Category: African

Chicagoland Aventure Part II: Villa D’Citta, Taco Joint, Homeslice, Grace’s African Restaurant, Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba

Book the cheapest room in the most luxurious bed & breakfast.

This is what I did at Villa D’Citta, an Italian-themed bed and breakfast located in Lincoln Park across the street from De Paul University.

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The villa did not have conspicuous signage and even its neighbors might never know it’s there. I chose it based upon its Tripadvisor rating and culinary amenities.

Mmmm Food
Freshly baked cookies every day. They even rotate the flavors. Chocolate chip on the first day and chocolate-chocolate chip on the second.

The fridge was stocked for guests’ snacky needs. We were invited to make our own paninis at any time from a variety of Italian meats, cheeses and condiments like pickled peppers. There were also bottles of chilled water with fancy stoppers to take to our room, lemonade, iced tea, plus a drawer full of tea bags and Intelligentsia coffee.

We checked out early on our last morning to beat the morning’s rush hour traffic, but enjoyed sausage eggbake with a crunchy crouton top and warm blueberry muffins on the first. The kitchen also stocks granola and milk and the giant bowls of fresh fruit aren’t just for decoration.

Our room was the least expensive because it’s only large enough to fit a queen-sized bed and nightstand and the bathroom is located next door. But we did not mind these things. The bathroom was private (we were given a key to lock it) and contained a fancy glass shower with stone tiling. We were out so often that we only needed our room to sleep and watch television in the evenings.

Other Likes
I was amused by the villa’s combination of extravagant and quirky decor like the rock face in the courtyard (pictured above) and a pair of glass skull pen holders at the check-in table.

The Villa’s manager Cathy worked especially hard to make sure everyone was welcomed and settled.

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Jake and I stumbled into the Taco Joint out of hunger. We realized we hadn’t eaten all day and it was there.

The Poc-Chuc taco was the best thing we ate during the whole trip, and we ate a lot of delicious food. It’s listed as the special taco of the day for Mondays and is filled with marinated pork loin and habanero salsa. Jake tried his taco first and made such a dramatically happy noise the moment it hit his tongue that I thought he was over-exaggerating. I know there are countless places to eat tacos in Chicago and can’t speak for the rest of the Taco Joint’s offerings, but the Poc-Chuc was the best taco I’ve eaten since my trip to Puebla. Yup. 

I ordered their Happy Hour/Lunch Deal. For $12 you choose two tacos, guacamole or rice & beans + a margarita or Modelo. For me, two tacos was enough and the guacamole came with a generous basket of corn and fried plantain chips. They’re made with small corn tortillas but don’t skimp on the meat. My margarita was hella strong. Jake liked his grapefruit margarita lined with a spicy salt. It took a while to walk these off.

The ceviche made us happy. Fresh and limey. Speaking of Limes, I hear there’s a lime shortage, but would have never known here as I saw the bartender peeling and juicing piles of them.

Home Slice

Jake and I visited Chicago before we were engaged. It was Jake’s first time and we did more touristy activities like stay downtown, wander Michigan Ave. and go to the Hancock Observatory.

We had discovered more of the Dahlens were also in Chicago, so we had an impromptu family reunion at Gino’s East. Later, we visited Portillo’s for beef sandwiches with hot peppers, our first Chicago dog and chocolate cake. Jake was slightly bummed that it looked like we weren’t going to have time to return on this visit so he embarked on an evening pizza run.

He chose Homeslice and ordered a small Cheese Burglar ($8), simply topped with mozzarella, provolone, parmesan and marinara. It was cheesy, greasy goodness on a thin, airy crust. The service was memorably friendly all around and a server offered us ice waters during our short wait.

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Cousin Brian returns! This time, he and his friend took us to Grace’s African Restaurant (Interesting review from 2011) to try Ghanaian food

Brian’s friend Stephen is originally from Ghana and attended college in Chicago where he met his wife. Both of them traveled to Ghana for work last year and Stephen will lead a trip again soon. He thinks this restaurant prepares food most closely to his mothers’ and was excited to introduce us to some of his favorite dishes.

I found it interesting when they described how Americans and Ghanaians talk about food differently. Brian said in Ghana, people considered it strange when he asked them questions about the food, such as asking about name of a sauce or the ingredients in a dish. On the flip side, Stephen said he thought it was strange seemed to ask him so many questions about his food in America, such as how he wanted a food item cooked or served.

At Grace’s, we left our meals in his Stephen’s hands. He recommended the peanut soup with fufu, a pounded mixture of plantains and yams with the texture of bread dough. We learned how to cut small pieces of fufu with our fingers and use it to scoop up the soup and goat which tasted like lamb. The peanut soup was spicy enough to induce a sweat and the fufu didn’t have a strong flavor.

Brian ordered a dish that came with Waakye, a dish made of rice and beans covered in a spicy red sauce, fried chicken legs, spaghetti, salad, and a dark red sauce. The red sauce reminded me of berbere while the darker sauce was spicier, sweeter and funkier. We learned it’s often made with ground fish.

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I could say Ba-Ba-Reeba all day. Before we went to Chicago, I read about Ba-Ba-Reeba on My Name is Yeh and we were tickled to see that it was down the street. One glance and Jake was dead-set on going. How could you forget a name like that?

At the B&B, we enjoyed breakfast with a couple of gentlemen celebrating their marriage. They described their reception at Ba-Ba-Reeba and praised the food. This sealed the deal.

Sangria is $6/glass, red or white. And it’s not poured into small glasses, but substantial glasses with tiny, floating cubes of fruit. You can also buy $2 Pintxos instead of whole appetizers. I tried a chorizo-wrapped date stuffed with cheese which arrived on a skewer.

Jake ordered the shaved brussel sprout salad with toasted marcona almonds and manchego cheese. It was a big portion for $6. The slightly sweet dressing reminded us of fancy coleslaw. Marcona almonds are the best.

I still had a belly full of fufu and wasn’t as enthusiastic as Jake about ordering paella. A server scraped it from a shallow paella pan onto two plates with a flourish and each contained a mountain of it. The menu offers paella by the serving and our seafood version cost $15/each. I wouldn’t want to eat that much rice in one sitting so I’d hypothesize that two servings would more accurately feed three. The bay scallops and shrimp were plentiful and tasted fresh. There was less monkfish, but the small pieces that were there were delicate in texture and flavor.

Our first paella experience was a win. I can’t describe exactly what seasonings I tasted, but they were complex. We never got tired of the flavor and it was far from one-note. Plus, the paella is garnished with lemon wedges and aoli. I dunked everything into the aioli, considering the experience a wonderful excuse to eat garlicky mayonnaise. Is this how you are supposed to eat it?

The End
And thus ends our mini[honey]moon a year late to Chicago. We loved connecting with old friends and family in this larger-than-life city and eating lots of new foods.

Recipe: Spicy Beans & Rice

Jake and I are trying to make an earnest effort to dine out less and eat more simply at home.

Eating more simply at home means that I will try to make smaller amounts of dishes so we’ll be less apt to waste food. Let’s face it. We just don’t eat leftovers that we freeze. This means exploring the depths of our pantries and eating what we have. To Jake’s dismay, this also means eating less meat.

Sounds like common sense, but somehow we’ve gotten away from this.

Last week, I dug into my pantry and found a bag of organic, white Navy beans and a bag of jasmine rice. I recently made a huge batch of spicy chili and wanted these rice and beans to have a different flavor.

This dish was inspired by meals prepared by friends who were from or had spent time in West Africa and this concise recipe for West African Beans and Rice. Concise does not equal bland or boring. Cooking the dried beans in stock and caramelizing the onions and tomato paste creates a lot of flavor from minimal ingredients.

The super spicy chilies didn’t hurt, either.

Spicy Beans and Rice

If you don’t have dried beans, you can substitute canned beans. You can also substitute another green such as arugula or kale for spinach or frozen spinach for fresh. I found Goya Sauzon seasoning in the International section of my local grocery store. It does contain MSG. 

Spicy Beans & Rice

Dried beans (I used about two cups of white Navy beans)
Chicken stock
Optional: Goya Sauzon seasoning
Olive oil
1 onion, diced
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
Tomato Paste, about three Tablespoons
Black Pepper
Brown sugar
Spinach, several handfuls, long stems removed
Optional garnishes: Parmesan cheese, diced onion

Steamed rice

Examine beans for stones and other debris. Rinse and drain.

Soak beans overnight. If you don’t have this much time, soak for as long as you can and simmer until tender. It will just take longer.

Drain beans and replace liquid so it covers beans, plus an inch or two extra. I used mostly chicken stock, a little water, and a dash of Goya Sauzon seasoning.

Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until the beans are tender. After soaking the beans for eight hours, this took 1-1 1/2 hours.

Preheat a saucepan over medium heat. Cook the diced onion until it begins to caramelize around the edges. Add the hot peppers and stir. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant but not burnt.

Add about three tablespoons of tomato paste. Smush with the onion and garlic and cook until the color turns rusty. You may need to add a splash of the bean liquid to make the tomato paste easier to work with.

Add the beans and bean liquid. Simmer until the flavors meld and the liquid slightly thickens.

Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed. Add a little brown sugar to round out the flavors.

Before serving, tear up fresh spinach and stir until wilted.

Finish with a tiny piece of butter or drizzle of olive oil. Serve with steamed rice and garnish with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

Steamed Jasmine Rice:
Rinse rise until water runs mostly clear. Drain.

In a saucepan, saute rice with a little olive oil or butter until it smells toasty.

Add twice as much water and a pinch of salt. Stir.

Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low.

Cover and steam until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender. This should take about 20 minutes.

Afro Deli & Coffee: AfroSteak feast for $5.

Afro Deli and Cafe
1939 South 5th Street
Minneapolis, MN 55454

Last week, I met my friend for lunch at Afro Deli and Cafe, one of her new favorite lunch spots.

Afro Deli and Cafe is located in the African Development Center of MN in the Cedar/Riverside neighborhood.  Fortunately, as an Augsburg College employee, my friend is within walking distance of Afro Deli and doesn’t have to worry about parking.

This tiny deli is warm and its walls are painted with vibrant colors.  The deli’s seating is limited to a small number of tables and a bar. However, there are benches outside and a conference room in the back.  On this occasion, the back room was reserved for a lunch meeting.

Since I had a cold, I wanted to eat something spicy so I ordered small portion of the AfroSteak Dinner for $4.95 and a vegetable sambusa for $1.25  For a beverage, I ordered Somali tea.

After ordering my meal, I was handed a 12 oz cup to fill with hot Somali Chai Tea, located on the bar across from the cashier.  As my friend recommended, I topped my tea with milk. According to Michael Mattson, who wrote the following City Pages article “First Look,” the tea reminded him of Russian tea and chai.  I felt that the tea tasted like uber-sweet version of chai., the

This freshly fried sambusa had a crisp and tender crust.  The sambusa was generously filled with a loose mix of lentils and potatoes.  The well-spiced filling was warm but did not contain heat.  However, the accompanying green sauce provided a tart and herbal kick.  I vastly preferred this green sauce over the red tomato-based sauce that tasted like salsa.  My only critique is that the filling poured out from the pastry crust, making sauce-dunking difficult.

For my Afrosteak Dinner, I received a deep soup bowl filled with spiced rice and a steaming-hot mixture of beef and vegetables.  Normally, I would be annoyed with an overabundance of bland rice or pilaf, but in this case, the rice was so flavorful that I savored every bite.  The rice’s spicing was well-balanced with onion and golden raisins.  Even more so, I enjoyed the AfroSteak topping.  The thin slivers of steak were richly beefy and caramelized.  The tomato-based sauce was both sweet from onions and refreshingly sour, complimenting the sweetness in the rice.  When I describe the sauce as sour, I mean sour in the most complimentary, addictive way possible.  I increased the pleasant spiciness of this dish by stirring in the green sauce.  This half-sized portion provided me with a enough leftovers for a second, complete meal.

My friend ordered a half portion of the Chicken Fantastik for $4.95.  I remember trying this dish at Safari Express located in Midtown Global Market a couple of years ago, guessing the creamy sauce was made of coconut milk.  Upon further investigation, I learned this sauce is made with cream and parmesan cheese.  My dining companion frequently orders this entree, commenting that she appreciates the abundance of fresh vegetables.

I found Chef Jamal Hashi’s recipe for Chicken Fantastik at the following Showcase Minnesota website:

Overall, I prefer the AfroSteak Dinner over the suqquar dishes at Safari Express.  I would like to continue to explore African restaurants located in the Twin Cities and was excited to read Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s review of Azima!, a Minneapolis Kenyan restaurant at the link below:

Happy eating.  Who needs a $5 footlong when you can eat an AfroSteak Dinner?

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