, and carrot.  It tasted super fresh, and was the best fried rice I've had in quite some time.

To top it all off, even the fortune cookies tasted good!

The Ingredients:  There was nothing on the menu about local or organic ingredients.  Par usual, we'll have to ask the next time we come.  It always feels like it would be an extra imposition/hassle to ask about ingredients on the first trip to a place, especially one where you're paying $8 for an entree.  But, ask we will - on the next trip, and then we'll update the post.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  Sitting in the same strip mall as the Aveda Institute and Penn Station, it would be easy to live around the corner from Yat Ka Mein and never give it a second thought.  It's also a stone's throw from Wild Ginger and Lemon Grass - two Thai places - and a handful of other restaurants.

They proudly advertise "noodles for your noodle," and their kids menu is "for the growing noodle," showing their sense of humor.  Our server was very nice, and had a jovial, helpful energy.  He said their Cantonese, but they have food from several Chinese provinces as well as other places across Asia.  If you're in the neighborhood, they deliver for $2 as well. 

The Last Bite:  Yat Ka Mein offers a simple, pleasant ambiance and kind service.  The food is fresh and tasty, and has some great flavors happening.  We'll definitely order the beef brisket noodle soup bowl again - the meat was tender, the broth had great depth, and the anise made it a bit aromatic as well.  Interesting flavors that are not easy to find in Cincinnati.

Yat Ka Mein Noodle House on Urbanspoon


Lunch Out @ Lucky John Slow Market

Lucky John Slow Market opened in Walnut Hills within the past year or so, and serves a lunch/early dinner menu along with its offerings as a local market with everything from produce to household items.  We went in on a quiet Thursday for a late lunch recently, and found the food to be quite good.  With minimal foot traffic in their area, it will be interesting to see how LJSM does, and how well they are embraced by the surrounding neighbors.  Their commitment to local, sustainable food is definitely to be applauded!

The Food:  Even though I was a vegetarian for a few years, when I see a menu that is all veggie, I do get a bit worried.  I've been to enough places in town with a vegetarian where the options are super weak, that I'm a bit gun shy I suppose.  But, with the "haute vegetarian movement" on the rise, where vegetables are being discussed as the next pork belly, it's about time there are more solid options in town.  And from what we can tell, these are indeed those solid options.

I ordered the BLT with "bacon," which the server described as being one of the most flavorful dishes on the menu.  It had fresh heirloom tomatoes that were great, as well as a garlic mayo and black pepper jam that gave it some interesting kick.  In fact, I would have liked more of those condiments.  The fake bacon wasn't an offense to the real thing, and while it was a bit tough, it did add a nice texture of crispness to go with the soft oat nut bread.  I wouldn't rave about it, but this is a nice lunch option, especially for a vegetarian.

Sarah chose the chick pea and spinach wrap, which came with paneer, roasted peppers, and seasonal herbs inside.  This was the big winner of our lunch - it was very flavorful, full of fresh ingredients, and was filling without being heavy.  Also, I'd never had paneer (a cheese probably most famously a part of saag paneer at your local Indian restaurant) used in that way, and thought it was done quite well.

Lunches come with side options as well, and we chose the kale.  It was lightly dressed with a vinaigrette and the vegetable was bright green and extremely fresh.  We got a bit burnt out on greens from our CSA last year, so it was refreshing to have them be so tasty.  There were also a handful of green grapes on each of our plates.

The Ingredients:  Many of the ingredients are sourced locally, and are available for purchase in the store that the cafe sits in.  The menu doesn't explicitly state where everything is from, but they seemed to happy to answer any of our questions.  We were glad to see another local option for buying local produce and other sustainable products.

The Story, Setting, & Service:  As I mentioned above, we went on a Thursday at about 1pm, and Walnut Hills was very quiet at that time.  There was one other pair of diners at LJSM when we were there, and they were in a lively conversation with the chef/owner's son.  I was on the lookout for the owner's son, because one of LJSM's vendors' (Trades Point Creamery) sales folks I've exchanged some emails with had been talking up both the place and the idea behind it, and in the process had mentioned that the owner's son was likely soon coming back from New York City, where he went after going to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

The interior of LJSM is simple and eclectic at the same time, and with just a couple of booths, it is cozy as well.  The service was very nice, and while we'd heard concerns that they lived up to their name a bit too much and that food was very slow to arrive, we didn't have that problem.

The Last Bite:  Lucky John Slow Market is worth a stop, especially if local food is a priority for you, and even more so if you are a vegetarian or love vegetarian food.  We'll likely return to LJSM, but it's hard to imagine it being a frequent stop because its not super convenient for us Northsiders.  The spinach and chickpea wrap is great go to ordering option, one we happily endorse.

Lucky John's Slow Market on Urbanspoon


Existential Eating #22

If you have any suggestions or ideas for future Existential Eating strips, please email or comment below.  Sadly, our current collective imagination will run dry.  If its related to food, it can be the topic of an Existential       Eating comic strip.  Just share your idea and Ramsey will do his best to draw it up (probably, someday).


Dinner In @ Lemon Grass

Lemon Grass is solid, dependable, and makes Sarah's favorite pad thai in town to date.  Lately we've been using it as a take out option, but they also have space to dine in.  This post has been in draft form for a long minute, so I'm glad it is finally making its way to you!  It's a simple one.

The Food:  As I said above, Sarah loves the pad thai at Lemon Grass (it reminds her of the pad thai she loves best, at her old haunt in Sarasota called Thailand), while my favorite continues to be at Thai Express.  And Sarah was out of town when I made this order, so this is a Gavin only review, and I tend to enjoy Lemon Grass' curries the most.

I ordered a pad thai, spring rolls, and sesame noodles, although my typical order is curry (I am especially a fan of their massaman).  The starter, sesame noodles, was very sweet and covered in a thick peanut sauce.  There was a crunch from the scallions and iceburg lettuce at the bottom of the to go container, and small bites of chicken on top.  I usually think of sesame noodles as being a round lo mein-style, but theirs are made with a flat egg noodle, and sprinkled with black sesame seeds as garnish.  The noodles were a bit overcooked too unfortunately.

I had straightforward but good spring rolls and dipping sauce (which is thicker than the sauce at Thai Express), and then ate the pad thai.  Lemon Grass' version of this thai standby has quite a bit of egg, and has noodles that I felt were less sticky, but more slimy in texture.  Also, their pad thai is not nearly as sweet as at Thai Express.  They also use a bit of cilantro, and I've found that I need to go a bit higher on the spicy scale at Lemon Grass then at other spots locally to get something as hot as I like it.

The Ingredients:  There's nothing on the Lemon Grass menu about local or organic ingredients.  I'll have to ask on the next trip.

The Story, Setting, & Service: The interior is very simple - no frills, and smells great.  It's always calm and quiet inside, and yet there always seem to be people coming through.  I've gone many, many times and have never had a wait.  The service is straightforward.  Maybe most important of all, Lemon Grass is open Sundays and Mondays, making it one of the few options to choose from on both of those days.

The Last Bite:  Honestly, most of the time we end up at Lemon Grass because it's the only place open - it's become a Sunday dinner option a few times recently.  I've never had anything bad at Lemon Grass, and that consistency means something these days.  Plus, with reasonable prices and a favorite Thai dish as well in our household, we will certainly be back.  Do you have a favorite Thai place we should try?

Lemon Grass on Urbanspoon


San Francisco Eating: In a Nutshell

The final vacation post (about 3 weeks after the fact) is here!  Funny how vacation leads to more work.  If you missed it, here were some thoughts after our trip, and here was the write up on Chicago eating.  I took virtually no notes in SF, so these will be very basic write-ups - hopefully enough for you to get the gist though.  Nearly every place we ate did a great job of listing all of the local ingredients they source - it is very much the norm out there.  Because so many menus have already changed since when we were there, I won't talk much about this because I don't know where things were from now...

Range - I asked the folks whose house we stayed at for a recommendation near their house that we could walk to on the night we arrived in the city (in what I believe is called Corona Heights), and they said Range.  We didn't know until after we'd gone that it has gotten great reviews and would be recommended by so many people.  It's a cozy, well-designed place and we got a table fairly quickly on a Wednesday night.  This turned out to be our favorite of a few places I'll broadly group as "California cuisine" - along with Ad Hoc and Chez Panisse.  We had delicious salmon and ravioli appetizers - both were delicate, savory, and colorful.  Then, because we'd never had so many people recommend roast chicken until we started asking around about SF restaurants, we tried theirs to see what Californian's are doing that others don't seem to be.  And the verdict: that was some excellent bird!  The skin was crispy and flavorful, the meat was moist and fresh, and it came with a "stuffing" with a chevre-esque cheese, large toasted bread crumbs, and chunks of trumpet mushrooms. Maybe it tasted so good because we didn't build it up too much?  But it also set a high bar for the rest of the trip - a bar that frankly, was met less than we'd hoped.  (No pics, it was too dark)
Range on Urbanspoon
Tartine Bakery - This was one of the places people told us to go before, during, and after our trip.  We walked the dog down and ordered a small sampling of options.  Sarah just said "I've been thinking about that lemon tart with the pansy on top.  That was the best tart of the season so far."  That gives you an idea that just thinking about the place, our mouths are watering.  A ham (from Niman Ranch) and cheese croissant was melt in your mouth good.  A fruit tart was chewy and soft and crumbly in all the right ways.  And that lemon tart was, well - I'm not sure how you'd improve upon it frankly.  Sarah also got a cappuccino, and we sat outside and watched the world go by.  This area of the Mission is flush with culinary options, we'd highly recommend you stop through.
Tartine Bakery on Urbanspoon

Ferry Building - Probably the most recommended place of all was this spot.  It's down on the water, near downtown SF, and is full of all sorts of things to make a foodie drool.  We wanted to pick up some food to cook breakfasts (it was kind of exhausting to eat out for every. single. meal.), and we'd heard they had some street food options on Thursdays, so off we went.  There are all kinds of treasures to be found at the Ferry Market, where, in typical SF style, everything is absolutely gorgeous - almost too perfect.  We bought a sampling of cured meats from Boccalone Salumeria to nibble on while driving out to wine country the next day, a cornucopia of mushrooms from Far West Fungi (and cheap too!), and picked up bread, cheese, produce, and more.  The lines for the street food were out of control, so we just walked out back for a bit and took some photographs of the water and bridge.  In retrospect, I wish we would have waited it out because we never did make it to Hapa Ramen - one of the hot street food places that I was really hoping to try.  We also thought about going back on Saturday when they apparently have a stunning farmer's market.  One way or the other, if you are in SF, you will probably want to check out the Ferry Building.
Boccalone on Urbanspoon

Delfina Pizzeria - One person told us that they had better pizza at another spot, but this stuff would sure be tough to beat.  We got a specialty pizza that they don't serve every day at this spot just up the street from Tartine.  It had spring onions and guanciale, but the thing that made it so darn good was the panna (Italian for cream).  It's crust was perfectly bubbly too, and overall this was one heck of a pie.  Our starter was a fresh mozzarella filled with cream called burratta, and it was very good too.  Plus, the server was really nice - she explained the health care tax that was on our bill, and gave us some recommendations of other places to try while we were in town.  Also, if you have a girlfriend who works at Pizzeria Delfina and you are reading this, she wants you to take her to Chez Pannise.
Pizzeria Delfina on Urbanspoon

Omnivore Books - No, Omnivore Books is not a restaurant.  But, it will get you as hungry as one, and will inspire you more than lots of restaurants put together.  I actually stopped in 3 times during our stay in SF - never quite finding the right time to go and stay for a bit until the last visit.  They ship in cookbooks from Britain, and that, along with the owner's excellent taste, leads to an excellent bookstore experience.  I love bookstores, and I love food, so this is an amazing combo.  We bought a couple gifts for folks we stayed with here, and I am definitely going to be placing orders from them in the future because they had all kinds of cookbooks that I have never seen - and I have haunted darn near every local book store's cookbook shelves.

Chez Panisse - This was our most highly anticipated reservation of our vacation.  I kept calling it a pilgrimage, and I don't think that's an overstatement.  Chez Panisse was really, by nearly every account, the progenitor of fresh, seasonal, local foods as a way to be for restaurants in the United States.  It's an institution.  And because of all that, I am very happy to say that I've eaten there.  Now, unless I am blown away by evidence, I find it very unlikely that I'll want to return.  The menu of the night (you don't choose, they do) started us off with a tomato salad with a basil mayonnaise.  It was probably the best thing we ate.  That was followed by shrimp and potato something, and then a main course of quail, succotash, and corn fritters (pictured above).  On all the dishes the presentation was nothing special - lazy even.  The quail was good, but definitely not amazing.  In general, the food was okay, but we really were hoping to be wowed.  The coolest thing?  Eavesdropping on the table next to us (mistakenly at first, but then we couldn't help ourselves).  The president of UC Berkeley was definitely there.  We're pretty sure another guy was a past president.  And one guy who talked the most and the loudest appeared to be a current ambassador (we think from Mexico) and a past Exxon-Mobil exec.  My favorite line was when one of them said that in Latin America when there is unrest with students, they start revolutions - when there is unrest with students in the U.S. they start new classes.  It was part of a larger point about the need for more funding for public education or else there'd be trouble.  Sad but true, on a number of fronts.  Anyway, Chez Panisse was disappointing.  I wish someone out of all the people I told we were going would have given us a heads up, but I understand they didn't want to burst my bubble.  My guess is that they fill the place almost no matter what they do at this point, so they're not hungry (pun intended).  Bummer.
Chez Panisse on Urbanspoon

Ad Hoc - We arrived at Ad Hoc in Napa Valley after a longish, sort of unfruitful day in wine country.  It was also the day after our trip to Chez Panisse, so we were hoping big names (Ad Hoc is a Thomas Keller place) might redeem themselves.  I'd seen the sign before on the website, but had never read what it says above "ad hoc" - "temporary relief from hunger."  It took a second to process that, and then it was clear - we were hoping for way more than temporary relief from hunger with a $50 fixed price/fixed menu.  If we wanted a temporary relief from hunger we'd eat a granola bar or hot dog or something.  Anyway... arriving early, we walked down the street to a wine bar and got a couple of flights.  At 5pm (we didn't want to get back to the city too late) we walked back and were seated soon thereafter.  One thing was clear from the beginning - we were not going to be lingering at this place for hours.  They have plates in front of you and move dishes away very quickly.  Our whole meal ended up being an hour and 15 minutes.  An iceberg lettuce salad was okay, and was followed by the main course - a strip steak with carmelized onions, greens, and baked then fried potatoes with a chili aioli (or mayo, can't remember).  The entree was good.  Huge portions.  We could have made it at home pretty easily, and hoped for more from a place with a big name national chef.  A cheese course came next, and we weren't big fans of how bitter and earthy the soft cheese was.  The dessert was a fruit tart on puff pastry - another huge portion, but uninspired.  By the end of the day, we were just glad to be going home.  It was only okay, and for the second night in a row we couldn't choose our courses and weren't too happy with what was chosen for us.
Ad Hoc on Urbanspoon

Tacubaya - This is a spot over in a outdoor mall-style area of Berkeley that I'd never been to before.  A new place opened by the same people who run the acclaimed Dona Tomas in Oakland, we had high hopes for Tacubaya.  Walking in, the food looked delicious - in true Bay Area style everything was perfectly in place and well put together.  Unfortunately, the food wasn't as good as it looked.  Fortunately, we were there with an old friend and the conversation made up for the tacos, ceviche, sopas, and guacamole.  My favorite taste may have been my horchata, a sweet rice-based drink I'd never tried.  I noticed a big vat of it at Taqueria Mercado 3 the last time I was there, so I'll be drinking it again soon.  The sopa you see in the picture was our favorite choice - it had the most going on with potatoes and chorizo and more.  Everything else tasted fresh enough, but just didn't pop.  Also, it took us about 30 minutes to get a taco they'd forgotten originally - I asked probably 3 times (it's self seating, but they have staff who come around), and finally went straight to the cooks, who looked at me like I was doing them wrong even though I was nice about it.  Oh well, you can't win 'em all.
Tacubaya on Urbanspoon

Remedy - We headed over to Remedy after Tacubaya for a quick coffee at this new spot in Oakland.  This was the old stomping ground of the friend we we met for Mexican, and the current stomping ground of the friends we were meeting for Burmese later that evening.  Not much to say here except this seems like a hip spot and we were all happy with our drinks - a tea, a chai, and an espresso if I remember correctly.  I thought the logo for the coffee brand they carry (Ritual) really stood out too.  Remedy seems to be part of the trend of coffee places really taking their brewing seriously - they had a series of Hario drippers set up, and some other nice looking machinery.
Remedy on Urbanspoon

Pizzailo - We didn't eat here, although this was one of the places that had been on the recommended list by a few folks.  But, we did stop in for some cocktails.  Nearly every place we went had craft cocktail options, something that seems to be making its way to Cincinnati slowly but surely.  I like a good drink as much as the next guy, but I tend to prefer to spend my dollars on food, not beverage.  So, this refreshing orange and whiskey thing I had was notably fun.  We sat out back with our friends Mandara and Jake on a rusty old table next to the kitchen garden and a stone's throw from the restaurant's chickens.  All the locavore places we've been or heard about, this was a first.  I'd love to go back and try the food sometime, it looked very good on our walk-bys.
Pizzaiolo on Urbanspoon

Marc 49 - Our foursome headed over to Burmese Superstar, but there was a 40 minute wait, so we walked down the street to this wine bar.  They were super accommodating, helping us get tables and chairs set up outside.  We ordered a bottle of Flying Winemakers, which Jake had had before and everyone was quite happy.  There was a little chug needed when the restaurant called to say our table was ready, but I don't think anyone was too disappointed.
Marc 49 on Urbanspoon

Burma Superstar - This restaurant was one of several that was noted as part of a new set of excellent places in Oakland we heard from a handful of folks about.  The original is in San Francisco, and apparently it is very difficult to get a table there.  I was a little worried, because I was reading San Francisco Magazine when I got to town and the reviewer was not too high on this new outpost of what sounds like a long time favorite/standard in SF.  But, I gave our hosts a couple opportunities to get out of it and they were confident, so we went.  When you look at Yelp or read other reviews, everyone talks about the tea leaf salad (photo to the left), which I believe won a James Beard Award (for salads?).  That's what we started with - it starts out in parts like you see, and then they mix it up at the table.  It was pretty darn good - not sure if I think it lives up to all the hype, but it was solid.  Then we sampled a few different rice and noodle dishes, with tofu and meat, off the menu.  At some point along the way we ordered 2 very large beers (like the steins at Hofbrauhaus), and got into an animated conversation and capitalism and social security, and so my exact recollections of the dishes are a bit hazy.  I can say I was impressed by the offerings of different kinds of rice - a coconut one and a couple others - which added a nice flavor that typical white or brown usually don't.  I also remember there was a boatload of garlic, and that in general there was a lot of flavor going on.  This was one time where we thought "to hell with all this California cuisine, let's get the ethnic food we simply do not have access to in Cincinnati that has big flavors!"  Big thanks to our hosts, who helped us find a great meal to go with some hearty conversation.
Burma Superstar on Urbanspoon

Yank Sing - I think the best thing to come out of our trip to Ad Hoc was the server telling us about dim sum at Yank Sing.  We almost went to Namu, but they had a breakfast menu and we wanted lunch.  So, we went to Yank Sing, and boy are we glad we did.  Here's how it went down.  It's in a skyscraper downtown - we pulled up in perfect parking and walked into a side entrance into a dead empty hallway.  We turned the corner to another empty hall, but a security guard was there.  We went up and asked where Yank Sing was (we'd seen a sign outside, so we knew we were in the right place), she pointed directly behind us and BAM!  There, in the middle of a food court/atrium of a downtown building were hundreds of people sitting at tables.  We snaked our way into the restaurant itself, where we saw hundreds more people.  The energy was palpable.  We asked for a table for two, but they said we'd have to wait.  Then, some sort of language barrier thing happened because when the hostess told a server to find us two seats at the bar, she took us to a table for two.  We hadn't even gotten settled in our seats yet and someone was pouring us waters and setting our table, while someone else was offering us dumplings of some sort.  Then another person was hawking breaded shrimp on wooden skewers - we took 'em!  Then we took some pot stickers, and then some dumplings, and then ordered some tea.  Within about two minutes we had a table full of food and we'd barely even taken a breath.  It was great!  It didn't hurt that the food was full of delicious flavors and textures, and that there were constantly carts of eye candy making their way by you, with seemingly endless options to choose from.  It was like appetizer heaven.  Even as we were finishing up eating, more new things were coming by.  The only downside whatsoever was that it was more expensive than we thought and we probably should have been asking the prices.  But, we will certainly get better at choosing on future visits, and no matter what, we probably can't go wrong.  I just wrote "too bad there's no dim sum place in Cincinnati!" and then did googled it just to be sure.  And now Sarah and I are excited - it looks like there are some options here.  I'm writing this on Saturday night and we very well may be eating dim sum tomorrow.
Yank Sing on Urbanspoon

Humphry Slocombe - This was one of two ice cream places recommended to us - the other is coming shortly.  It's ice cream, so to say it's bad would be silly.  But, we've had way better.  The ice cream was really waxy, and left your palette with a very odd mouthfeel.  We won't be heading back.
Humphry Slocombe on Urbanspoon

Philz Coffee - Like the ice cream place above, Philz was a spur of the moment stop.  We'd been told this coffee was fantastic and needed a little pick me up.  You go up to order, and instead of them saying "what would you like?" they say "what do you like?"  They caught on quickly that we hadn't been to Philz before, and apparently the Philz coffee experience is different.  "Do you like it dark or light?  What do you like about a latte?  How sweet do you like your mocha?"  I'm not exactly a coffee aficionado, so it caught me off guard a bit - but then my drink came, and it was very, very good.  Sarah's was too.  With so many different coffees, and so many different people with different likes and dislikes, it makes sense that someone would communicate with you to close the loop.
Philz Coffee on Urbanspoon

Dametra - We drove down to meet a long time family friend in Carmel, or officially, Carmel-by-the-Sea.  It's about 2.5 hours south of SF and right on the ocean.  It gave us an excuse to drive even further down the coast to check out Big Sur, as well as to walk on the beach and see a sea otter playing and dolphins swimming in the distance.  And it also gave us a chance to hear Antonio (from the kitchen) singing at Dametra's, a Mediterranean restaurant, as the proprietor played a sitar-esque instrument.  And then, later, they sang again!  Seriously, the people here were very nice.  They went out of their way to thank everyone for coming - it was almost over the top.  But, they seemed genuine and so I think everyone appreciated it.  Carmel is a very wealthy town, so I have to imagine they're aiming for a big score of a tip every now and then, and hey, I can't blame them!  We ordered Monterrey Bay calamari and smoked salmon appetizers, and a Greek platter to share as an entree.  It was a ton of food!  Everything was better than average, but the people were so nice and there was enough food that it was an experience that made us happy in the end.  We'll probably go back if we're in town, if only to be given a hearty handshake and a happy smile.
Dametra Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tataki - We wrote a while back about trying to ask a sushi place in Cincinnati about the source of their fish.  It did not go so well.  So, when someone told us about a sustainable sushi place in SF, we were excited.  We've been really enjoying sushi, but also getting more and more in tune with the fact that the way we're eating at sushi places is not very good for the ocean at all.  I'd say our trips to both SF and Chicago were like looking into the future for Cincinnati - more restaurants can and will source locally and sustainably, and more places will need to be able to answer where they get their products or they'll suffer.  That came out sounding kind of mean, but we're killing our planet here so it is about time we get serious about this.  For what it's worth, Tataki is the only sustainable sushi place in SF, so those Bay Area folks have some future coming their way as well.  And in the future, you will feel great about eating your food.  We sure did at Tataki!  They have the same sushi guides (download a pocket guide here) that we had just seen and picked up at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the same book we ordered recently on sale too.  They tell you where everything comes from, and how it was caught.  Oh, and it tasted great too!  Definitely spread the word.
Tataki on Urbanspoon

Bi-rite Creamery - This is another one of the many excellent food options in the Mission around 18th Street between Dolores and Guerrero (or thereabouts).  They also have a grocery across the street where we picked up some delicious peaches.  Sarah and I both liked Bi-rite better than Humphry Slocumb, but we also both felt strongly that we are blessed with such awesome ice cream and gelato (Graeter's, Jeni's, Dojo, etc.) in Ohio that we are pampered.  So, if its great ice cream you're looking for, we say stay here.
Bi-Rite Creamery and Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

Zuni Café - On our last night in the city, we decided to go to another old SF standard, Zuni Cafe.  We got there and sat in the bar area (at a table) and checked out the menu.  The regular menu was expensive enough (and frankly not interesting enough) that we decided to simply go for some oysters.  The owner of Omnivore Books had recommended we do that, and so here we were.  We asked the server to bring us a sampling of options, and she brought us 2 Kusshi, 2 Marin Miyagi, 2 Drake's Bay, 2 Humboldt Kuma, 2 Beau Soleil, and 2 Pacific oysters.  I can't remember having any oysters, so I'm not really sure what to compare them to or how to talk about them.  But, Sarah assures me they were good, and I always like trying new things, so I was happy.  We had a glass of white wine each as well, and that was it.  We were off to find ramen!
ZUNI Café on Urbanspoon

Halu - Ever since I found out about Momofuku in NYC, and especially after getting the cookbook, I've been really digging ramen.  Call it a throwback, but we got some Ichiban packets at CAM and when you throw some pork belly and bean sprouts and fish cake slices and other goodness on top of those noodles and that broth, good things happen.  I just did another google to be sure I wasn't missing Japanese ramen in Cincinnati (it looks like there may be an option in Florence), but in general this is not something that is easily accessible or notable in our town.  We went to a couple places that were closed on Tuesday night, and kept looking through the Yelp ramen options as we drove.  Halu was the spot we ended up at, and although they aren't really a noodle joint first and foremost, they did have ramen.  We ordered a couple of skewers (the yakitori were there specialty) that were tasty, and a bowl of pork and bowl of fried chicken ramen.  Both had flavor and depth to the broth that can't be matched by the packets we've been using, but I still like it the way I make it best.  No matter, it was great to have some more unique flavors and another restaurant option in SF that we don't have in Cincinnati before we left town.
Halu on Urbanspoon

So those were our SF eats!  Now, to get back in the rhythm here in Cincinnati.  Here are more pics if you're interested...


Existential Eating #21

If you have any suggestions or ideas for future Existential Eating strips, please email or comment below.  Sadly, our current collective imagination will run dry.  If its related to food, it can be the topic of an Existential       Eating comic strip.  Just share your idea and Ramsey will do his best to draw it up (probably, someday).


Chicago Eating: In a Nutshell

Ever since going on vacation a couple weeks back, it's been a bit overwhelming to take on the task of relating and sharing all these experiences.  So, rather than continue to wish I'd write a book, I'm instead going to write little abstracts of each place we visited, sharing just the top line information (a couple may be longer because I took more notes).  Not the template of typical Amateur Foodies review, but still helpful and interesting I hope.  So, here you have it, our trip to Chicago in a nutshell...

Giordano's - We got into town on a night when Sarah's parents were also in town, as well as a long time friend of Sarah's.  Adding my Aunt Julie, our humble host, we were in search of Chicago style pizza where we could seat 6 and not wait forever.  After a few calls, Giordano's was chosen for its location - a short walk from Southport & Henderson - as well as for its Chicago-style pizza.  I think Sarah and I agreed that the food was just okay.  It wasn't horrible, and it wasn't fantastic.  The crust was kind of cracker-like on both the deep and thin crust options.  We did get in and out easily on a Friday night, and the service was fine.  Probably won't return, but not bummed out we went.
Giordano's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Smoque - I think it may have been the Time Out Chicago with BBQ on the cover that got us thinking about it, and after the idea was planted, it was hard to let go of.  We were active Yelp users in Chicago because with the number of people who use it, the review system gives you more info than a simple like/don't like on Urbanspoon.  Yelpers seemed high on Smoque, and after our visit there I can see why.  We could smell the place from the car about 50 yards away, and the scent inside is amazing - as you get closer to the register the smokiness increases.  We ordered a 1/2 chicken with slaw, peach cobbler, and mac and cheese, and a 1/2 slab of St. Louis ribs.  Suzanne ordered a 1/2 brisket sandwich and BBQ beans.  We all liked the good vinegary slaw, and their well balanced sauce that is pretty tangy.  The brisket was very good - nicely charred on edges.  Really good mac and cheese - creamy, with bread crumbs to add texture. Very smoky BBQ beans had big chunks of onion.  I really enjoyed the peach cobbler - it had almonds and other sweet carmelized goodness on top - even with the canned peaches.  It really was more of a crisp than a cobbler, and was an excellent finish to a great barbecue lunch.
Smoque BBQ on Urbanspoon

Uncommon Ground - Not much to say here at all.  They were on my list to visit because I read a blog about their rooftop garden a while back.  We just happened to be walking by, and decided to stop in for a drink.  I had a "beermosa" (a Bell's Oberon with fresh squeezed orange juice) and Sarah and Suzanne got classic mimosas.  A chill spot so close to Wrigley Field, and the menu looked good too for future reference.
Uncommon Ground on Urbanspoon

Sun Wah - A photo of sliced duck on a list of the best 100 things Time Out Chicago ate in 2009 caught my eye, and after reading some reviews, I was smitten.  In an area with lots of other Asian restaurants - the smells were quite strong - Sun Wah looks fairly unassuming from the outside.  But, they recently remodeled and have a huge space, they could definitely seat hundreds of people.  We were interested in a number of things on the menu, but all of the reviews raved about the duck, so that's what we went straight for.  They bring out a whole duck, carve it in front of you.  Our carver, Laura, who is a part-owner, was very helpful and answered all of our questions - while effortlessly carving a duck.  She placed succulent slivers of meat, all adorned with perfectly crispy skin, on a platter.  Steamed buns, hoisin, and pickled daikon and carrots came on separate plates.  Adding sriracha for heat, these were extremely similar to Momofuku pork buns.  The duck carcass is taken away and then they bring you duck soup (which was just ok) and finally, an excellent duck fried rice - using all of the parts of the bird.  There were 4 of us for dinner, and at $35, we almost felt like we were stealing from them!  The ducks are farm-raised in Middleburg, Indiana, where they've gotten their ducks for 22 years.  They gave us some mango ice cream to finish and we left as very happy customers. This is both an experience and a meal, definitely worth trying.
Sun Wah Bar-B-Q Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Lao Sze Chuan - We heard there was a street festival going on in Chinatown, so we decided to make our way in that direction.  Luckily, The Reader had a list of some Chinese places that helped us dig through the mountains of potential spots.  After looking at some other reviews online, we chose Lao Sze Chuan.  After some run around parking on such a busy day - the streets were packed - we arrive.  They have an overwhelmingly large menu, so were a bit intimidated off the bat.  It didn't help that our waiter didn't speak very good English.  After attempting to get some recommendations we settled upon appetizers - string beans with spicy black bean sauce and pork pot stickers, and entrees - ma po tofu, and Tony's chicken.  There are a lot of chiles representing how hot the food is, which I'm always unsure whether I should believe or not.  I should have believed them.  This food was hot!  For instance, the spicy cabbage starter they brought was salty, buttery, and then bam, hot!  Super meaty pot stickers came accompanied by a twosome of sauces in containers similar to the threesome at most Indian places - one was a very vinegary dark sauce/dressing and the other was super red chile oil.  I made a little mix with some soy sauce and found the pot stickers to be very good.  In the string beans app the green chiles look the same as the beans, so the heat sneaks up on you - they had a good texture and flavor though.  The ma po tofu was mentioned in a few reviews, so that's why we ordered it.  Unfortunately, we were disappointed.  It was very spicy, and there wasn't much else going on in terms of flavors or texture (that we could distinguish).  Also, I just don't like silken tofu that much.  The chicken was like popcorn chicken and had some interesting flavors that I could not place - it would have been even better with more of the flavored sauce that made the dish so interesting. I was sweating from very early on in the meal, and kept wondering "can you get used to heat like this?!?"  I'm now about halfway through Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China (which is a great read so far), and I really wish I had another stab at that menu.  It'll probably take another trip to a big city, because I'm not aware of any Sichuanese food around.
Lao Sze Chuan on Urbanspoon

Avec - This was a place that came highly recommended from a well-connected foodie we recently chatted with at a wedding.  It's definitely the hippest place we went to in Chicago, and has an interesting menu.  They have a James Beard award winning chef, and several nominations also adorn the wall in the back of the space.  All the reviews raved about the chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates, so those were an easy menu choice.  We tried to order the sardines - I was excited because I can't recall ever having them and keep reading about them - but they were out.  We also chose a rigatoni pasta and a focaccia bread with cheese and herbs.  The dates were very good - sweet and spicy and smoky, with varied textures as well.  Sarah hit it on the head when she said that our pasta was as summery as you can get for a hot pasta.  It had mandolined pieces of garlic, was aromatic from fennel, crusty from breadcrumbs, sweet from the balsamic reduction, had big oyster mushrooms, and the marscapone added a nice creaminess. We could smell the cheese in the focaccia from 2 seats away.  It was a unique blend of cheeses, and combined with the buttery bread (the closest texture I can think of is batura at an Indian place crossed with the browning flour tortilla of a quesadilla), the cross between mozzarella and the plasticyness of American (which Sarah and I both love, so that's a compliment) was quite tasty.  Overall, Avec was not pretentious when it certainly could be.  Our server (at the bar) was very nice.  Oh, and we couldn't help ourselves - we got dessert too - a blueberry-passionfruit tart with lemon-verbana ice cream.  It was a very herby ice cream, and they definitely don't skimp on the berries.  We left at midnight on a Monday and there was a steady crowd up until we left.
Avec on Urbanspoon

Ann Sather's - This is a quick shout out to my Aunt Julie's downstairs neighbor, Clara, who runs the Ann Sather's on Belmont.  She was generous enough to stop by with some of their famous cinnamon rolls, which we absolutely did not pick at and eat for 3 days until we had finished them off.  She also brought by sangria and apple-cinnamon bread - an excellent neighbor!
Ann Sather Cafe on Urbanspoon

Intelligentsia - Les from the Espresso Guild raved to us about Intelligentsia's coffee when we discussed direct trade, baristas, and more in a post earlier this year.  Sarah had an ice coffee and I had an iced mocha.  They were indeed very, very good.  We also picked up a small bag of coffee to bring home.
Intelligentsia Coffee on Urbanspoon

George's Ice Cream - Interestingly, finding great ice cream in both Chicago and San Francisco seemed to be a challenge.  There wasn't a clear favorite or special place that everyone and anyone would rave about (as it is here with Graeter's, and more recently Jeni's).  The folks at Intelligentsia suggested George's so we gave it a shot.  In sum, we thought the pint of mint chocolate chip we got was good, but not amazing.  The notable fact was that they use a boatload of cream, and it tastes the part.
George's Ice Cream and Sweets on Urbanspoon

Tio Luis - I've been writing these roughly in the order of when we went to them on our trip.  If I were writing in the order of the best food to the worst, Tio Luis would probably be at the very top.  This was a solid experience from start to finish.  Searching for the best taco, Tio Luis was named over and over again, and they have earned their reputation.  Friendly service and warm chips with a good spicy salsa (everything seemed tame compared to the heat at Lao Sze Chuan) greeted us.  We got straight to it and ordered - ceviche tostada, and al pastor and carne asada tacos.  When it all came, I couldn't help but just try a bit of each piece of meat - it was super flavorful!  Juicy limes and a couple of hot sauce options added to the flavors as well.  The delicious ceviche led Sarah to say it "might be the best one I've had in the states, wow!"  It had big hunks of fish - they were not skimping on tilapia - and fresh veggies too.  The sweet taste in al pastor caught me off guard at first - it was chunks of pineapple (a bit too sweet for Sarah, but she added a little salt and it balanced it well) to go with carmelized onions.  I asked after the meal and they told me that was normal for al pastor (typically on a spit like a gyros with a pineapple dripping down) - it's not something I've had here in Cincinnati, but I did then see that in other spots in both Chicago and California.  The carne asada was top notch as well.  And the focus was clearly on the meat, with not much cilantro and not much onion, and simple yellow corn tortillas.  I was feeling so bad for the people at McDonald's across the street - this is way better for equally cheap.  It was the best thing we'd eaten so far on the trip, and the bar has now been set for tacos.  They were all very flavorful, moist, and I'm not sure how they could be improved.  I'm not sure if there was anything better anywhere we went, and I don't think we spent more than $25.  Don't miss this place if you go!
Tio Luis on Urbanspoon

Art of Pizza - Several years back I got caught by the "best pizza in the city" on the awning at Art of Pizza.  I know, I know, a lot of places make such a claim.  Well, from what I can tell, AoP backs it up.  The Tribune did an extensive story that they prominently place on their counter stating that this is the best stuff in town.  We just had to stop by, even though it was only for a single slice each.  Great cheese, and a flaky, buttery crust that is 1/2 way to quiche crust from pizza crust.  If they had a nicer dining room, this is where we would have come earlier in the trip with our group.  I haven't had better pie yet in Chicago, and since it is so good I'd have to hear a very strong case to make a change.
Art of Pizza on Urbanspoon

Hot Doug's -  On our last visit, we went to Superdawg's, and drove by the line at Hot Doug's and decided against it because of the wait.  This time, we arrived in line at 10:35 AM on a Tuesday, 5 minutes after they open.  The line just kept getting longer, but after a 35 minute wait we were standing in front of Doug, placing our order.  He was a super nice guy, making you feel like you had barely waited when you got to the head of the line.  There were three of us, and we ordered a corn dog, a couple Chicago dogs, and I also had a ribeye steak dog.  My Aunt Julie had had the corn dog before, and she said it was better this time than it was last.  I liked the bun (Rosen's), which was not too thick, and kinda squishy in that way that you like processed white bread to be so you can turn the flour into sugar very quickly.  For as popular as this place is, it is super cheap - 1.75 for "the dog," a classic Chicago dog with all the fixings.  They give you tons of fresh cut fries, which were much better than Superdawg's.  And of course, they have great dogs themselves - a nice snap, very meaty - mmmm.  The Chicago dogs were well balanced, had lots of celery salt, and you could fit them in your mouth without dislocating your jaw, which was nice.  My ribeye dog came with brie cheese and a garlic aioli and it was more expensive ($7 I think), but very satisfying.  If you're wondering how they cut off the line, we asked.  They serve everyone in line at 4pm.  So, I imagine they're still taking orders until about 5pm most days.  Is it worth it to wait that long for a hot dog?  At least once, yes.
Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon

So, there are our food travels in Chicago!  I should say that we (obviously) did not get in to Alinea.  So, we're thinking of planning a special trip in the coming month.  Now, for more pics if you're interested...