Annapurna Ayurvedic Cuisine – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico

Annapurna on 4th Street in the North Valley

Annapurna on 4th Street in the North Valley

Vegetarians, and their Hezbollah-like splinter faction, the vegans, are a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn. To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living. Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.”

Anthony Bourdain’s dour diatribe on the “evils” of vegeterians and vegans is hardly unwonted.  The internet is rife with mean-spirited assailments against people who choose a plant-based diet that includes fruits, cereal grains, seeds, nuts and vegetables and may or may not exclude dairy products and eggs.  Reciprocation in kind is also well represented on the Internet by vegetarians and vegans who lambast the carnivorous cravings of meat-eaters.

Annapurna and its sprawling space

Annapurna and its sprawling space

This lack of civility and parochial discourse is usually reserved for politics and ideologues (on both sides of the aisle) who can’t concede any merit whatsoever about the opposing viewpoint.  It’s not enough to disagree with someone else’s opinion or choice, dissenters on both sides seem to have a base need to resort to derisive pejoratives.

So, just how do you resolve differences of opinion without resorting to name-calling?  The answer may lie in an article published in the Society page of the New York Times Sunday edition on May 5, 1918 which posited that “soap-boxers emitting hatred and trust” may be having trouble with their stomachs which sometimes direct human action more than the mind does.   The writer observed that where there are points of disagreement, a good dinner usually settles them.

Thaali Plate: A cup of each of our Vegetables  of the day, a cup of Dal, a cup of Sambhar, Basmati rice or brown rice,  Chapati (flatbread), and your choice of a chutney, yogurt or raita.

Thaali Plate: A cup of each of our Vegetables of the day, a cup of Dal, a cup of Sambhar, Basmati rice or brown rice, Chapati (flatbread), and your choice of a chutney, yogurt or raita.

The question then becomes just where to have that dinner.  Obviously in the case of vegetarians and meatatarians, it would be a challenge worthy of a sagacious Solomon.  For me, it’s enough of a challenge to get some of my friends and colleagues to try something new and different, something outside their comfort zone–somewhere like Annapurna Ayurvedic Cuisine, a world vegetarian cafe which touts itself as “the place for healing cuisine.”

Most of my colleagues equate “healing cuisine” with medicine and believe vegetarianism should be practiced exclusively by rabbits.  Their idea of world cuisine is pizza, tacos and egg rolls.  Fortunately my friend and fellow Air Force retiree Randy Lake (who risked merciless taunting from our crew in ordering a veggie burger at the Stone Face Tavern) and his beauteous better half Bonnie, like me, welcome a periodic respite from the mundanity of the “usual suspects.”  They were more than eager to visit Annapurna with me.

South Indian Sampler Plate: One Miniature Masala Dosa, a piece of Vadai, a bowl of Sambhar with two Idlis and a side of coconut chutney

South Indian Sampler Plate: One Miniature Masala Dosa, a piece of Vadai, a bowl of Sambhar with two Idlis and a side of coconut chutney

Annapurna is a Sanskrit (the ancient language of the Hindus) word that literally means “complete food.”  As the goddess of food and abundance, Annapurna is also responsible for the nourishment of the family.  This isn’t nourishment in the American sense of caloric overachievement, but in the Hindu traditional sense and medical treatise for healing and prolonging life called Ayurveda.

Ayurveda is a 5,000 year-old system of healing and well-being.  “Ayur” means “life” and “veda” means “knowledge,” hence the knowledge of longevity.  Ayurveda offers healing, rejuvenation and self realization through balanced foods, herbs, yoga, massage, aroma and meditation.  Ayurveda teaches how to pay attention to how and what is eaten and to take responsibility for our health.

North Indian Sampler Plate: One cup of Saag with two paneer, one cup of  Mataar with two paneer, one cup of our Bean of the Day, and your choice of  Basmati or brown rice, one Chapati, one mini Dosa, or three Puri

North Indian Sampler Plate: One cup of Saag with two paneer, one cup of Mataar with two paneer, one cup of our Bean of the Day, and your choice of Basmati or brown rice, one Chapati, one mini Dosa, or three Puri

Ayurveda prescribes purity of food (Sattvic) for healing and maintaining good health.  Sattvic food incorporates the six tastes in every meal: sweet, bitter, sour, astringent, salty and pungent.

Interestingly, in the west, it’s generally accepted that the human tongue can discern only four different tastes and that all tastes in the dining experience are combinations of those four: sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. By contrast, the Chinese have long believed that the human tongue possesses a fifth taste sensation–one that can detect pungent foods.  The Sattvic recognition that there are six discernible tastes should be a siren’s call to all adventurous foodies.

ABC (Avocado, tempeh Bacon, Cheddar cheese, spinach, tomatoes, and chipotle dressing)

ABC (Avocado, tempeh Bacon, Cheddar cheese, spinach, tomatoes, and chipotle dressing)

As Randy, Bonnie and I found out during our inaugural visit to Annapurna, the depth of flavors in virtually every bite will certainly invigorate and stimulate seemingly every one of your ten-thousand taste buds.  Even if you don’t consciously attempt to discern each of the taste sensations, you’ll swear you’re tasting them in every mouthful.  Of course adventurous, exotic and taste awakening sensations don’t mean as much if the cuisine doesn’t measure up in deliciousness.

At Annapurna, deliciousness is part and parcel of every dining experience.  It’s Indian cuisine to the nth degree and an order of magnitude better than most vegetarian cuisine.  It’s cuisine that provides pleasure in every forkful, a sensual delight in every meal.  The Alibi described every platter at Annapurna as a “delicacy.”

Masala Dosa (Dosa filled with a spicy vegetable mixture. Served with Sambhar and coconut chutney)

Masala Dosa (Dosa filled with a spicy vegetable mixture. Served with Sambhar and coconut chutney)

First-time visitors need not despair about what to order, especially if you’re already somewhat familiar with Indian cuisine.  The menu is extremely user friendly with vivid color pictures of many entrees as well as inviting descriptions of the entrees.  To the greatest extent possible, the food is locally grown and is always freshly prepared every day.  That is an amazing feat considering the breadth of the menu, a multi-page compendium of Ayurvedic deliciousness.

An Annapurna dining experience is not only meat-free, you won’t find white flour, white salt, white sugar, sodas or alcohol and with the exception of homemade paneer (a traditional, unaged, non-melting farmer’s cheese made by curdling heated milk with lemon juice or other food acid) and a traditional milk-based chai (a tea brewed with a mixture of aromatic Indian spices and herbs), you won’t find much dairy either.

Annapurna’s Gourmet Pizza adorned with green chile, Kalamata olives and tempeh bacon

The menu changes seasonally–another Ayurvedic principle based on the seasons knowing what you need during each quadrant of the year.  In addition to the mostly traditional Indian cuisine, the menu also includes some “western” or rather “westernized” entrees such as pizza, sandwiches, veggie burgers, lasagna, wraps and even a brunch burrito.

One of the very best ways to acquaint yourself with the menu is by ordering one of the sampler plates.  Fortunately the first three items on the menu feature three grand sampler plates with an impressive array of delicious dishes.  The Thaali Plate, for example, includes a cup of each of the restaurant’s vegetables of the day, a cup of Dal (a yellow split mung bean soup with vegetables), a cup of Sambhar (a spicy, brothy yellow split mung bean soup with vegetables), Basmati or brown rice, Chapati (flatbread) and your choice of chutney, yogurt or raita.  This is a stellar plate with a lot going on.  It will put a smile on your lips and bring warmth to your heart.

Shepherd’s Pie: Lentils, carrots, celery, and greens smothered in a sweet potato topping and baked until golden. Served with a side salad

The South Indian Sampler Plate is referred to on the menu as a “combination for the curious.”  It features one miniature masala dosa (an Indian crepe filled with a spicy vegetable mixture), a piece of Vadai (a deep-fried cake akin to an Indian hushpuppy), a bowl of Sambhar with two Idlis (soft, fluffy white, round discs made of rice and lentil batter which might remind you of dumplings) and a side of coconut chutney.  Every bite of every item is absolutely delicious, a joy to eat.

The menu refers to the North Indian Sampler Plate as “a combination for the hungry.”  It features a cup of Saag (a spinach and mustard leaf based curry dish) with two paneer, a cup of Mataar (a creamy, spiced tomato and pea soup) served with three paneer, a cup of the bean of the day and your choice of Basmati or brown rice as well as one Chapati, one mini dosa or three Puri (a puffed, savory fried bread.  Mataar Paneer is my very favorite Indian dish and Annapurna’s rendition is among the very best I’ve ever had, so flavorful, so soul-warming that days later it still pervaded my mind.  If the menu didn’t offer so many other intriguing options, this sampler platter could become a habitual favorite.

Two stack gluten- free pancakes made from scratch with a batter containing freshly ground cardamom and a variety of seasonal fruit. Served with organic maple syrup

“As easy as ABC,” an idiom which describes something that’s very easy is an apt name for one of the least complex items on the menu.  “ABC” in this case stands for Avocado, tempeh bacon and Cheddar cheese which along with spinach, tomatoes and chipotle dressing form a wrap which might have you thinking “BLT.”  That’s in large part due to the tempeh bacon (sometimes referred to as fake-on) which has the flavor and consistency of bacon with far fewer calories and fat.  Served with salad and your choice of masala fries or a cup of the soup of the day, it’s Annapurna’s version of an American classic–sandwich and fries.

A far more exotic culinary adventure can be had with a Masala Dosa, a South Indian crepe/pancake made with rice and urad dal (a whitish lentil), rolled and filled with a spicy vegetable mixture that includes carrots, potatoes, onions and more (perhaps lentils).  Indian spiciness is not nearly the same as the spiciness found in New Mexican food.  While this entree has some piquancy, it’s spice-based and not chile-based and doesn’t have the “burn” of New Mexico’s official vegetable.  The spicy vegetable mix is intensely spiced and strongly flavored in the most pleasant sense.  The Dosa is whisper thin and crisp.  At about ten inches in length, it may at first glance appear daunting in size, but it’s light and substantial at the same time so finishing one shouldn’t be a problem for even smaller eaters.

Lasagna: Thick pasta, house-made marinara, butternut squash, zucchini, and eggplant, baked golden. Served either vegan or with Mozzarella

Annapurna’s menu is eye-catching for its surprises.  It’s a rare vegan restaurant and even more rare Indian restaurant in which you’ll find Shepherd’s Pie, Lasagna, Pizza, Pancakes and even Burritos.  A line-up with such diverse items seems more appropriate for one of those all-you-can-eat restaurants which server every conceivable item under the sun, but none of them well.  The difference is that Annapurna’s rendition of the aforementioned items is very well executed…and that’s no longer a surprise to anyone who frequents this outstanding restaurant.

Take, for example, the gourmet pizza. Its canvas is a wheat-free and yeast-free herb crust.   (As an aside, Nations Restaurant News, a respected trade magazine, reports that the most popular pizza toppings in India are pickled ginger, minced mutton and paneer.)   Standard toppings are a house-made classic marinara, organic mozzarella, zucchini, eggplant and onion.  Optional toppings include portabello mushroom, tomatoes, Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, green chile, roasted bell peppers and tempeh bacon.  With perhaps the exception of tempeh bacon, doesn’t that sound like a pie you might find at a pizzeria?

Greek Wrap: Babaganoush (eggplant), spinach, feta, and tomatoes. Served with a side salad (red pepper vinaigrette) and a creamy lentil soup

You don’t even have to close your eyes to imagine it’s a pie from one of Albuquerque’s fine pizzerias.  Your eyes and nostrils won’t deceive you; it looks and smells like a very good pizza.  Better still, it tastes like a very good pizza.  My inaugural offering included three optional toppings: green chile, tempeh bacon and Kalamata olives.  The combination of a tangy sauce generously applied on the pie and a nicely roasted green chile made for a lively flavor tease.   The tempeh bacon, while not bringing to mind a fennel-kissed sausage or Canadian bacon, imparts a porcine smokiness to the pie. The crust doesn’t have the chewiness or char you might find on a pizza, but it holds up well against the weight of all the toppings.

The lasagna, a favorite of my friend Señor Plata, is very much reminiscent of lasagna you might find at an Italian restaurant.  It’s constructed from thick pasta, a house-made marinara, butternut squash, zucchini and eggplant baked golden.  Señor Plata orders it with mozzarella, but vegans can opt to have it sans cheese.  Served in a casserole dish, it arrives at your table some twenty to thirty minutes after you order it and it remains steaming hot throughout your meal.  Several Duke City restaurants offer a vegetarian lasagna, but Annapurna’s is the best.

Pasta special of the day: pasta, beans, tomatoes, cheese, red peppers and parsley with a dinner salad.

Lovers of breakfast at anytime, even low-carb diners, will be thrilled to find Annapurna serves pancakes–a short (but definitely not small in circumference) stack of gluten-free pancakes made from scratch with a batter containing freshly ground cardamom served with organic maple syrup.  The pancakes are delicious with or without the syrup but purists might miss spreading butter on these tasty orbs.  Nearly the circumference of the plate in which they are served, they’re easily big enough to share, but you might not want to because they’re quite good.

My Cotswolds friends in England might accuse the colonists of heresy if they saw the ingredient list on Annapurna’s Shepherd’s Pie.  Traditionally made with a mashed potato crust and lamb mince, Shepherd’s Pie is as English as the Queen’s jewels.  Taking liberties with this popular English standard, Annapurna’s rendition is made with lentils, carrots, celery and greens smothered in a sweet potato topping baked until golden.  With all due respect to my English home of more than three years, Annapurna’s Shepherd’s Pie is better than any I had in England.

Annapurna is owned by Yashoda Naidoo, a former accountant who pursued her passion for healing food and launched the first instantiation of her restaurant in 2002 near the University of New Mexico.  Today there are three Annapurna restaurants in the Land of Enchantment, including one in Santa Fe.  The most recent to launch is on North Fourth Street in Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.

Annapurna Chai House
5939 4th St NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 254-2424
LATEST VISIT:  7 June 2011

1st VISIT:  25 August 2009
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Thaali Plate, South Indian Sampler Plate, North Indian Sampler Plate, Mango Lassi, Masala Dosa, ABC, Gourmet Pizza, Shepherd’s Pie, Lasagna, Cardamom Pancakes, Greek Wrap


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Annapurna's World Vegetarian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Maid Rite – Osceola, Iowa

Maid Rite, an Iowa staple

Several years ago my friend and colleague Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik and I had the opportunity to do what most employees only dream of.  We got to insult a corporate vice president for half an hour in the presence of even higher ranking corporate officials.  The occasion was the vice president’s retirement and we got to roast him– figuratively, but from the blush on his cheeks you might have thought it was literally.  It was one of the easiest from among the twenty or so roasts we’ve done because we had so much fodder with which to work.  The vice president was retiring to Iowa, a move which provided a wealth of material with which we could insult him.

The roast was laced with references to farm animals, outhouses, Green Acres, American Gothic and the bridges of Madison County.  We even devised an Iowa “Slim Slow” diet that featured corn flakes and corn fritters for breakfast; corned beef hash, corn on the cob, corn chips, corn muffins and corn ice cream for lunch; homemade corn whiskey for an afternoon snack; and cornmeal encrusted Cornish game hens, creamed corn and candy Korn for dinner followed by a leisurely smoke on a corn cob pipe.  If you’ve ever driven through Iowa, you’ll understand; the “scenery” is comprised of miles and miles of corn.

Large Maid Rite with cheese, mustard and pickles

Even though the opportunities for double-entendre would have been priceless, we didn’t include a single reference to Iowa’s famous “loose-meat” sandwiches because, frankly, we didn’t think anyone would know what they are.  That is perhaps no one but fans of the situation comedy Roseanne.  In the show’s later seasons, Roseanne co-owned (with a character played by real-life husband Tom Arnold) a restaurant situated in Lanford, Illinois called the Lunchbox which specialized in loose-meat sandwiches.

PBS viewers may remember that the loose-meat sandwich was also one of 22 sandwiches showcased in Sandwiches That You Will Like, a scintillating 2002 PBS documentary by the brilliant Rick Sebak of WQED in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  A companion book version written by my friend Becky Mercuri is a must-have for all sandwich aficionados.  Becky, a self-admitted “inveterate student of culinary history” traces the origin of America’s most celebrated regional sandwich creations, including the aforementioned loose-meat sandwich.

Maid Rite sandwich with A1 Steak Sauce, pickles, mustard and grilled onions

Becky explains that the loose-meat sandwich came about because its nutritional and economical properties made ground beef popular in America in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  The evolution of both the sloppy Joe and the loose-meat sandwich was a natural.  The actual origin of the loose meat sandwich is in dispute with two claimants to its first creation.  The latter claimant was a Muscatine, Iowa resident named Floyd Angell who developed a special grind of meat and cooked it loosely instead of forming it into a hamburger patty.  He then placed it on a roll.  Voila, a loose-meat sandwich.

According to local lore, Angell handed a sandwich to a deliveryman who exclaimed that the sandwich was “made right.”  That was the inspiration for Angell establishing the Maid-Rite restaurant chain in 1926.  Today, Maid-Rite is a franchise boasting more than 80 outlets in Iowa and other Midwest states.  As we found out, a Maid-Rite sandwich is to Iowans what the green chile cheeseburger is to New Mexicans.  During our inaugural visit, we ran into  and broke bread with the Schmidts, Iowa natives now residing in Roswell, New Mexico.  During their two-week stay in Iowa, they planned multiple visits to Maid Rite.

A simple, but outstanding sandwich menu and more at Maid Rite

We can now understand why.  A Maid-Rite sandwich is surprisingly delicious, so good we drove past hundreds of boring miles of corn on our return trip from Illinois to New Mexico to have another, so good we risked filling up even though a visit to  the world’s best barbecue at Arthur Bryant’s was but two hours away, so good any skepticism we may have had about ground beef sandwiches was quickly and irrevocably erased.  We’re sold!

In 2009, James Beard Award-winning food journalists Jane and Michael Stern published a terrific tome entitled 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late, a celebration of the best dishes that are unique to America.  Iowa’s loose-meat sandwiches were a no-brainer inclusion.  Their description: “a Siouxland sloppy Joe but without the slop, ground beef that is cooked loose — unpattied — and seasoned and drained but sauceless” is better than anything I can contrive, an apt characterization of one of America’s culinary treasures.

After you're done with your sandwich, you still have loose meat left

The menu features three sizes of Maid-Rite sandwiches–the standard-size, the mega-sized (a must have) and the junior (for smaller appetites).  It also offers other sandwich options (such as a fish sandwich and a tenderloin sandwich), but they don’t spell I-O-W-A as the Maid-Rite sandwich does.  Ingredient options include mustard, ketchup, onions and pickles. An inventive Maid-Rite employee even has a sandwich named for him–the Tyler Maid-Rite  which includes A1 Steak Sauce and grilled onions.  Other Maid-Rite options include a Cheese Rite, Chili Rite and a Bacon Rite (or you can have any combination of the three).

All ingredients–mustard, cheese, pickles and bacon, for example–are strategically positioned beneath the loose meat which somehow stays together (well, mostly) sandwiched between two soft, sweet buns.  Any remnant pieces of loose meat are like a savory dessert you’ll scoop up afterwards.  The meat is perfectly seasoned and amazingly greaseless yet wonderfully moist, not at all like the dust-dry ground beef you might imagine.  The buns are piping hot, almost as if steamed, and as good as any hamburger bun you can imagine.

On second thought, a loose-meat sandwich wouldn’t have made good roast material.  I’m not sure I could have gotten through the roast without salivating at the very thought of this delicious sandwich.

Maid Rite
2010 West Clay Street
Osceola, Iowa
(641) 342-7205
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 October 2010
1st VISIT: 7 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 22
COST: $
BEST BET: Mega Cheese Rite, Mega Cheese-Bacon Rite, Mega Tyler-Rite, Sweet Potato Fries

Maid-Rite on Urbanspoon

Portillo’s Hot Dogs – Bolingbrook, Illinois

Portillo's Hot Dogs in Vernon Hills, Illinois

Portillo’s story is the story of the American dream, a rags to riches saga that began with a single hot dog stand opening in 1963. That single investment has blossomed into a multi-million per year chain with six different concepts and more than 40 restaurants in the Chicago area. The Portillo’s Restaurant Group has become, in fact, the largest privately-owned restaurant company in the Midwest. Among Chicagoland expatriates with whom I’ve worked (and one whom I married) Portillos is consistently named as one of the things they miss most about living in the Windy City.

Expatriates like my Kim know there isn’t anything like Portillo’s anywhere else in America.  Other than frequent trips to the Chicago area, their only recourse has been ordering hot dogs online through Tastes of Chicago which offers nationwide delivery of all your Windy City favorites.  In October, 2005, Portillo’s launched its first location outside of Illinois, the lucky city being Buena Park, California.  Since then, a second Portillo’s was opened in Southern California and a third in Merrillville, Indiana.  That little bit of expansion has heightened hopes that Portillos will spread across the fruited plain.

Hungry hordes line up to place their orders

There’s no way you could ever mistake Portillo’s for a simple hot dog stand today.  Most Portillo’s restaurants are veritable theme parks–culinary shrines celebrating terrific food and the heritage of the Windy City in the 20th century.  Typically this means no discrimination between both sides of the law; more than perhaps any city in America, Chicago celebrates (and sometimes it elects) its criminals.  The Portillo’s in Vernon Hills where these photos were taken is rich with photographs of the city’s nefarious and notorious characters as well as sundry antiques.  There’s something to see everywhere you turn.

Portillo’s doesn’t offer table service.  When you walk in, you’ll immediately proceed to a long, fast-food chain-like queue that seems a mile long.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly the line moves and how efficient Portillo’s is at taking and processing orders.  Within minutes after placing your order, your number will be called and you’ll pick up your order.  Tables are adorned with checkerboard tablecloths, the red and white ones reminiscent of Italian restaurant table settings.  Tables are spaced fairly close to one another despite the cavernous confines of this sprawling restaurant.

Italian Beef Sandwich with Hot Giardinara

True to its name, Portillo’s features the quintessential Chicago all beef hot dog in all its cornucopia of ingredients glory–mustard, relish, chopped onions, cucumber, sliced red tomato, kosher pickle and sport peppers piled onto a perfectly steamed poppy seed bun.  Most appropriately, it’s often said of the Chicago style hot dot that it’s been “dragged through the garden.” The first time you have one, the Chicago style hot dog seems like an odd collection of toppings–some hot and some cold–that work surprisingly well together. The textures range from crispy to chewy and the flavors from tangy and acidic to pleasantly piquant.

The melange of ingredients is by no means a cover-up for an inferior wiener; in fact, dog wiener is the highlight of this hot dog.  Bite into it and your teeth will puncture an all-natural skin with a discernible snap, unleashing a salty, juicy meat impressed with a faint smokiness.  Th poppy seed bun is warm and pillowy soft yet substantial enough to hold in all the ingredients nestled in its crevice. These hot dogs aren’t for everyone, but aficionados swear by them. Some proprietors will swear AT you if you ask for ketchup.

Chicago Style Hot Dog

Portillo’s also serves one of the best Italian beef sandwiches in the City of Big Shoulders, a mighty feat in itself. Better yet, try the combination beef and char-grilled sausage sandwich, imbued with the most tender, thin sliced beef and the most succulent sausage. If you don’t ask for your sandwich “wet” (dipped in the “gravy” in which it is prepared), you’ll notice that Portillo’s uses a fairly hard-crusted bun, one that crunches when you bite into it. The giardinara is also crispy, an assemblage of pickled and spiced vegetables you can have in either the hot or the regular variety.

In October, 2010, a writer for Serious Eats, one of my favorite food blogs, endeavored with three friends to determine the very best Italian beef sandwich in the Chicago area.  Their quest took them to eleven purveyors of pulchritudinous beef where, in six hours, eating about three inches of each sandwich, they decided the very best Italian beef sandwich was Portillo’s.  Every sandwich sampled was topped with giardiniera and served wet. Portillo’s rendition was described as “having no flaws,” despite all the components being pre-cooked at a corporate location.  My favorite Italian beef from Johnnie’s finished third in their balloting.

Portillo's chocolate cake

Portillo’s chocolate cake is a rich and moist piece of heaven, an absolutely delicious hunk of chocolate perfection. It’s diet-devastating deliciousness in a slab-sized piece big enough for three. The chocolate cake is perhaps the best from a triumvirate of desserts. Strawberry shortcake and caramel pecan cake are the other two. You can also sate your sweet tooth with bone-chilling cold shakes and malts. Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are available in thirst-slaking sizes of small, medium and large.

Most thematic restaurants eventually become caricatures of themselves and begin to pay more attention to their atmosphere and less to their food.  Thankfully this hasn’t happened with Portillo’s which after nearly five decades in operation still serves one of the Windy City area’s best Chicago style hot dogs and so much more.

Portillo’s Hot Dogs
148 W. Broughton Road
Bolingbrook, IL
(630) 759-3735

LATEST VISIT: 14 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hot Dogs, Italian Beef Sandwich, Chocolate Cake

Portillo's on Urbanspoon

Gale Street Inn – Mundelein, Illinois

The nautically themed Gale Street Inn in Mundelein, Illinois

It took 47 years and one visit to the Gale Street Inn to understand why sailing vessels are ascribed the feminine gender. According to a placard on a wall at the Gale Street Inn, a nautical themed restaurant in the Northwest Chicago suburb of Mundelein, a ship is called a she because “there’s always a great deal of bustle around her…because there’s usually a gang of men around…because she has waist and stays…because she takes a lot of paint to keep her looking good…because it’s not the initial expense that breaks you, it’s the upkeep…because she is all decked out…because it take a good man to handle her right…because she shows her topside, hides her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys.”

While that theory may have the same veracity as a used car salesman telling you the lemon you’re about to buy was owned by a little old lady who used it solely to go to church on Sundays, its presence on the wall may infer something about the Gale Street Inn. To the women in our dining party, the inference was that the restaurant reeks of masculinity–a contention further borne out by the massive stone fireplace that divides the wood rich dining rooms on whose walls are hung paintings of sea-faring vessels and Bosn’s head busts of mariners. The bar’s television tuned to ESPN lent further credence to their argument.

Bread rolls and butter

For me, the Gale Street Inn is quintessentially Chicago, a city in which masculinity is historically defined by political power, competitive sports teams, broad-shouldered skyscrapers…and restaurants with rich wood appointments serving huge slabs of beef; hearty, rich soups; steaming bread rolls with thick pads of butter; bounteous salad bars with powerful salad dressings; and often, seafood with a surprisingly fresh, just caught taste.

The Diamond Lake restaurant shares a name, menu, reputation and a loose affiliation with a Chicago restaurant once situated on Gale Street, but it has something its big city brethren doesn’t have–unobstructed views of Diamond Lake whose shimmering waters glint like a diamond in either the moonlight or the day’s sun. It’s one of the crown jewels of Lake county.

Salad bar includes chicken liver pate and an out-of-this-world garlic dressing

Dinner at the Gale Street Inn includes a complementary salad bar with traditional iceberg lettuce and decidedly un-masculine spinach as well as several conventional salad bar accoutrements. What really sets Chicago area salad bars apart from everywhere else are the intensely flavored salad dressings. A Chicago style blue cheese dressing is thick and creamy, replete with deeply pungent, sharp blue cheese. Even more intensely flavored is Chicago style Garlic Ranch dressing so heady it will wreck your breath and may reek off your pores the following day. The Gale Street Inn’s version of these dressings is among the best you’ll find anywhere. The salad bar also includes a delicious chicken pate redolent with garlic and bacon bits.

The pate is so good we would have begged, pleaded, cajoled…maybe even bribed the chef for the recipe.  Fortunately we didn’t have to.  After explaining how far we drove to the restaurant and being sworn to secrecy, the chef gave us the recipe and we’ve managed to duplicate all but the experience. Warm bread rolls with sweet butter are replenished faithfully throughout your meal.  A pate sandwich is even better.

Special of the month for October, 2010: a half-rack of babyback ribs and three crab-stuffed shrimp

In a city known for barbecue baby back ribs, the Gale Street Inn’s might be the very best we’ve had. If not the best, these ribs are certainly the most tender–as in slide-off-the-bone and melt-in-your-mouth tender. These are ribs you eat can eat with a knife and fork or with your hands. A caramelized crust and a mild, smoky flavor complement the slightly tangy sauce. A side of sauce, served warm, is also provided, but isn’t needed.  During our October, 2010 visit, the Gale Street Inn’s monthly special was a unique version of surf and turf–a half-rack of babybacks and three crab-stuffed shrimp.  Shrimp is a misnomer for these delicious decapods which are engorged to bursting point.

Carnivores will also enjoy the slowly roasted prime rib of beef, a perfectly marbled 20-ounce slab of perfectly prepared beef served with au jus. Ask for the end piece if you want a slightly less rare cut defined by its tenderness and flavor intensity.  The prime rib isn’t nearly as fatty or rare as served at some restaurants, but lacks none of the flavors that make this cut of beef so popular.

Prime Rib, an end cut

The Gale Street Inn’s symbol is an anchor with each of its four points corresponding to one of its staples.  The ring or top part of the anchor represents ribs, perhaps the restaurant’s most popular entree.  The left bill (the point) represents steak while the right bill represents chops and the crown (or bottom point) represents seafood.  The menu prepares this quadrumvirate in various ways, ostensibly all delicious and hearty.

An eight-ounce grilled butt steak prepared at medium and seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic on both sides is an excellent option.  Because of its name and its alternate name, rump steak, butt steak is (pun intended) the butt of many a joke.  Essentially, a butt steak is a boneless sirloin steak.  For optimum flavor, butt steaks are usually grilled or broiled.  Overcook them and they’ll lose much of their flavor.  Experience in preparing this cut of steak shows at the Gale Street Inn because the pulchritudinous beef on your plate will be juicy and almost fork tender.

An eight-ounce butt steak

The Gale Street Inn is surprisingly value-priced and even features several stimulus specials that will fill you up for a paltry sum.  It’s a masculine restaurant with something for everyone, the only requirement being that you come here hungry.

Gale Street Inn
935 Diamond Lake Road
Mundelein, IL
(847) 566-6145
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 14 October 2010
1st VISIT:  20 November 2005
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 23
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Baby Back Ribs, Salad Bar, Garlic Ranch Dressing, Potatoes Au Gratin

Gale Street Inn-Diamond Lake on Urbanspoon

Johnnie’s Beef – Arlington Heights, Illinois

Johnnie's Beef in Arlington Heights, Illinois

If you think Chicagoland politics are a contentious topic, try debating which restaurant serves up the best Italian Beef Sandwich in the “City of Big Shoulders.” Opinions don’t necessarily vary that widely as there are just a handful of restaurants which have truly distinguished themselves in the preparation of this Chicago staple. It’s in the intensity of the debate with which you might be surprised. Each of the anointed restaurants has its vocal supporters and each has its detractors and some in either party won’t hesitate to explain (with fisticuffs if necessary) why their choice is the best and yours is not.

In 2009, the Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” program pitted two of Chicago’s most famous culinary rivals against one another in a showdown designed to settle the debate as to which makes the best Italian Beef sandwich in town.  The two heated rivals were Al’s Beef and Mr. Beef, two inner city institutions which have been serving up some of the city’s very best Italian beef sandwiches for generations.  In 2010, the Food Network’s Food Feuds, a show with a similar concept also vied to settle the score between Al’s Beef and Mr. Beef.  How wholly unoriginal!

Lemon (left) and watermelon (right) Italian Ice - the best ever!

The walls at Mr. Beef are adorned prominently with photographs of the glitterati who consider their Italian beef the very best in the city.  Tonight Show host Jay Leno considers Mr. Beef’s his very favorite while Roadfood.com founder Michael Stern, a Chicago native, casts his lot for Al’s Beef.  Both Al’s Beef and Mr. Beef are very popular choices.  They’re also very safe choices.  They’re “in the city” choices with top billing on just about every travel guide you’ll find for Chicago.  I’ve tried both and found them both quite good, but in my estimation they’re not the very best.

Count me among those on the camp which names Johnnie’s Beef as the restaurant which prepares the best Italian Beef Sandwich in the Chicago area and therefore, the world. I’m in good company here. In the September, 2006 edition of Details magazine, Ed Levine, a James Beard award-winning blogger whose work I greatly admire, wrote an article on “22 sandwiches that will change your life.” The beef and sausage combo from Johnnie’s was on that exclusive list of the 22 best sandwiches in America.

A mountain of well-salted French fries

The original Johnnie’s is a mainstay in the Chicago suburb of Elmwood Park where patrons line up around the building to partake of this juicy, succulent masterpiece that is simplicity and complexity alike. In 2003, Johnnie’s Beef opened a second location in Arlington Heights. Since it wouldn’t be Johnnie’s without the “attitude” they brought their famous counterman who kept things running in production line fashion, meaning get your order in and get out of the way. The famous counterman is no longer at the Arlington Heights location, but efficiency still reigns.

Aside from the rapidity with which Johnnie’s lines move, the first thing you’ll notice is the fragrant bouquet of spices and beef co-mingling in a vat of gravy to form a captivating and enrapturing aroma–the perfect prelude to a near perfect sandwich. The prices are very reasonable with a combination sandwich of beef and sausage available for under $6 although it does take about one and a half sandwiches to really hit the spot. You can have your sandwich wet (dipped) or dry, hot (with spicy giardiniera) or sweet or as a combination (beef and sausage) or single meat. Any way you have it, you just may swear off ever visiting the competition. Johnnie’s is simply the best!

Combination Italian beef and sausage sandwich with hot giardinara

Chicagoans grow up worshipping at high counters on which they prop their elbows as they consume Italian beef sandwiches–sometimes because the restaurant has no tables, but more often than not, because no matter how careful they are, they’re bound to spill shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy onto their clothing.  If it’s an outstanding Italian beef sandwich, it won’t matter.  You might even wear the spillage with pride, hoping all along that the olfactory bouquet remains with you.

After perusing through Zagat’s 2003-2004 Chicago restaurant guide where all the anointed restaurants seem to be of the high-end, haute cuisine genre and the working class “people’s choice” restaurants such as Johnnie’s didn’t warrant a mention, I debated whether my lofty rating was warranted. It took one bite during a subsequent visit to remind me, it is.  Johnnie’s Italian beef sandwich is one of the best sandwiches in the universe!

Johnnie's Italian Beef Sandwich served "wet" with green peppers

The marriage of hamburgers and French fries has nothing on the combination of Italian beef sandwiches and French fries, particularly when those Fries are thin-sliced, served steaming hot and with a nice amount of salt.  There’s nothing better to wash down all that delicious saltiness than one of Johnnie’s  banana or lemon flavored Italian Ice, which is, what else, among the very best I’ve ever had.  Better still is the watermelon Italian ice which comes with a warning that watermelon seeds might be found in the frozen delicacy.

The lines outside Johnnie’s Beef are a testament to just how wonderful this Chicagoland institution is.  It’s a line I’ll gladly stand in regardless of weather.

JOHNNIE’S BEEF
400 East Golf Road
Arlington Heights, IL
(847) 439-9700

LATEST VISIT: 12 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: Italian Beef Sandwich; Italian Beef Combo Sandwich; Banana Italian Ice; French Fries; Watermelon Italian Ice, Lemon Italian Ice

Johnnie Beef on Urbanspoon

Apple Haus – Long Grove, Illinois (CLOSED)

The Apple Haus in picturesque Long Grove, Illinois

In grade school back in the 1960s, such characters as Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed filled my mind with wonder and awe as I learned to determine fact from fiction (a process I still employ when listening to  nauseating political commercials which pollute the airwaves).  My mind was a veritable tabula rasa (blank slate) upon which my teachers (and my incessant poring over the Encyclopedia) imprinted knowledge of legend, lore, myth and fact.  Learning was a much more innocent process, not yet clouded with the cynicism wrought by historical revisionism based mostly on political ideology.

Johnny Appleseed, it turns out, was very much man, not myth.  Born John Chapman, he became an American legend in America’s frontier days with an enduring legacy that has ensured a place in history.  Johnny was raised on a small Massachusetts farm where he acquired a love of apples as well as adventure.  Renown for his generosity and his stewardship of the earth, he was a pioneering conservationist who planted apple seeds throughout the frontier, introducing apple trees to large parts of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

Aficionados of all things apple congregate at the Apple Haus

The popular image is of Johnny Appleseed spreading apples randomly, everywhere he went. In actuality, he planted nurseries rather than orchards, building fences around them to protect the apples from livestock. He would leave the nurseries in the care of trusted neighbors who sold trees on shares. Appleseed would return every year or two to tend to the nurseries, pioneering methods of caring for and growing the apples he loved so much.

An avowed vegetarian who loved animals, Johnny Appleseed must have recognized the healthful properties inherent in the apple–properties which prompted the Welsh maxim which has been reduced to “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  It is well-established that apples contain Vitamin C which aids the immune system and phenols which help reduce cholesterol.  Apples also reduce tooth decay by cleaning one’s teeth and killing off bacteria.  Researchers in Cornell University also attribute the quercetin found in apples to the protection of brain cells against neuro-degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

A beautiful sight - apple treats under glass

Although an apple a day may keep the doctor away, a dozen apple cider donuts a day might still not be enough to satiate your wanton lust for the sensational apple cider donuts proffered only at the Apple Haus restaurant in picturesque and historic Long Grove, Illinois.  These  moist gems are absolutely wonderful, the very best apple cider donuts I’ve ever had anywhere.  Wholly unlike biting into a crisp apple, biting into an apple donut is akin to biting into a moist and silken orb miraculously imbued with the flavors of the fruit Johnny Appleseed loved so much.

The Apple Haus also sells all things apple: pies, caramel apples, jellies, butters, syrups and more. You might even want to decorate your house with some of the countrified apple themed accoutrements for sale. For breakfast, you can’t beat their apple bread on which you absolutely must slather their apple butter. On a sweltering summer day, quell your thirst with apple or cherry cider or even better, an apple based slush drink that will help keep you cool. Johnny Appleseed would be proud!

A half dozen apple donuts all destined for me alone

On Hogan’s Heroes, a popular television sitcom of the 1960s based on American prisoners of war incarcerated in a German stalag, the prisoners knew food was the key to acquiring information from Sergeant Schultz, the zeppelin-sized sergeant of the guard.  Sergeant Schultz’s biggest weakness was apple strudel, a dessert the POWs French chef prepared especially well.  One bite of the Apple Haus’s apple strudel and you might not be able to keep a secret either.  This is the very best apple strudel I’ve ever had, constructed with thin layers of thin pastry crust topped with a large crystal sugar surrounding sliced, peeled apples.  Unlike commercial strudel which is often made with more pectin than actual apples, this rendition celebrates the apple in its most crispy and delicious ways.

In September, Long Grove celebrates the apple’s place in the town’s history and prominence with an apple festival which draws tens of thousands of visitors to the village. If apple adoration isn’t your thing, the Apple Haus also celebrates strawberries. In fact, during the month of June, the village of Long Grove has a strawberry festival that will knock your socks off. Strawberry donuts and fritters are especially wonderful at the Apple Haus, but it’s my bet that just about everything else will make your mouth water.

Apple Strudel, the best I've ever had anywhere!

Pearls of wisdom adorn the Apple Haus’s walls including one particularly profound axiom about the way to live your life by remaining focused on the donut and not on the hole. It’s easy to focus on the outstanding orbs at the Apple Haus.

Apple Haus
230 Robert P. Coffin Road
Long Grove, IL

LAST VISIT: 13 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 22
COST:
$$
BEST BETS: Donuts, Apple Cider, Apple Bread, Apple Streudel, Apple Butter

Apple Haus of Long Grove on Urbanspoon

Bacchus Nibbles – Kildeer, Illinois

Bacchus Nibbles in Kildeer

In Roman mythology, Bacchus was known as the god of wine and ecstasy. A youthful and handsome god with flowing tresses usually depicted wearing wine leaves or ivy on his head, he represented both the intoxicating and the beneficial influences of wine. Bacchanalian festivals, typified by riotous drunken merrymaking and sometimes orgiastic festivity are still celebrated in institutions of higher learning throughout America (who can forget the hilarious movie Animal House and the antics of the Delta House fraternity?).

At Bacchus Nibbles Restaurant & Wine Shop, in Kildeer, a northwest Chicago suburb, wine can be appreciated in a “wine cave-like” atmosphere of civility and quaint refinement that  an aspiring sommelier might welcome. An impressive assemblage of wine, along with sundry liqueurs and liquors is on display in well organized racks throughout the restaurant.  The stacked wine bottles separate the dining areas.  The cozy restaurant belies its somewhat ramshackle, timeworn exterior which frankly doesn’t have the curbside appeal nearly the equal of its menu.

The interior at Bacchus Nibbles

The menu is a compendium of diverse indulgences not only from the Mediterranean, but from throughout the world.  Appetizers and specials of the day may include such succulent surprises as egg rolls, Norwegian smoked salmon, Thai style crispy duck and even potstickers.  An even bigger surprise is how reasonably priced and wonderfully executed each indulgence is.  You’ll be challenged to find any entree priced at greater than twenty dollars and, in fact, might do a double-take at some menu items priced at around the ten dollar price point.

Deciding what to order is an exercise in painstaking deliberation; the options are plentiful and all so tempting.  A seafood soiree is a possibility with boatloads of options such as bay scallops, half-roasted duck, salmon, coconut shrimp, grouper and more.  If grilled meats are more your style, kabobs, steaks, cheeseburgers and even venison are available.  For the gourmand around town, osso bucco and coq au vin are among the palate-pleasing options.  Best of all, this is  all first-rate continental cuisine at pauper prices, particularly for lunch.

Goat cheese phyllo

Coq au Vin, for example, is available for under fifteen dollars. Featuring white and dark chicken cooked in red wine with mushrooms, pearl onions  and served with roasted potatoes, carrots and garden fresh snap peas, it is among the best “French chicken stews” I’ve ever had. While the origin of Coq au Vin is in dispute (founding claimants include Julius Caesar’s chef), it’s one of the best French dishes when prepared well as Bacchus Nibbles does. A prolific portion size is a pleasant surprise; you can easily share your Coq au Vin with someone you love. The chicken falls off the bone into a wine blessed broth that is perfect for sopping up with the restaurant’s warm signature bread.

That bread is a classic French bread, a small loaf or two sitting on a wooden cutting block.  It’s pre-sliced  and served warm for your convenience and offered with a whipped butter as velvety smooth and soft as possible.  Why so many restaurants bring out frozen butter on a plate is beyond me; all frozen butter does is rip the bread apart as you try in vain to spread it.  Alas, the only problem with bread this good is that it’s easy to eat too much of it and ruin your appetite for the terrific starters, entrees and desserts on the menu.

Extraordinnairy Escargot

You’ll want that bread replenished frequently because you’ll use it to savor each and every drop of the white wine sauce accompanying the goat cheese phyllo appetizer featuring a sharp, sweet Vermont goat cheese and red peppers wrapped in phyllo. Puncture the layers of delicate phyllo with your fork and you’ll be rewarded with light oozing from one of the smoothest goat cheeses ever, a medley of sweet and sharp flavors complementing each other.  The red peppers are a subtle addition, used in moderation so as not to overwhelm the other ingredients.

Another artful appetizer choice is Bacchus famous escargots in garlic butter and sun-dried tomatoes. These escargots are reputed to be among the very best in the Chicago area and we can attest to never having had better (though the escargot served at the long defunct Marmiton may have been the equal of these).  As at Le Marmiton, these escargot are removed from their shells and served in very small cups with even tinier forks with which to extricate the luxurious snails.  Served three to an order, these snails are rich and buttery–so good you will want a dozen or so.

Bread and whipped butter

My Chicago born and bred better half of more than 25 years rarely visits a restaurant in which she doesn’t order pork chops when they’re on the menu.  In the Chicago area, this typically means Flintstonian-sized bone-in chops at least an inch thick.  She considers the waifishly thin pork chops served at most Albuquerque restaurants to be a heretical shame, but surprisingly ordered Bacchus Nibbles’ petite pork chops marinated in garlic and herbs. These chops may be petite in size, but they’re prolific in taste. Best of all, they’re moist and tender, almost fork-tender.

During our second visit she surprised me even more by ordering a Thai inspired crispy duck floating atop a peanut sauce along with julienned vegetables (green beans, carrots, zucchini and red pepper).  The crispy duck is moist and delicious, each of several breaded fingers redolent with flavor.  The peanut sauce has a slightly sweet, ever so lightly piquant flavor that makes the duck sing.  The vegetables are perfectly prepared.  The carrots are in the French style, buttery with more than a hint of ripe sweetness.

Coq Au Vin, food of the gods

Some entrees are served with roasted in their skin potatoes seasoned in a Greek style with a hint of lemon and other spices.  The potatoes are perfectly roasted and served in smile-sized wedges.  Potatoes seem to be a Bacchus Nibbles specialty if the Hachis Parmentier (Shepherd’s Pie) is any indication.  Layers of mashed potato, ground beef and mushrooms and carrots topped with mozzarella may not hold completely true to how this dish was created and is still served in England, but as you’re swooning in between bites, it’s unlikely you’ll be thinking about tradition.

Crispy duck with peanut sauce and julienned vegetables

The dessert menu is a seven item line-up of rich deliciousness. So confident is ownership in just how good the creme brulee is that a gauntlet is thrown down.  The menu brags that the creme brulee is of “no comparison to any creme brulee you’ve ever had.  If you don’t like it, Matt is buying.”  The creme brulee is indeed special.  It’s thicker than most and better than just about any I’ve ever had, so good we were tempted to lick the plate.

The tiramisu (espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder topped with whipped cream and berries) is also just a bit different.  In parenthesis behind its name is the warning “lift me gently” and indeed, the tiramisu is light and delicate; a fork can send it tumbling if you’re not careful.  This cake sits like an island in a sea of fruity frothiness, a sort of liquid fruit cocktail that, while different than you’ll find with other tiramisu, is surprisingly complementary.

Tiramisu (Espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder

The “Nibbles” portion of the restaurant’s name may be the reason this wonderful restaurant doesn’t get the respect its menu warrants and based on portion size, is certainly a misnomer.  It’s a wonderful restaurant with a creative menu of delicious indulgences, a restaurant for which we eschew visits to other area restaurants.

Bacchus Nibbles
20817 N. Quentin Road
Kildeer, IL
(847) 43-3212
Web Site

LAST VISIT: 12 October 2010
1st VISIT: 6 July 2005
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BETS: Goat Cheese Phyllo; Escargot; Coq au Vin; Petite Pork Chops, Crispy Duck, Tiramisu

Bacchus Nibbles on Urbanspoon

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