Where the heck is Kennebec?

I was visiting Northwestern Medicine downtown today and a nurse recommended a nearby restaurant called, “Beatrix“, which turned out to be part of the Lettuce Entertain You chain. It’s a combination carry out salad and soup bar market with a sit down dining room. Their motto is “Taste before Trend.”

The menu has a modest selection of entrees, appetizers, and such, along with a trendy wine, beer, and signature juice cocktail list. With this being a weeknight, we kept the drinks soft and the choices modest. My wife had a turkey, sweet potato, and greens “Neatloaf” that was quite flavorful. I opted for the Prime Burger topped with mixed greens, tomato, and my choice cheese, havarti. It came with house-made giardiniera (tangy and mild) and kennebec fries. I asked the server about those because I hadn’t heard of them before. She told me the kennebec potato comes from Maine and is considered a great french fry potato. I was intrigued.

The burger had great flavor. The cheese was nicely melted over the patty, the tomato and greens were fresh, and the overall flavor was delicious. While the style was gourmet, the burger did not disappoint. The big surprise were the fries. They completely lived up to the promise of being crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. They tend toward a darker color, and these were prepared skin-on. Seasoned perfectly, they needed nothing else. A few lay too close to the burger and were tagged by the melty havarti for a delightful bonus cheese fry surprise. Had I not filled up too much on my ginger beer I’m sure I would have cleared the plate of the generous portion.

I would recommend a visit to Beatrix. I will give it another try when the opportunity knocks. However, I highly recommend kennebec fries if you find them anywhere at all. If they’re half as good as these were, they’ll be a treat for sure. Enjoy!

I have seen the future…

… and it is dull and sterile.

Our local McDonald’s has had quite a challenging couple of years. This particular location has been there for decades. A few years ago, the last building was closed due to mold issues. Unable to resolve them, either the corporation or the franchisee decided to tear it down and build a brand new building. Months later, it opened with the new design, blending kiosks with a single register behind the counter.

Throughout all of this, this location struggled to turn customers around in a timely manner and had a reputation for always taking longer than expected. After being open just a few months, the 24 hour location closed a couple times, and rumors swirled about staffing issues. Then unexpectedly, near the holiday season last year it closed again for additional renovations. I heard new rumors about the dining room switching to a kiosk-only option. I wondered what that would look like, but wasn’t in any hurry to find out.

Recently I decided to grab a quick breakfast on my way to work and took a gamble on a Sunday morning run. I do enjoy their steak breakfast burritos so a 2-for-$4 promotion seemed like a good deal. I approached the property, noted the long drive thru lines, and opted to go inside. This is what greeted me.

The very first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. No one said, “Welcome to McDonald’s.” The sounds of the kitchen were distant and muffled. The overall energy was subdued and foreign. It felt dark and stark and uninviting.

The kiosk is easy enough to use, although I’ve learned from past experiences that these things can’t anticipate all the possible special requests a patron may have. Also, I’m not sure how I would get a real person’s attention if I needed something I couldn’t get from the kiosk. One employee came in and out of the back to clean the dining room, and a couple more brought the orders out from the back as they were completed. It felt strange on several levels.

This design feels offputting. It’s impersonal. It’s very transactional. The closed off kitchen does not inspire confidence because I cannot see the cleanliness of the line or the bustling of employees. Open kitchens are a hallmark of quality. This feels cheaper than usual. The lack of large menu board is very off-brand and the words “Delicious Burger” are meaningless to me. If this is the future, I’m not looking forward to it.

Since I was taking my food to go, once I was in my car the experience was consistent with my previous McD’s history. So the end result may have been the same, but getting there was new and different in all the wrong ways. I would end here with “Enjoy”, but I’m not confident anyone would.


My wife, Cathy, loves crab boils. For those who don’t know what that is, (and I was one of them up till two years ago,) a crab boil is crab or other seafood boiled and served in bags. Basically, load a pound of shellfish of choice in a big plastic bag, add a sauce of choice, and boil. Then open said bag at the table and dig in.

Two years ago, Cathy was in Northern California on a special work project. During my visit one weekend, she took me to a local crab boil joint near her apartment. I was not brave, so I ordered some rice dish and some sausage and let her make a mess of her meal. Fast forward to recently, when we visited a local place called, “Crab & Spice“. She had been craving it for quite a while and this date night seemed as good as any to go for it.

Now, let me clarify that I love seafood, but I hate the effort. I usually only tackle seafood that is already exhumed from its skeletal surroundings. Crab out of the shell, shrimp peeled, deveined and tailless, lobster, mussels, oysters (cooked, please), as long as someone’s already done the dirty work, I’m there. It’s a small part squeamishness and a large part I have no idea what’s edible.

So on this night, I was a bit nervous looking at the limited menu and seeing little in the way of safe bets. I didn’t trust myself to handle the stuff, but I did trust my wife, so I decided to just go for it. I knew she had the experience to teach me what I needed to know and I’m reaching that age where it’s getting easier and easier to suppress my reluctance and cut loose.

We went on a weeknight. The place is simple, with picnic-style tables, a chalkboard menu with the market prices listed to supplement the printed menus, and paper towel rolls standing by. One side of the menu is the limited options and the other is the drink list. Their offerings included shrimp, crab, mussels, crawfish, and lobster. We ordered the shellfish medley to share, springing for the peeled and deveined shrimp, mussels, and snow crab legs. Crab & Spice has a signature Ultimate sauce, which is just a blend of the their garlic butter, lemon pepper, and simply Cajun sauces. We went for the mild version of the Ultimate on recommendation of our server.

Being only slightly braver than usual, I added a side of kielbasa sausage in case I wasn’t up to all the stuff in the bag. We got a side of sweet potato fries, steamed rice, and I ordered a cup of lobster bisque. The bag came out big and steaming, with the bottom full of sauce. Cathy, bless her heart, grabbed the crackers and went to town on the crab legs, offering me bite-sized portions of deliciously tender crab as she extracted them from the shells. I found the shrimp easily consumed. The mussels were all in shell, but easier to extract than I’d expected. The sauce was complex without any one flavor overpowering, although the garlic may have stood out the most. The soup was good, and made a good dip for the fries. The restaurant offers a powdered sugar for the fries, but we passed. After we’d finished every last bit of seafood, we spooned some sauce over the rice. That combination was almost too rich, something we hadn’t noticed with the seafood.

All in all, it was well done and delicious. I left very satisfied, not only with the meal, but with my willingness to step out a bit from my comfort zone. Thankfully, I was rewarded for it. The bill came out to around $50 dollars, including the two soft drinks. It’s not something we’d do often, but I do look forward to doing it again soon, and for those who love a good crab boil, I highly recommend the place. Enjoy!

Shake Shack-down!

Burgers are like opinions…

So, I went to Shake Shack the other night. Yes, that Shake Shack. We have a new one near my work.

This is one of those establishments who’s reputation proceeds it. I’d been hearing about the place for years, but had never had the chance to visit one. The day before my visit, several co-workers were discussing its merits. One swore by the burgers, but thought the fries were undercooked. Two others thought it was a bit expensive, but worth it to varying degrees.

I arrived just after 8pm on a Sunday. Maybe a dozen people were in the dining room, with a few coming in before and after me. The menu offers five burger options, four hot dog types, a chicken sandwich, a modest selection of shakes and a range other ice cream desserts, with a couple seasonal ones listed, and basic beer and wine. There’s even a house dog biscuit listed.

I debated trying a more complicated burger selection, but something I’ve taken to doing more often lately is ordering the basic “house” selection as a starting point. This makes for a more consistent benchmark when measuring against other burger joints. The ShackBurger comes with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and Shacksauce. I took the burger and fries to go and ate on my drive home.

So what did I think? Let’s start with a fundamental truth about burgers. Burgers, like other foods, come in such a range that it’s unfair to compare them all as equals. From a distance, they may share a common foundation, but get up close and there are various styles that should be separated into categories. There should be the pressed down thin burgers with the crispy edges (like Shake Shack and Smashburger), the thick, roughpacked patties, the greasy, smooth pressed squares, and so on. Chains that have drivethrus should be separately compared from those that don’t. To lump them all in the same category and compare ignores the value in the variety, and how one can crave different styles at different times.

I have never found just one burger to top all burgers. My past favorites include a place called the Onion Grill, which no longer exists. They used a special seasoning blend in their handmade patties, housemade pickled cucumbers, thick slices of onion and melty American cheese, and used that same seasoning on their awesome thick cut fries. Denny’s also once offered a surprisingly delicious garlic mushroom swiss burger that remains the barsetter for that style. That being said, I would put Shake Shack in a category that includes Five Guys, Smashburger, Wayback Burgers, and others. The slightly upscale fast casual shop, where the burgers are a little pricier and offer some customization that breaks from the fast food clones.

As is my habit, I started with the crinkle cut fries. While tasty and fresh, they fell a little short of my all time favorite crinkle cut fries from Portillo’s. In addition, I’m convinced that crinkle cut fries are the best for dipping in ketchup and darn near require it. I learned the hard way a long time ago not to dip and drive, so the fries suffered a bit for it.

Now on to the burger. The patty was a great example of a pressed burger, a bit thinner with crispy edges and had good overall flavor. The lettuce was dark and leafy, probably the same as McDonald’s serves on its signature line. (Sorry, I only know my lettuces well enough to know it was not romaine, iceberg, spinach, arugula, or bibb.) The tomatoes may have been roma. Then there’s the Shacksauce. A little creamy, a little tangy, but beyond that, not as stand out as I’d hoped. All of this sits on a soft bakery-style bun, hinged on one side. I feel like whenever bread is served this way, it leads to an inconsistent distribution of flavors, which has always been a detractor for me. The sauce wasn’t present throughout, so it meant a noticeable portion of the burger was less distinct.

Overall, I enjoyed Shake Shack, but would not put it at the top of my list. I’ll return to try a shake at a later date, but my search continues for a master burger to rule them all. I don’t expect to ever find just one. I do expect to eat a lot of delicious burgers along the way. Enjoy!

Goodbye, Sullivan’s

Maybe the 7-year itch is a real thing.

I put in my notice at Sullivan’s Steakhouse. I’ve been there nearly 2.5 years, but working only once a week for at least six months means this was inevitable. As of right now, Cathy is discouraging me from pursuing more restaurant work and she’s not wrong. I’ve earned a break. I need a break. The restaurant industry has done me more good than harm, yet it’s not getting easier to do the job with each passing year. I have to look to the future and figure out what’s best for my family and myself.

Sullivan’s taught me a lot about steak. Before working there I never knew the difference between T-bone and Porterhouse, dry aged and wet aged, or understood why certain cuts were more popular than others and the advantages of a bone-in cut. I learned a lot about cooking to certain temperatures, and the benefits of broiling over grilling. They also have one of the best vinaigrettes I’ve ever tasted.

Sullivan’s gave me a little more wine experience. I wish it had involved more opportunities to try wine, but I did get a better sense of the labels that are popular and tend to headline most lists, like Caymus, The Prisoner, and Duckhorn.

Sullivan’s also elevated my fine dining experience. As much as spending half an hour detailing a table at the end of my shift is annoying, it was also educational. If I do return to food service, I have more options for employment across the spectrum from casual diner to fancy supper club.

For now, I’m done waiting tables. I’ll miss the family meals, and the discounts, and the free leftovers that fed me well over the years. Thankfully, my own cooking skills have improved enough that I feel more confident about cooking a steak at home, or properly seasoning a meal.

So goodbye, Sullivan’s. I’ll miss the crew most of all. I hope to return with as much frequency as budgets allow, but until then, if you want a really great steak in the western suburbs, Sully’s is hard to beat. Enjoy!

I might be back…

I haven’t been keeping up with my blog for quite some time. I probably have at least a dozen reasons (excuses), all very legit, but one contributing factor has been the app. Let me explain. No, it’s too long. Let me sum up.

WordPress has an official app. It has never successfully loaded my site and allowed me to post. No idea why, but I just can’t seem to get it to work. Today I tried a new approach. I deleted the app and reinstalled it. And here we are, posting from the app on my iPad! This is huge! I can finally keep up with my blog again.

However, I have to wonder… does anyone still care…?

Doesn’t really matter, since this is my blog and I don’t have to care if people care. I just have to satisfy my need to express myself.

Now it remains to be seen how great that need is anymore…

Abuelita’s Comfort Food

I’ve been meaning to post for a while. Life has been throwing some challenges at me for a months now, but lately I’ve been determined to get back to focusing on what matters most to me.

Recently, my first and primary culinary inspiration passed away. My mother’s cooking gave me many of my best childhood memories and inspired my passion for food. She had been unable to cook for many, many years, so I never got a chance to share my growing interest in the creative side of the kitchen in recent years with her.

Last fall, I took on a new job. Because it’s retail, I hadn’t had as much opportunities to get in the kitchen during the holidays, but the last few weeks have slowed down a bit and so I’m home more evenings for now. With winter winding down, I’ve been cooking up some very hearty meals.

Last week, I tried a new shepherd’s pie style recipe that baked up amazingly and tasted delicious. My wife loved it and begged me to make it again. (I say “style” because some may argue that the ground beef versions are actually cottage pies and not a true shepherd’s but we’re splitting wool hairs if you ask me.)

Tonight I broke out my 90 year old grandma’s simple classic – picadillo. The word is used a few ways in mexican cooking, but this take refers to a one pot meal of beef and potatoes. This recipe is legendary for having impressed my best friend, who pretty much never liked my early attempts at cooking otherwise, and I can’t really blame him.

This stuff is great spooned from a bowl or served as a taco filling, and like chili, even better when reheated. There are a number of recipes that can be found out there, but here’s my version of grandma’s. It’s pretty much her simple recipe, but embellished with more instructions for clarity, since she gave me hers with what I can only presume were exaggerated assumptions of my capability at that time.

Classic Picadillo by way of Mi Abuela, Jessie Valadez.

1lb ground beef
1 8 oz can tomato sauce
1 whole onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
2 large baking potatoes, diced
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Brown beef in a large skillet or pan. Drain and return to heat. Add potatoes, onions and peppers and sauté for about ten minutes until onions are translucent. Add sauce and 1 cup water. Simmer over medium heat until potatoes are soft. Add cumin and season to taste.

A few tips. I sprinkled a little salt on the meat while browning. Because it is leaner, if you use ground turkey, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to the sauté step. I simmered for about 15 minutes uncovered and 15 minutes covered, stirring every 5 minutes. This allowed the liquid to reduce a bit and then helped soften the potatoes quickly. 

Traditionally, we’d stuff tortillas with the mixture and top with salsa, sour cream, and either shredded chihuahua cheese or grated parmesan.

This will make quite a bit, but I imagine if you have a big enough pot, you can double the recipe and feed a small army. This one’s a real crowd pleaser! Enjoy!

I baked a cake!

Today, we celebrated Tripp’s 3rd birthday. My wife has been out of town on business for weeks, so I put the whole thing together myself. Given my son’s current penchant for very selective eating habits, I decided to make a custom cake using some of his favorite foods.

So I baked. Which is kind of a big deal for me. I almost never bake goods, and even more rarely have I frosted and decorated said baked goods. My first intention was to try something very original. Tripp loves strawberries and bananas, so I had this idea for a banana bread iced with strawberry icing. The idea was shot down by a few experienced bakers/family members. I went with plan B.

I bought a yellow cake mix, ready-made strawberry frosting, fresh bananas, and strawberries. I prepared the mix as directed, which means I got to play with a hand mixer. Cathy suggested a cream cheese frosting, since we had some on hand. I checked a few recipes and decided a 1:1 ratio of the whole tub of frosting blended with a whole pack of cream cheese would work, but I tested a small portion first to be sure. My instincts, plus a fair share of cooking show viewings, told me icing the cake would be messy, so I laid out some wax paper and got to work. You can see the finished results below.

The cake was a big hit. I’m not 100% sure people were impressed with the cake in general, or simply that I was the baker, but either way, much was consumed. Most importantly, Tripp loved it. I don’t know how often I’ll bake in the future, or how ambitious I’ll ever try to get, but like many things I’ve tried in the kitchen, this was another effort that proved to be easier than I’d expected. Enjoy!

Up to Some Good

After I spotted some on a recent trip to the store, my most recent cooking caper involved cooking with capers. Inspired by a favorite chicken dish, I made a version of chicken saltimbocca.

Now, my history with this dish goes back to my days at Buca Di Beppo, where I first fell in love with their Chicken Saltimbocca. Fast forward a decade later, I went to work for Cooper’s Hawk, where my former Buca GM had become their VP of Operations. To this day I’m convinced Cooper’s offered a version of this dish at his request.

Recently, while shopping at Aldi’s, I came across jars of the little pea-sized, olive-like beads of concentrated flavor. I immediately thought of this dish and decided to attempt it at home. I knew the ingredients in general, but I had no experience with the recipe so I looked for one that fit the bill in my favorite app, Allrecipes.

What I found seemed to suggest the traditional version wasn’t quite the same as what I had experienced. None of the recipes I found called specifically for a lemon buerre blanc (a lemon, white wine, and butter sauce), which was a key part of the versions from both establishments.

One thing I’ve learned from the industry is quite often menus are crafted to maximize utilization of ingredients. Both restaurants offer a Chicken Piccata, which does traditionally use a lemon buerre blanc, which might explain the use of the same sauce on both dishes.

I decided to follow the Piccata recipe. I didn’t have prosciutto, so I just added a slice of deli ham and provolone to each breast after the flip. I did the rest as directed, the only other substitution being gluten-free flour for coating the chicken.

It ended up being darn near perfection. The citrus element was punched up by use of a Sauvignon Blanc for the sauce. The chicken was ridiculously tender and moist. I served it over instant garlic mashed potatoes with a side of seasoned steamed California veggie medley.

I’m already planning to do a straight up Piccata over spaghetti, since it was so good and I still have capers to use. I highly recommend this dish if you haven’t had it, and I highly recommend the app from Allrecipes.com if you haven’t been there. Enjoy!

Minus the Plus

OK, everyone. I’m going to give you a little inside information about the restaurant world.

There really is no such thing as “temp+”.

Asking for a medium rare plus is just going to get you a polite nod from the server. In the end the chef is going to cook a medium rare or medium, depending on the restaurant.

It’s like having someone ask you to pick a number between one and 10 and you go “6.5”. That’s not a thing.

There’s no magic wand in the kitchen that provides a precise temperature. There are just way too many factors to consider and control. The biggest of which is the meat itself.

So quit asking for “plus” when you order steak, and except the fact there’s going to be a little variance every single time. Enjoy!

For those of you who may not be aware of this, here’s a link to the popular thumb and finger method for cooking your steak to temp.