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!

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!

Is this thing on?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog since my last post, which was… Wow! January?!?

Okay, so a lot’s been going on. Without boring you with too many details, let’s just say the birth of my second kid has doubled the daily load on my time. The good thing about it is that I’ve been cooking a lot more. The bad thing is I barely spend any time on the computer and find it hard to sit down to post, much less anything else. (I swear my iMac sent me a sad emoji recently, followed by the words, “Miss you, boo.”

So here’s some tidbits from my cooking adventures:
1. I got a grill, a nice four-burner with side stovetop burner.
2. I roasted a whole chicken in this grill. I made some awesome chicken kabobs. I have made grilled potato chips and grilled, marinated eggplant.
3. I bought from a local butcher a 21oz bone-in ribeye and quite successfully grilled it to a nice medium, .
4. I hosted a cookout in August for my wife’s 40th birthday/open house at our new home that we bought in April.
5. We now own a reach-in freezer so I’m stocking up and working with a larger variety of meats and cuts.

There’s probably plenty more I could post, but that’s good enough for now. Hopefully, I’ll start posting more regularly again soon. Until then, hope everyone else is having a great grilling season. Enjoy!

Pairing Goes Beyond Wine

Learning about wine has changed my whole approach to food and beverage consumption. It’s changed how I taste anything new. The tasting method as taught by the Court of Master Sommeliers can be applied to anything. It’s no secret that presentation has become a big deal, recognizing the importance of sight. Aromatics is a big buzz word among top chefs, emphasizing the importance of how things smell, and how what happens “on the nose” impacts flavor. The principles of wine appreciation can extend far beyond the bottles that overflow supermarket shelves and wine lists.

One of my favorite principles of wine appreciation involves food pairing. Most are aware that the right pairing of a particular wine to a particular food item or dish can enhance or detract from both. There’s a reason certain wines are famously paired and the safest bets, but the adventurous consumers are welcome to explore unexpected pairings. The biggest concern is negative impact, and the most likely culprits are spicy food and wine. Such a pairing can overwhelm the senses as the spiciness of the food can intensify the wine to undesirable levels.

Pairing has already begun to spread to other beverage groups. I’ve seen discussions on beer and hot tea pairings, and given the diversity of these classes of drink, I fully appreciate the idea. As a result, I’ve taken it to a potentially absurd level. I began to consider an unexpected beverage group and here present my theories for your consideration.

Introducing… my general principles of soft drink pairings with food!

Colas – These dark sodas generally fit best with red meat-based dishes, but Coca-Cola is better suited to sweeter glazes, such as a mushroom sauce on a steak, or a Cincinnati Coney because of it’s more pronounced acidity. When spicier dishes like chilis or beef tacos are on the menu, Pepsi’s heightened sweetness is the better choice. RC can go either way, but leans a bit more toward Coke.

Lemon Lime Sodas – 7Up, Sprite, and Sierra Mist have a crispness ideally suited to sweeter pasta/pizza/barbecue sauces. Tangy drinks like this are also good complements to seafood. Most are too sour/tangy to handle spicy food, the exception being Mountain Dew, which is perfectly suited to pair with late night runs for spicy Mexican or Tex-Mex fare.

Non-alcoholic Beers – Root beer is fairly sweet, and pairs well with spicy dishes like tangy barbecue. Ginger beer, is much more tangy, and a good contrast to fatty burgers, but if the burger is dressed to spicier degrees, then switch to the sweeter ginger ale.

Other Fruits – Most fruit sodas are really sweet, such as Manzanita Sol or Orange Fanta. Spicy food is the obvious choice, but also consider complementing with salads that feature a fruit component such as apples or pears.

The Pepper (and the Bibb  – Like some kind of bridge between a cola and a root beer, Dr. Pepper’s complexity can be great for combination platters and stir fry, dishes with a lot of ingredients and flavors.

Of course, this is just the tip of the ice cube. There are plenty of other possibilities, such as lemonade, iced tea, smoothies, milk, etc. The important thing is that, once you start really thinking about how the flavors and textures of food interact with beverages, and you take a moment to slow down and give yourself time to process the nuances of each, you open up a whole new level of enjoyment when you eat. Enjoy!

Waste Not! Want? Not!

I just watched a special report on food waste in this country. This topic is very important to me, as I love food and I hate to see it go to waste. When so many people go hungry every day, and I have at one time or another in my life experienced this to a small degree, it’s depressing to think about some of the reasons preventing us from tackling this problem.

So here’s a few quick points I gleaned from this report that I wanted to share. (And yes, gleaning used to be a thing that helped hungry people find food. We should embrace this practice more.)

1. I learned this statistic that helps put things in perspective. We waste enough food each year to fill 730 average sized NFL football stadiums. I think it amounted to $16 billion annually. That’s insane, even if not surprising.

2. “Sell by”, “Use by”, and “Best by” dates are not regulated or mandated and are completely at the discretion of the manufacturer. Don’t let them scare you into wasting that milk that still smells and tastes perfectly good.

3. There is actually a law that protects food donations, so you cannot be sued if someone gets sick from donated food.

4. Much of the food we waste is wasted at the beginning, because we are food snobs who won’t buy odd shaped peaches.

5. Many stores overstock shelves for fear that the last bunch of kale or chard won’t be bought because everyone assumes there is something wrong with it.

6. Permanent tax breaks exist for big businesses who donate. Small businesses get tax breaks, but these are temporary and must be renewed every year, leaving many small businesses fearful to spend the resources. The House of Reps passed a bill to make these permanent, but the Senate hijacked it and changed it into something else. These tax breaks are critical to offset the costs of donation, which are greater than the costs of disposal.

That’s all I can remember from the report. I work very hard at home and when I’m out to avoid food waste. I’m not perfect, but I think I’ll be even better now. Please join with me to spread the word and please do your part to reduce food waste so we can all have more to eat. Enjoy!


My dad is half hispanic. That makes me a quarter hispanic. Totally not obvious to people around me, and that’s cool. However, when my dad was a little kid, my grandma remarried Desi Arnaz. (Okay, not really, but he reminded me a lot of Desi growing up.) I spent many Sundays with my grandparents, enjoying chorizo and eggs and refried beans for breakfast. Many a holiday included chicken molé next to the turkey or ham. I learned about rompope, gazpacho, fidello soup, and picadillo, a ground beef and potato dish.

Because of this, I’ve become a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to mexican food. Not completely, of course, since I still like cheese on my otherwise mexican-style tacos (usually just meat, cilantro, and onion, often with a squeeze of lime.) Yet the one thing I love the most, I usually love most traditionally… Quesadillas!

In my mind, the best quesadilla is a corn tortilla, filled with chihuahua cheese and flat grilled till it’s the right balance of crisp and chew and the cheese is nearly as stringy as mozzarella on a pizza. Forget flour tortillas, forget cheddar-jack blends, and no thank you to the endless parade of add-ons. Calling that a quesadilla is like calling instant pudding “mousse” or Spaghetti-O’s “pasta.”

To be fair, there are the occasional surprises. A few of the tex-mex inspired creations out that can be amazing. However, it’s still hard not to bristle at the notion of these fantastic creations being given the “quesadilla” label. I’d much rather see them called something like, “latin-style grilled flatwraps” or something like that. Case in point, the delicious grilled flatwaps I made two days ago, with flour tortillas and slices of smoked sweet swiss. They were amazing, but very non-traditional.

So, if anyone is paying attention, feel free to use “flatwraps” for a more accurate description of your creativity, and please leave the traditional quesadilla to the professionals at Los Burritos (insert appropriate name here). Enjoy!