Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Food News: A Taste of Taiwan at Park Grill

Last week, Brandy had the privilege of attending a very special dinner at Park Gill in Millennium Park, hosted by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, because, as we all know, she is quite the bon vivant.  "Sadly, I've not had the chance to explore Taiwan, one of the few countries in this world that I've not been to," Brandy said about the experience, "So I will be quite interested to learn more about what I assume is a beautiful place.  After all, they do call it the heart of Asia!"

The goal of the Taste Taiwan campaign is to educate chefs, food industry professionals and travelers on the differences between Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine and to show that Taiwan has rich culinary traditions all its own.  To do this, hundreds of chefs nationwide applied to go on an epic culinary tour of Taiwan in order to help them design a dish that they could take back to their restaurants and give all of their diners a taste of Taiwan as well.  Only three chefs were chosen, one of which was Jared Case of Park Gill, and his adventures (along with Stuart Cameron from NAO Steakhouse in Toronto and Anthony Jacquet of Whisper Restaurant in Los Angeles) were captured in a vibrant documentary, for which a trailer can be watched via the campaign's YouTube channel and will air on CNBC on December 28th.  For eight days, the chefs were exposed to everything from fine dining to street food to rustic home cooking, all with the goal of showing the sort of techniques and unique ingredients Taiwan has to offer.

Returning to Chicago, Chef Jared prepared several Taiwanese inspired dishes for the crowd, like Grilled Shrimp with Pineapple Relish, Tuna Tartar Wontons with Black Sesame, and Peanut Satay Noodles.  His crowning glory was a dish he called Drunken Oysters, inspired by a journey the chefs took by boat down a river, where they harvested fresh oysters and ate them with sips of beer.  His dish featured warm grilled oysters on the half shell with diced cucumber, cilantro, a little Sriracha, and Taiwanese beer to make things nice and authentic.

You can experience Chef Case's Drunken Oysters for yourself now until February at Park Grill, and if you do, make sure to take a picture of yourself enjoying them and tag it with the hashtag #TasteTaiwan for a chance to win an all expenses paid culinary tour of Taiwan!  "Perhaps I shouldn't be telling people about the contest," Brandy contemplated, "After all, then I'll have a better chance of winning and seeing Taiwan for myself!"

The writers of this blog were invited to attend this event free of charge to facilitate the writing of this post.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Postcards from Bunny: Max's Wine Dive Saturday Cartoon Brunch

A few weeks ago when Bunny was gallivanting around town looking for great places for a drink, she noticed something she thought should be brought to Brandy's attention.  "I know you said you'd been to Max's Wine Dive, but did you ever go back for their Saturday Cartoon Brunch?" Bunny asked Brandy.  "You know, I haven't yet," Brandy mused, "But honestly, how special can a Saturday brunch be?  Everyone knows the good stuff is served on Sunday."  "I'm not so sure about that," said Bunny, "It looked to me like they had a bunch of special items that were only served on Saturdays.  Dishes I have definitely not seen anywhere else."  "Is that so?" Brandy responded, "Well then, I had better check it out."

Not having grown up in American (nor, indeed in the age of television), Brandy had to have some elements of the cartoon brunch explained to her by Max's General Manager Kate Bocson.  It seemed that the concept of all the Saturday morning specials originated from the idea of a child's fantasies come to life and made more adult.  To add to the theme, cartoons played throughout the restaurant and classic games like Hungry Hungry Hippos and Don't Break the Ice had been set out for the patrons to enjoy.  "Well, my idea of a nice Saturday morning usually involves some needle point and a nice cup of tea, but what do I know?" Brandy shrugged.

First off, there was the mind blowing Candy Mimosa Bar, which instantly brought out Brandy's inner child.  The idea behind the mimosa bar was that Max's, being wine focused, originally didn't plan on stocking other spirits, and therefore could not make the brunch staple cocktail that is the Bloody Mary.  Taking all the fun of a make-your-own-Bloody-Mary bar, Max's converted it to fit their signature mimosas and gave it a cartoony twist.  There were carafes of Kool-aid, containers of gummy bears, Swedish fish, and other rainbow colored confections, and a tall glass with bunches of red licorice whips.  At first, Brandy was a little skeptical of adding such sugary sweets to her fairly high quality mimosa, but after plopping in a couple of peach flavored gummy rings, she started to see the fun of it.

After delighting her senses with candy, Bunny dove into the special Saturday brunch menu.  First up was the Pizza Bagel; a Red Hen Bagel toasted and coated in gooey cheese and pepperoni.  Though unfamiliar with the American tradition of pizza bagels ("Why would you want a hole in your pizza?" Brandy kept asking), Brandy did like that the bagel was very tender and soft, making it easy to eat.  The slightly spicy pepperoni had a nice bit of chew to it, complimenting the brilliantly melty cheese.

Setting a foot on either side of the sweet and savory line were the Pancake Dippers; strips of bacon coated in pancake batter and served with a side of maple syrup for dipping, hence the name.  Brandy found herself wishing the bacon used was a little bit thicker, as the pancake element seemed to take over.  The pancake itself was firm enough to keep its structure as Brandy dipped it into the syrup, though it did have a slightly grainy texture that Brandy didn't enjoy as much as she would have liked to.

After that came the house French Toast, which Brandy had sampled during her previous visit, but had been revamped to account for the season.  Now, the French Toast came topped with lots of cinnamon, sugar, and macerated clementine segments, which Brandy thought was a very interesting choice.  She sort of liked how the acid of the oranges cut through the sweetness of the sugar and when combined with the cinnamon provided a very old fashioned flavor combination that definitely did remind her of Christmas.  The toast itself had the same great texture Brandy had enjoyed the first time around with a good bit of crispiness on the outside and a soft, custardy inside.

The Scooby Snack was the next dish to the table, and the mere sight of it had Brandy swooning with delight.  The plate was a mile high stack of chocolate chip pancakes smothered in fudge sauce and topped with graham cracker pieces and a toasted marshmallow fluff.  Not entirely understanding the cultural reference of the dish's name, the waitress kindly directed Brandy's attention to the classic cartoons playing on the televisions above the kitchen.  "But you couldn't give these pancakes to a dog!" Brandy exclaimed in horror, "They're not supposed to have chocolate!"  As expected, the dish was decadent and rich, though the pancakes were actual quite light in texture.  The glistening chocolate sauce had been finished with just a little hit of salt, which really elevated what could have been a tooth achingly sweet dish, and the bits of graham cracker kept everything lively with a bit of crunch.

Just when Brandy thought she couldn't take any more, Chef Jessica Brumleve emerged from the kitchen with a devilish grin on her face, carrying what looked to be a small mountain contained inside a punch bowl.  As it was set down in front of her, Brandy suddenly realized what it was: The Six Person Sundae.  Looking like something out of a movie, the monstrosity came topped with everything imaginable, including colorful cereal, crisp bacon, potato chips, brandied cherries, peanuts, more marshmallow fluff, chocolate sauce, and enough ice cream to satisfy a football team.  There was even what appeared to be a chocolate lava cake in the middle of the thing, possibly added for a little more wow factor or for structural stability.  Brandy could hardly believe her eyes.  "Am I supposed to eat this or swim in it?" she asked.  Had she not already been so stuffed full of deliciousness, she might have faired better, but Brandy did her level best to make a respectable dent in the colossal masterpiece, a thing truly born from the imagination of a child.

"Well, how was it?" Bunny asked the next time she was on the phone with Brandy.  "My dear, it simply needs to be eaten to be believed," Brandy said, shaking her head, "I may not have experienced the typical Saturday morning cartoon thing in my youth, but everything about that brunch made me feel like a child again, especially that magnificent sundae, mostly because the damn thing was so big that it made me feel about three feet high!"

The writers of this blog were invited to dine by the restaurant free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

Max's Wine Dive on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Food News: RawSpiceBar Subscription Box Launch and Giveaway!

Brandy has been intrigued by all these new fangled subscription boxes for quite some time now, from the cook it yourself meal prep boxes to the kitchen gadget boxes to the snack boxes and everything in between.  "I like the idea of curated boxes like these that help people to broaden their horizons with food," Brandy has said, "But some of these menu type thingies are so inflexible.  Sure, it's great for those looking to learn to cook or don't have a lot of time to make fresh meals, but what about those of us who like to experiment in the kitchen?"

The possibility for creativity is what caught Brandy's attention when she first heard about the just launched RawSpiceBar.  RawSpiceBar delivers 3 premium spice blends from around the world direct to the consumer's door. They work with top chefs to create a unique and interesting spice blend for customers to try out. Each spice box averages 2 ounces of spice blends and yields a complete 3 dish meal for 8-12 people. All the spices use ingredients of the highest quality (and they opt for fair trade and organic spices where possible), sourced from global spice producers. Each box costs $6, RawSpiceBar covers the shipping costs (in US), and one can purchase a 3, 6 or 12 month subscription period (gift subscriptions are also available) with the ability to cancel or pause at any time.

Each RawSpiceBar box includes an "origins, instructions and recipes" card for each spice blend that includes the blend's history, as well as suggested recipes. RawSpiceBar also includes another 5-10 recipe ideas on their site, and they provide a great variety of options for vegans, vegetarians, carnivores, gluten free and healthy eaters alike.

Luckily, RawSpiceBar offered Brandy the chance to give away one of their first boxes (shipping in January) to one lucky reader!  To enter to win the box, just comment your favorite spice here in the comments below this post, or comment on the relevant post to our Facebook page, our Twitter page, or our Instagram page and make sure to include your email address so we can contact you if you win!  The contest will close one week from today (Wednesday December 17th).  If you're interested in trying out RawSpiceBar for yourself, make sure to use the coupon code "ilovespices" and you will receive 1 free extra spice monthly spice box with any subscription of 6 months or more.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Meli Cafe or From the Ground Up

The Slow and Savory Review

"Come on, girl, keep up!" Brandy called over her shoulder to Bailey as they bustled down State Street.  Though Bailey is quite a bit younger than Brandy, she was rather surprised by how spry her friend was, especially with several pounds of Christmas shopping bags in each of her hands.  "I'm going as fast as I can," Bailey panted, tottering on for a few more paces before collapsing onto a nearby bench.  "Where is your stamina?" Brandy asked, standing over Bailey and shaking her head, "I suppose this is what comes of surviving on Thanksgiving leftovers all week."  "Why aren't you tired?" Bailey wondered, "We've been out here shopping for hours and you're not even winded!"  "Why don't we go get some brunch and I'll show you my secret," Brandy replied, sympathetically, and helping Bailey up off the bench she escorted her down the road to Meli Cafe on Dearborn.

The tables inside Meli Cafe were nicely spaced out, ensuring a large amount of people could be served without being jam packed together, and the decor was surprisingly clean and modern.  Brandy was happy indeed to see that the restaurant was open and sunny all around the dining area.  "I simply cannot abide a breakfast restaurant doesn't have adequate sunlight!" Brandy explained to Bailey, "And not only does this place have the perfect amount of windows, it's also got very lovely light fixtures!"

Brandy and Bailey started with a pair of mimosas: for Bailey, the Fuzzy Mimosa, which came augmented with peach schnapps, and for Brandy the Moon Mimosa, which was finished with a little raspberry liquor.  Bailey really enjoyed her drink, which she felt was the perfect combination of a mimosa and a fuzzy navel, but she especially loved the use of freshly squeezed orange juice.  Brandy was less enthusiastic about her drink, thinking the flavor was a little too sweet for her.  "It's not bad," she admitted, "But it does make the teeth hurt a bit.  I think I need to chase it with something a bit healthier."  Much to Bailey's surprise, Brandy ordered a glass of Green Envy juice from the extensive list of fresh juices and smoothies, and this, Brandy claimed, was the secret to her energy.  "Ah, now that's much better," Brandy said after sipping the mix of apple, pineapple, pear, wheat grass and lemon, "Nice and bright, a little sweetness with a nice tang.  Jam packed with vitamins and all sorts of goodies.  Ever since I heard Martha Stewart extol the virtues of green juice, I've been hooked."  "I've never had wheat grass," Bailey said, wonderingly, "What's it like?"  "Like drinking a freshly mowed lawn in a very pleasant sort of way," Brandy mused, and deciding her description wasn't sufficient, she ordered two freshly juiced shots of the green stuff and walked Bailey through the procedure of downing the liquid and then biting down on an orange slice to cut the bitterness.

After their healthy starter, the two ladies ordered some protein packed entrees.  Bailey selected the Breakfast Hash from off the specials menu, which came with crispy pork belly, potatoes, two eggs, and toast.  Brandy couldn't help but smile at Bailey's plate as it was set down as she could see a little extra effort had been made in the presentation of a dish other restaurants might have ignored.  The hash had been piled neatly in the middle of the plate with the two fried eggs topping it and four pieces of toast laid out like the points on a compass.  "A lot of other places would have just thrown the toast on the side and have done with it," Brandy smartly observed, "Things like that go far in my book."  Brandy and Bailey were again impressed when their sweet and enthusiastic waitress brought a selection of condiments to the table, explaining that the everything from the jams to the ketchup had been made in house.  Of course, the taste of the food was also quite important, and Bailey reported that the hash was flavorful, hearty, and indulgently rich.  "The eggs are really what brings everything together," Bailey commented, dipping one of her toast points into some of the yolk.

Brandy selected the Emerald Isle Breakfast Bowl, which came with corned beef, Swiss cheese, house potatoes, and two over easy eggs.  The corned beef was fatty without being greasy and not overly spiced, which Brandy greatly appreciated, as some corned beefs can salty palate killers.  The bed of red potatoes underneath the meat were tender and silky, though Brandy wished they had a little bit of crunch to contrast with the rest of the dish.  Like Bailey's hash, Brandy felt the broken yolk of the eggs really helped to bring all the flavors in the breakfast bowl together.

To finish off, Brandy and Bailey split an order of Double Fudge Brownie Pancakes, though when the confection was brought to the table, both ladies secretly wished they didn't have to share.  The pancakes were very dense (Brandy very much liked that the menu specifically described the pancakes as being "dense" so that diners knew exactly what they were getting) and had a nice bittersweet chocolate flavor.  The bits of brownie scattered across the top just added to the decadence of the dish, turning it from a breakfast treat to more of a dessert.  "I think I may need to take a nap," Bailey said, swooning after a few bites of the heavy, yet delicious pancakes.  "Come now, girl.  Steel yourself.  We've still got lots of shopping to do today.  You can sugar crash later."

Before leaving, Brandy and Bailey actually caught up with the Meli's executive chef, Frank Georgacopoulos, who helped to develop the concept of the restaurant way back in 2006.  His philosophy that breakfast should be given the respect it deserves as the most important meal of the day immediately endeared him to Brandy, who couldn't help gushing over everything, from the house made ketchup to the informative and extensive menu.  "I think I could have ordered anything off that menu and been happy, which is saying a lot, as I'm pretty picky," Brandy told him.

After a very pleasant, filling breakfast at Meli Cafe that had obviously been crafted with love and care, Bailey did start to feel a surge of energy that could get her through the rest of her shopping excursion with Brandy, but just in case, she ordered a cup of the magical green juice to go.  "Alright, I can do this," Bailey told herself as she gathered up her piles of Christmas bags, and looking up to find Brandy already halfway down the road in front of her, she took a large swig of her juice and hurried along after her friend.

The writers of this blog were invited to dine at no charge by the restaurant in exchange for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review

Meli Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Postcards from Bunny: MiniBar Delivery

It was the day after Thanksgiving and Brandy, Bailey, and Hawk had gathered together to feast on their leftovers.  Bailey had a huge pan of home made stuffing, Brandy had cubed up some turkey breast, pulled out the boat of mushroom gravy, and set out the cranberry sauce, and Hawk had turned a bag of potatoes into French fries.  They all starred upon the spread, forks poised.  "You thinking what I'm thinking?" Brandy asked Bailey.  "Yep.  We need cheese curds," Bailey said stoically.  "Cheese curds?" Brandy questioned, "I was going to say a bottle of wine.  What do we need cheese curds for?" "To make Thanksgiving Poutine, of course!" Bailey responded, "I mean, fries, gravy, could be delicious!  What were you thinking of doing with the wine?"  "Um... drinking it?" Brandy said uncertainly, silently judging her friend.  "Why don't I run out and grab some wine and cheese curds?" Hawk suggested, attempting to break the awkwardness.  "Nonsense!" Brandy rebuffed him, "Don't you know you can get anything delivered these days?"

Brandy pulled out her phone and showed Hawk and Bailey a free app called MiniBar, a service that connects consumers with local liquor stores and gives them selections of wine, beer, spirits, and mixers to be delivered in less than an hour straight to their doorsteps.  "This service makes beer runs obsolete!" Hawk proclaimed, thumbing through the selections of cider.  "Exactly," Brandy said, smiling, "You could send a hostess gift to a party, even if you're stuck on the side of the rode with a flat tire!" Bailey cheered.  "You could," Brandy agreed, "But best of all, you don't have to go out in the middle of winter for a bottle of Irish cream to fortify your coffee.  Just have it delivered.  Why, I even sent a bottle of champagne to Bunny while she was staying in New York!"  "How did you find out about this?" Hawk asked, suspiciously, "No offense, but you're not usually up on all the latest technology."  "As a matter of fact, I just happened to meet the founders," Brandy said, rather proudly.

MiniBar's creator's, Lindsey Andrews and Lara Crystal were in Chicago just before the holiday to help the app launch and expand, which is when Brandy ran into them in the lobby of their hotel as they relaxed between the last of their meetings and their flight back to New York.  First meeting at business school where they both studied e-commerce, the two ladies used to brainstorm ideas for start up businesses on "Takeout Tuesdays," which is where the idea for MiniBar first came about.  The app launched in New York in February 2014 and was an instant hit for its convenience, ease of use, and quickness.  As well as launching in Chicago at the beginning of last month, MiniBar has also recently expanded to San Francisco.

Brandy instantly saw the benefits of using an app like this, from placing large party orders to sending holiday gifts, to situations like she would soon be in currently, where a dinner party was in desperate need of something to drink.  In the future, Lara and Lindsey hope to institute features like personalized recommendations, help with food pairings, and even more gifting options complete with special MiniBar cards and wrapping.  "I'm not usually very good with all these i-thingies," Brandy told the ladies, fumbling with her phone, which was tangled in a ball of yarn in her handbag, "But I can learn anything pretty easily if there's a bottle of  dram on the other end of it."

Jumping back to the leftovers spread in front of Brandy, Bailey, and Hawk, the trio quickly selected two bottles of white wine, and before they could even finish heating up the food (about 20 minutes later), there was a knock at the door.  Brandy happily presented her identification to the delivery man, who snapped a picture of it with his phone, and then handed over the sturdy MiniBar bag with the wine inside.  "Well that solves that problem," Brandy said, turning back to her friends.  "Yes, but do you have an app for cheese curd delivery so we can complete these poutines?" Bailey said, half laughing.  "No," Brandy admitted, adding slyly, "But my neighbor upstairs just got back from Wisconsin, and I'll be a monkey's uncle if his fridge isn't jam packed with any kind of cheese you could ever want."

The writers of this blog were given a chance to try this app at no cost in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tea Time with Brandy: Tiny but Mighty Popcorn

While preparing her various Thanksgiving dishes, Brandy was looking for something she might be able to have out as a snack for those dropping by throughout the holiday weekend.  "It needs to be light, but flavorful.  Artisan crafted, but approachable.  Familiar, but with a twist," Brandy said while wandering down the snack isle of her local grocery store.  Then suddenly, there it was.  "Popcorn!  Or course!" She said, stopping so short that the shoppers behind her were involved in a three cart pile up.  "But it can't just be any old popcorn.  It has to be something special.  Ah... what's this?" she said, reaching for a bag on one of the shelves.

What it was was Tiny but Might Popcorn, an heirloom popcorn grown on a handful of small farms in Iowa.  The corn is purposely grown to have smaller kernels, which is actually a major benefit.  Tiny But Mighty’s kernels are more dense, which means they have a compact and concentrated corn flavor as well as being high in fiber, gluten free, non-GMO and possessing a thin hull that virtually disintegrates upon popping, which makes the popcorn easier to chew and gentler on the digestive system.  Tiny but Mighty comes in three varieties: loose kernels, pre-popped bags of popcorn (in Butter, Sea Salt, and Kettle flavors), and their newest addition, microwavable popcorn (in Butter, Light Butter, and Kettle varieties).  Brandy instantly adored the true corn flavor of the popcorn as well as light touch of flavoring.  "It's pretty good on it's own, but I think I know how to make this even more special!  A little touch of sweet, tart, and salty should do the trick."

Tiny but Mighty Popcorn is available at most Whole Foods locations, on, and on the Tiny but Mighty website.

The writers of this blog were provided with samples of the products mentioned above in order to facilitate the writing of this post.

PB&J Popcorn Clusters

1/2 cup of Tiny but Mighty loose kernels or 1 bag of Tiny but Might Sea Salt pre-popped popcorn
1 tablespoon peanut oil (if popping your own kernels)
Sea salt (if popping your own kernels)
3/4 cup meltable peanut butter chips
1 tablespoon of milk or cream
1 cup dehydrated strawberries, crushed into small pieces

In a large stock pot, heat the peanut oil and add in 2 test kernels.  When those kernels pop, add in the rest of the popcorn, turn down the heat, and cover with a lid.  Once all the popcorn is popped, remove from heat and place off to the side.  (Note: you can skip this step if you're using the pre-popped popcorn.)

Place the peanut butter chips in a medium bowl over a double boiler and melt until they are an even consistency.  Add in the milk/cream and combine.  The mixture should be smooth and a little loose.

Carefully pour the melted peanut butter chips over the popcorn and stir until the popcorn is well coated.  Moving quickly, spread out the popcorn on a max paper covered cookie sheet, sprinkle with the dehydrated strawberry pieces, and finish by cracking the sea salt over the popcorn (Note: if you used the pre-popped popcorn, you don't need to salt it).  Place in the refrigerator for about an hour or until the peanut butter coating has set, then break into small pieces and enjoy!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Kokopelli or Dancing off to Baja

The Slow and Savory Review

It was a cold, blustery fall day when Brandy ran into her old friend, Brocco Leigh Binto (eccentric scientist and inventor extraordinaire) outside of a Blue line stop on Milwaukee.  "You're looking especially...tanned," Brandy commented, eyeing up his unusually golden skin.  "I just got back from InVenCon.  It was in Tijuana this year," Brocco beamed.  "InVenCon?" Brandy questioned.  "The Invention Convention!" Brocco explained, "The biggest and best festival for professional inventors to get together and share our latest innovations.  Though, the sharing part doesn't happen so much between the fellows who haven't finished their patenting process, but that's understandable, I suppose.  In any case, the trip's given me a craving for Baja style food.  Know anywhere good?" "I think I've got just the place for you," Brandy grinned.

She took Brocco down the road a little ways to the newly opened Kokopelli, the first US location of a popular series of restaurants in Mexico, all serving fresh Baja inspired food with an emphasis on seafood and handmade tacos.  Brandy had been interested to try out Kokopelli for herself, especially as seeing how Chicago has become a battle ground for some of the most highly regarded taco joints this side of the Mason-Dixon line.

Kokopelli had a bright and vibrant interior with warm lighting and high ceilings.  The space was open and spaced out so that patrons weren't on top of each other.  Brandy took a good, hard look at the giant chalk drawing of a kokopelli on the wall near the door, remembering fondly a certain time in her life when she was hitchhiking across South America and ended up one night dancing with a man who claimed to be a Hopi chief in a discotheque in Mexico City.  As her mind wandered to the figure he had tattooed on his arm (it was a fertility symbol, he told her), Brocco began to worry about the glazed look on her face and quickly made a big fuss of coughing and adjusting his water glass, which eventually brought Brandy back to reality.

The meal started off with two of the house guacamoles; the Chicarron and the Seasonal.  The Seasonal was a fairly traditional guac, although it came garnished with some beautiful pomegranate seeds, and served with a side of Veggie Chips, which consisted of thick slices of root vegetables like carrots, beets, and radishes, that provided a nice bit of crunch and color.  The Chicarron guac was a little more spicy with a little touch of sweetness from chunks of pineapple.  This guac came with a side of the house made tortilla chips, but also a gigantic deep fried pork rind, hence it's name.  "I do enjoy an edible condiment holder," Brandy said, breaking off a piece of the crunchy fried pig skin.

Next came the rainbow of house made salsas.  Brandy's favorite were the Espuma de Mar, a bright and acidic pineapple salsa with plenty of heat from habanero pepper and the Robo de Dante, a nutty almost soy sauce like concoction with pumpkin seeds and serrano peppers.  Brocco favored the charred chili and peanut infused Castigo Azteca, which almost resembled satay sauce, and the Lagramis de Lucifer, the spiciest salsa on the menu with a pink color that denoted its heat like the neon markings on a poisonous Amazonian tree frog.  Brandy watched with a raised eyebrow as Brocco shoveled a chip piled high with the devil sauce into his mouth and smiled wide as sweat broke out on his forehead.  "It's the chemical reaction of the capsaicin that really fascinates me," Brocco said before his throat began to close up.

Next came the Kokopelli Salad with mixed greens, grilled beets, candied pecans, cherry tomatoes, gorgonzola cheese, and a balsamic vinaigrette.  Brandy very much appreciated the mix of salty, sweet, and tangy in the salad, as well as the different textures.  "It's always nice when a salad is more than just over dressed greens," Brandy said, eyeing the larger portion of salad she had willing given to Brocco (he is a vegetarian, so Brandy did want to make sure he had his fill of what he could have).

The following course was two of the three Ceveches on the menu: a fish of the day with squid ink, pickled onion, and dressed with the pineapple and pumpkin seed salsas, and an octopus with avocado, tomatoes, and pepper.  Brandy did like the freshness of these ceveches, which both had a nice citrus tang without being too acidic, and the seafood itself was all very fresh and tender.

The main course was a parade of tacos.  Brandy's favorites included the Steak a las Brasas with a green salsa, grilled rib eye, and a chimicurri sauce, the Gringo en Vacaciones with grilled shrimp, adobo sauce, and pineapple with a charred pepper, and the Chicken Mixteca with baby spinach, a creamy poblano sauce, and pickled radish.  Brocco, who got to taste both of the vegetarian tacos, favored the Italiano con Machete with roasted portobello mushroom, Mexican pesto, and pickled red onion.  "I do appreciate that there are two vegetarian choices, I just wish they weren't both mushroom," Brocco said, "They both taste good, they're just very similar."

Throughout the meal, Brocco and Brandy sampled from the cocktail menu as well.  The TJ Sour was particularly nice with a good mix of fruit and citrus flavors that wasn't overwhelmingly sweet.  The El Dandy was probably the favorite of both Brocco and Brandy, as it had a nice smoked flavor with just a hint of cherry, lemon, and a good warming aftertaste of cinnamon (in fact, Bocco and Brandy enjoyed the El Dandy so much, they ordered a second round of it).

Lastly was the dessert, the Sweet Chimichanga, a sort of begger's purse filled with roasted fruit and sweet cheese, coated in cinnamon sugar, and served with a vanilla creme anglais, grapefruit segments, and pomegranate seeds.  After such bold flavors in the rest of the food, Brandy actually appreciated that the dessert was more subtle, playing more on textures from the crunchy and chewy purse, the creamy sauce, and the tender fruit.  Dessert also came served with a big cup of sweet Mexican coffee, which Brandy found deeply comforting.

Back out in the cold streets of Chicago, Brandy found herself instantly wishing to be back inside Kokopelli with its warming food and satisfyingly uncomplicated drinks.  "Well, that certainly did quench my desire for Baja style food!  I feel like I was just in Tijuana all over again." Brocco proclaimed happily.  Indeed, with such fresh ingredients, colorful presentations, and welcoming staff, Brandy did feel as though someone would be hard pressed to find such excellent food outside of Mexico.  "I think we'll have to make a return trip to try those salsas again, just to make sure we liked them," Brandy winked, and as though the Lagramis de Lucifer in his system had heard her, Brocco's face suddenly grew bright pink and a bead of sweat sprang to life on his forehead.

The writers of this blog were invited by the restaurant to dine at no charge in exchange for an honest review.

The Short and Sweet Review

Kokopelli on Urbanspoon