News & Features

Gold Coast Nabs Global Taqueria

February 27 2015 - 9:00 AM

Cupcakes, doughnuts…and now tacos are taking the cake (pun intended) as one of Chicago’s newest food trend. While taquerias have lined the streets of Wicker Park for some time now, Texas transplant Velvet Taco will be the first to join the Gold Coast.

With only three weeks under its belt, we decided to check out this new non-traditional taco hotspot. Here’s what we thought.

What We Loved

Velvet Taco certainly doesn’t look like it belongs in the swanky Gold Coast – and that’s a good thing! The casual atmosphere, bright pink decor and friendly servers are all extremely welcoming. The menu isn’t pretentious. In fact, you’re guaranteed to find something you’re craving no matter what kind of cuisine you’re in the mood for. From Indian, to traditional Mexican, to British fish ‘n chips, this place has it all.

Velvet Taco’s focus is making everything in house. You’re greeted by whole chickens roasting on a spit, and the flavor reflects that. They make their own hot sauces, which are served in giant bottles on each table. All seafood is incredibly fresh as well, which is pretty remarkable considering the tiny price tags. One of my favorites was the current special, a lobster salad taco overflowing with giant chunks of lobster meat.

totsOur favorite dishes weren’t even the tacos themselves. The two sides offered, tater tots and corn, were my absolute favorites. The tots are tossed in a housemade goat cheese sauce, avocado crema and smoked cheddar cheese, sprinkled with bacon bits and topped with a fried egg. They even serve them with these adorable sporks – well, it’s actually a fork on one side and spoon on another. The corn is in an addictive creamy sauce, served with a wedge of lime for freshness.

What Needs Improvement

I get that Velvet Taco is trying to do something different with its global influences for fillings, so why not carry that through to the taco shells, too? I envisioned the chicken tikka and paneer both in buttery naan bread wrapped tacos and the ahi tuna taco atop a crisp and crunchy shell. I probably wouldn’t have noticed as much had the ahi taco not been in a thin lettuce wrap that was difficult to handle and too messy to eat with my hands. This was really my main issue with the tacos.

My only other complaint was dessert. If you’re only going to feature one sweet, make it awesome. I thought much was to be desired from the red velvet cake. The cake itself was moist and dense, just as it should be, but the frosting itself was cloyingly sweet and missing the tang of cream cheese that usually comes with a red velvet cake. Plus, if you’re going to serve tacos, I’d say why not serve an adorable fusion food, like churros doughnuts?

 The Verdict

Velvet Taco might be just what the Gold Coast needs to bring down the age of the Viagra Triangle crowd. It’s affordable, quality food in a fun atmosphere. I’m not convinced that it matches up to any of Wicker Park’s best tacos, but for locals or anyone in the area it’s worth trying out.

Velvet Taco
1110 N. State St.
Chicago, IL 60610

Farm & Garden

2015 Good Food Festival

February 25 2015 - 7:06 PM

It’s been 11 years since the first Good Food Festival and things have evolved! This year on Saturday, March 21st visionary farmers, chefs and inventors will gather and share their latest and greatest innovations, recipes, insights and what they see as the future of sustainable food in America.

It’s an opportunity for Chicago’s brightest chefs to discuss what they’re passionate about. Matthias Merges (Yusho, Billy Sunday, A10) and Jason Hammel (Lula Café, Nightwood), will discuss their Pilot Light program to teach Chicago schoolchildren about the role of food in society.

In addition to the annual Chicago Foodies / Peterson Garden Project Seed Swap, there are gardener tips, DIY foodie activities and even a kid’s corner sponsored by Purple Asparagus.

The event features more than 150 Good Food producers and vendors. Finally, this year you’ll find in addition to great food, craft beverages!

For more information check out their site,

News & Features

Jelly Beans for Brunch

February 19 2015 - 9:00 AM

There’s a new bean in town, thanks to the flavor experts at the Jelly Belly Candy Company! The champagne flavored jelly bean has hit the market and looks just like a freshly poured glass of bubbles with its pale, golden shimmering hue and tasting like a effervescent aged grape with a touch of sun-kissed sweetness.

Champagne Jelly BeansFollowing the successful launch last year of Draft Beer, this bean seems perfect for weddings, showers, and some adult noshing. Good or bad, like all of the drink inspired jellybeans that Jelly Belly creates, they contain no alcohol. (At least you don’t need to worry about driving under the influence).

Try one bean at only four calories each, or if you want to get really creative the folks at Jelly Belly have created a Mimosa recipe that could hit the spot at your Easter brunch: 3 champagne beans + 1 orange bean = a 16 calorie mouthful of fun!

News & Features

Foodie Faves: Isla Pilipina

February 17 2015 - 9:00 AM

Once in a while, we come across a hidden gem worth talking about. To make sure we got it right, we’ll get a second opinion before bringing it to you. This is part of a new series we’re calling Foodie Finds. Our first is a spot unknown to most, with the exception of the loyal Yelp following. We bring you La Isla Pilipina.


The Space
Marly Schuman:
Isla Pilipina isn’t exactly a place you’d wander into off the street. It’s literally in a strip mall. The place is small and surprisingly crowded, so I’d recommend making a reservation even on a week night.

M. Sheppard: The strip mall which houses Isla sits across the street from a Burger King, and the restaurant itself is adjacent to a Little Caesars and a convenience store.  Need I say “no frills”? Indeed, to call Isla’s interior simple and compact borders on embellishment.

Isla’s limited seating – it perhaps seats 20 – is usually full or nearly so, and for good reasons.  Their focus is on quality and they deliver in spades.  The relatively dim lighting provides a soothing mellowness.


The Food and Drinks
M. Schuman:
Where do I start…BYOB! There’s a liquor store next door, and no limit to bottles or corkage fee. Dishes are incredibly flavorful and reasonably priced. You must get the garlic rice and the egg rolls. I’d also highly recommend the Bicol Express, which features the freshest squid and mussels, along with a flavorful coconut sauce.

The food to me definitely has a Thai flair, full of unique spices and sauces I couldn’t get enough of. I’ve heard it is extremely authentic for Filipino food – although I’m not sure I’m sold on their spaghetti dish with cut up hot dogs mixed in. In my opinion, skip the halo halo dessert (one of my least faves) and instead opt for the ube ice cream, a purple yam ice cream I couldn’t get enough of.

M. Sheppard: At a place with food this delicious and authentic, the liberal BYOB policy is simply, shall I say, gravy.  Many beverages would easily pair with Isla’s wide array of dishes and flavors.  As for appetizers, I immediately fell for the chewy pork BBQ skewers, which have an irresistible spicy and tangy flavor and an inviting, saucy red appearance.  Lately I’m in love with the lumpia Shanghai, which are crispy mini egg rolls with either pork or vegetables, served with a sweet-and-sour sauce (they pair nicely with spicy German mustard if you opt for takeout).

If I’m dining in then it’s hard not to order the red snapper (pictured above).  During my first visit my friends and I ripped into fish’s crispy skin and tender meat, leaving few visible remains.  Perhaps my favorite comfort food this winter is Isla’s tinolang manok soup.  Isla serves a variety of soups, but the tinolang (“manok” is Filipino for chicken) comes in a medium-dense, savory broth which is lively with ginger and loaded with cabbage and onions.


Bicol ExpressThe Service

M. Schuman: If you’ve never had Filipino food, this is a great place to try it out. Most servers are extremely helpful and will offer suggestions on what to order if you’re overwhelmed.

M. Sheppard: I love the staff!  They’re young, hip, super relaxed, and are well versed on the menu’s intricacies.  If you have questions about a menu item they will happily give you a detailed and accurate explanation.  Food turnaround times are quite rapid. I love, too, that the staff usually has Spotify cranking out some of the coolest, funkiest music, but it’s never too loud.


The Verdict

M. Schuman: This is a place I would return to (and I have), and I don’t say that often. It’s almost so cheap it’s scary. Appetizers, your own entree and a shared dessert will run you only about $20. Come with a group so you can share a bunch of dishes, and you won’t be disappointed. Be prepared for leftovers and a stomach full of garlic rice.

M. Sheppard: Every winter I have that one moment, usually right after I slip and fall on the ice.  I’ll ask myself why I live in Chicago.  But thanks to diverse, unique places like Isla, winters here are sufferable.  Isla feels authentic and the food certainly tastes so.  Plus it’s relatively cheap and you can stuff yourself silly on various meat, fish and vegetable dishes for around $20.  It’s perfect for groups but your date will consider you an insider for knowing about the little Filipino restaurant that could (and does).

La Isla Pilipina
2501 W. Lawrence
Chicago, IL 60625


Westbrook Brewing Mexican Cake and the Rise of the Stouts

February 14 2015 - 2:16 AM

If you look at any “best beers in the country” or “best beers in the world” list, you’ll find listed a large number of imperial stouts.   By this, I’m talking about those dark-malt beers (and hence dark in color) offering roasted coffee flavors (or sometimes actual coffee), charcoal, smoke, caramel, and chocolate among the notes in their flavor profiles.  ABV’s for this classification start out around 8% and can reach 15%, as expressed by Goose Island’s Baudoinia, or even higher, as with Dogfish Head’s whopping, 18% World Wide Stout.  Given their alcohol readings, these beers are ideal for aging, as many imperial stouts can hold their excellence, or even improve upon it, after 5 or more years.  Barrel-aged versions of these beers carry an entirely new and exciting layer of flavor complexity. It’s not a wonder, then, that these beers are highly coveted and sell on the secondary market for triple digits.

In the beer enthusiast sector, one of the most talked-about beers, a “you have to find this” beer, is Westbrook’s Mexican Cake which is brewed in South Carolina.  One friend of mine recently traveled to SC, and hunting for Mexican Cake was not a minor objective.  That he came up empty is understandable.  Similar to Deschutes’ Abyss, Surly Darkness, Founders KBS, and Bell’s Black Note, etc., it’s hard to find a Mexican Cake at the local (by local I mean in South Carolina) liquor store, even high-end stores which cater to craft beer freaks.  Tracking down beers which play on this level basically becomes a game.  Fortunately, another friend of mine acquired a barrel-aged version of Mexican Cake via trade, swapping a Goose Proprietor’s Reserve for it.  Like me, he’s a huge Ohio State Buckeyes fan, and we celebrated the Bucks’ championship game by pregaming with his tequila-barreled Mexican Cake.  Getting to try this was quite exciting.

I poured the Cake, which registers 10.5%, into 10 oz. snifter glasses. The beer’s color is pretty opaque and you cannot see much in it besides, well, blackness.  My pal says he picked up tequila on the nose. I didn’t.  I picked up chocolate and a dark roast, coffee-like aroma.  I’ve had nothing similar in terms of mouthfeel.  It was velvety and grainy, almost like drinking flourless chocolate cake.  It wasn’t heavy but was rich.  I tasted chocolate, vanilla, and some cinnamon.  I didn’t really detect the tequila flavor but, towards the final few sips, I started to pick up a bit of booziness.  The more sugary and roasted flavors continually dominated the alcohol.  If anything, the tequila tamed the overall mix.  The supposed spicy peppers which highlight the base Mexican Cake, its pre-barrel-aged iteration, were calmed by the barrel’s effects.  This was a smoothly integrated beverage with a much more pronounced flavoring-spice profile than your typical barrel-aged stout.

Yes, unless you get on the internet and start trading, this beer will be pretty much impossible to obtain.  Westbook is not currently in the Chicago market and would it were, any Cake they shipped here would disappear within an hour. So, why do I even discuss the beer?  Because it’s a bellweather in terms of the market’s direction.  Increasing numbers of brewers, including local ones, are producing imperial stouts and are for such purposes obtaining and employing whiskey and other spirits’ barrels.  Yes, Goose Island’s barreled stouts, as a package, sit atop the food chain, but other Chicagoland breweries are producing some terrific barrel-aged and imperial stouts, such as Pipeworks (Over the Line), Begyle (barrel-aged Imperial Pajamas), Half Acre (Big Hugs) and, Spiteful (GFY).  I’m told that Indiana’s 18th Street’s Hunter Coffee is divine.

There are enough imperial stouts brewed or distributed here that you can usually obtain some killer ones, even if the ones which inspire the release parties, long lines, and pulling out of your own hair immediately stock out.  Fortunately, availability of these types of beers is only increasing.

–    M. Sheppard

News & Features

5 Things You Should Eat This Week

February 09 2015 - 9:00 AM

Whether you’re looking for the best Restaurant Week picks or in need of suggestions of what to order at the hottest new spots, we’ve got you covered. Here are five of our top picks for this week.

1. Chili Mentaiko Spaghetti, Momotaro
Momotaro’s sushi is amazing; the fish is incredibly fresh and options are endless. But the dish that really stood out to me was the chili mentaiko spaghetti. The noodles are chewy and dense. The oozing egg in the middle and hit of spice couldn’t be more perfect. BOKA Restaurant Group does it again.

2.   Lemon Ricotta Cheesecake AND Chocolate Pave, Two
I tried out Two for the first time this week for Restaurant Week, and I was not disappointed. My friends and I couldn’t decide which dessert to order, and now I can’t choose which to feature on this list. The chocolate dessert was what I expected and more; a chocolate brownie with marshmallow topping, paired with nutella ice cream and homemade graham cracker pieces. The cheesecake was ridiculous. I didn’t think I would love it, but the creamy cake and buttery crust swept me away. Desserts change regularly, so hurry there before Restaurant Week ends!

3. BoomBoom Shrimp, Dive Bar
Don’t let the name fool you. This week old Boystown spot isn’t actually a hold in the wall dive; it’s a seafood and tiki themed wonder. Drinks attempt to rival River North’s Three Dots and a Dash, and some of them actually do, like the Pain Killer, armed with dark rum and coconut cream. To prep your stomach for these serious cocktails, arm yourself with a hefty serving of BoomBoom shrimp. For just $11 you get a heaping pile of fried beauties, smothered in an addictive creamy sauce with a kick.

4. Heirloom Carrots, BOKA Restaurant
Carrots at a fancy restaurant? It sounds like the last thing you’d want to order. This was actually my favorite dish when I dined at BOKA a few weeks ago. The carrots are roasted until they’re sweet, tossed with smoked goat cheese, pistachio and crunchy amaranth. It’s sweet and savory at the same time, and unexpectedly delicious. Lucky for you it’s one of the choices on BOKA’s Restaurant Week menu, so hurry there if you’ve never been.

Banana Bread Coffee Cake5. Banana Bread Coffee Cake,  Hot Chocolate
There are a plethora of tasty treats to try at Mindy Segel’s Hot Chocolate. If you stop in for brunch, though, you may be in need of something on the slightly lighter side. Coffee cake generally doesn’t excite me, but when I got a peak at this one, I knew I had to get my hands on it. This cake has a crusty topping and a ribbon of fudge in the middle. It isn’t consistently on the menu, so if you’re in need of a back up, the warm donuts with raspberry preserves are a solid choice.

Home Cooking

Homemade Sauerkraut

February 03 2015 - 9:00 AM

Sauerkraut is one of those polarizing foods you either love or hate. It is fermented and it has a very strong odor. Well, sauerkraut is not only a great way to add crunch, acid and depth to your cooking​,​ but due to ​the ​health​y​ bacteria produced during fermentation it is great for your digestive system as well.

Sauerkraut provides a​ ​wide range of beneficial live bacteria which a​id​ in the digestive process. E​ating Sauerkraut​ can give your body as much of a health boost as many of the expensive probiotic drinks sold in stores. However, most commercially sold sauerkraut ha​s lost th​e beneficial bacterial organisms​ due to heating during preparation. ​

Sauerkraut is made by a process called lacto-fermentation, which basically means there is beneficial bacteria present on the surface of the cabbage, the same bacteria found in yogurt and many other cultured products. When submerged in a brine, the bacteria begin to convert sugars in the cabbage into lactic acid; this is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.

As fermented foods become more popular due to their health benefits sauerkraut is becoming easier to find year round in grocery stores, but it is just as easy to make at home! Homemade sauerkraut is crunchy and tart, worlds away from the limp colorless mass produced junk sold at your local supermarket. The cabbage releases liquid, creating its own brining solution. Submerged in this liquid for a period of several days or weeks, the cabbage slowly ferments into the crunchy, sour condiment​.

​Sauerkraut is one of the simplest things to make and ​it ​will last you months in the refrigerator. All you need to do is combine shredded cabbage with some salt and pack it into a container to ferment.

  1. Choose the right container. You will need a seal-able glass jar. If your house is filled with trendy Mason Jars they work great, otherwise save and wash any old mustard, mayonnaise or pickle jar. Wide mouth jars do work best.
  2. Core and thinly shred the cabbage, keep one large outer leaf for later.
  3. Add the cabbage to a large mixing bowl and sprinkle in about 1 1/2tsp salt per medium sized cabbage head.
  4. Massage the salted cabbage with your hands. It will begin to be limp and extrude water. This process takes 5-10 minutes.
  5. Pack the massaged cabbage into jar, pouring in any extra juice as well. ​Push cabbage down as far as possible so juice rises and put large outer leaf on top to help keep cabbage submerged.
  6. Place lid securely on jar and place dark, cool place (65-75F) to ferment.

​Though there is no real minimum or maximum time for the fermentation, 3-10 days ​is what I would suggest​.​ Once you like the taste of it, simply put it in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation process.​ ​If you see a white scum or mold on cabbage while its fermenting simply scrape off and make sure sauerkraut is submerged. I have never had this issue, though.

​Sauerkraut is traditionally used on Reuben sandwiches or served with sausage, though I have added it to a lot of my dishes. I’ve added it to a cold peanut noodle salad and it added just the right amount of acidity to liven it up!

I will be posting an article for St Patrick’s day party foods in the next few weeks; so start making your kraut now, and you will be well prepared!

Photo courtesy of


Unique Thai Dishes at ATK

February 02 2015 - 9:00 AM

My (unofficial) New Year’s Resolution for 2015 is to order new dishes at restaurants, with the hopes of enjoying a unique dish that I would have normally glanced over. The perfect opportunity presented itself when my friend and I made plans to go to Andy’s Thai Kitchen, a small (emphasis on the word small) Thai restaurant right off of the Wellington brown line in Lakeview. There were two things that were particularly appealing about this restaurant: my friends and coworkers all rave about it, and it’s right off the train, so I would not need to walk far in the freezing cold.

Andy’s Thai Kitchen was created by Andy Aroonrasameruang, who is the former chef at Tac Quick, a Thai restaurant in Buena Park. I had gotten takeout from Tac Quick before and it was delicious, so I assumed that ATK would be no exception.

photo 2The restaurant has almost 20 different appetizer options, but we ultimately decided on the Sunshine Beef, or Thai-style beef jerky. It was listed as one of the top customer picks, alongside the Kai Tod (deep fried marinated half-chicken with Thai spicy sauce), pork neck (Grilled marinated pork neck with spicy lime sauce), and grilled squid (char-broiled marinated squid with spicy chili garlic).

The Sunshine Beef had a great flavor to it. It was surprisingly sweet – we were expecting it to be on the spicier side, but were pleasantly surprised with the sweetness. I never like appetizers that fill me up before I even get my entree, so the Sunshine Beef was a fantastic option. And, going back to my New Year’s Resolution, it was something I would not normally try. For the traditionalists, ATK offers classic Thai appetizers such as egg rolls, spring rolls, crab rangoon, and steamed dumplings.

When I eat or order takeout from a Thai restaurant, I order something like Pad See Ew (rice noodle with broccoli, egg, and sweet soy sauce) or the classic Pad Thai (rice noodle with bean sprout, egg, chive, and crushed peanut). They are both standard dishes that are usually guaranteed to taste good. At ATK, though, I ordered the Boat Noodle dish. It consisted of beef brisket, pork skins, Chinese broccoli, bean sprouts and thin rice noodle spicy/sweet soup.

 It was, hands down, the perfect meal for a cold night. The soup broth itself had a very deep and rich beef flavor, and the beef brisket was perfectly cooked and plentiful. The pork skins were fine, but the brisket was the real star of this show. I should warn you that this dish is messy (read: not a good first date meal), but I really enjoyed it. It was filling but not too heavy – the best combination.

My friend ordered the – wait for it – Pad Thai. She said that it was some of the best she has had in Chicago, so I eagerly sampled a bit. My opinion, though? It was just Pad Thai. There was not anything special about it, but it was good.

Other popular options at ATK include the Kao Soy (Thai curry with egg noodle, chicken, onion, sour mustard, peanuts, and lime). garlic pork ribs (ribs, garlic, and pepper served with Sriracha sauce), and the duck curry (duck, pineapple, grape, tomato, and basil).

I would recommend ATK if you are looking for classic Thai dishes with unique and flavorful twists. The restaurant is cash only, so be sure to bring some with you. Our dinner for two (one appetizer, two entrees) was about $25, and they have a great weekday lunch deal: one appetizer and one entree for $7.50. Not to mention it’s BYOB. I do not think this is the best place for groups, but it is a great atmosphere for two to three people. If you go, I encourage you to try a dish that you would not normally order. Everything at Andy’s is full of delicious flavors and freshly made.

Andy’s Thai Kitchen
946 W. Wellington Ave
Chicago, IL 60657