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While in Chicago — Arlington Heights, really — my wife and I went out for tapas. And I just cannot get enough of it.

The choice of that phrase is actually kind of funny. The first time I went for tapas was with my best friends from our theatre. We had won first the state and then regional AACT contests and were up in Kalamazoo for the nationals. We decided to go to a tapas joint —I think it was called Fandango.

Our friend — we’ll call her “Sally” — was super excited to go because of the sangria. “Sally” is one of the most continually positive people I know. And not in an obnoxious way, either, which is difficult to pull off. She is deeply nice. She’s one of my best friends. So when she gets upset, it’s unusual, so it’s kind of funny. Sorry, “Sal.”

Anyway, we had big group, and the tapas started rolling in. But “Sally” had sat herself at sort of this apex of the seating horseshoe. So all the tapas started way down on her right, or way down on her left. I think by then of the end of the evening she had three sangrias and a single stuffed mushroom. She may have also had a Serrano-wrapped shrimp.

And though she be little, she is fierce, especially when she’s hungry. The rest of us were having so much fun trying everything that we didn’t even imagine she wasn’t getting anything to eat. And she is simply too nice to mention it. But she ended up fuming a bit. It was funny, not necessarily at the time, but it’s become a bit of a running joke/button for the group.

I was one of those gorillas gorging at the top of the table. And I fell in love with tapas.

There is something so ancient, so viscerally pleasing about eating tapas that it just pulls me to it. It forces communication and conviviality. At regular restaurants when you eat “your” meal, your focus can fall into your own plate. Sometimes, your partners may not even be there.

But tapas forces you to pass food, to discuss the samplings and compare, to look each other in the eye during the course of the meal. I love that.

And the sangria doesn’t hurt.

We ate at a great tapas place in Arlington Heights: La Tasca. It was packed, which usually turns me off. I’m not a crowd guy. But they gave us time to drink lovely sangria and plan our attack. I pulled out the menu and the little memo book and began writing down our order.

Tortilla Española: Spanish omelets with good stuff
Champions relents: mushrooms stuffed with pork pine nuts and brandy
Mejillones a la mallorquina: mussels in garlic and garlic with garlic

And two things off their specials menu, which I can’t remember.
A Spanish flatbread pizza with goat cheese
Some other egg concoction

And an all-all-you-can-eat bowl of the best olives I have ever had.

It was a wonderful meal. And we will be going back. But not just for the food. I think we may try to take “Sally” and cleanse her of the mala experiencia de los tapas. Because I believe good tapas with good friends can heal just about anything.

¡Viva tapas!

Bangkok Café
Arlington Heights, IL

I hate going to a restaurant with great anticipation and getting ravaged by mediocrity.

Now, I am no arbiter of taste, but I know what I like. And I don’t think I’m too picky. But since the owners of our favorite Thai restaurant packed up and moved to California, Xena and I have been looking for a replacement.

There are only two Thai places in our hometown; both of them are okay, but not great. Actually, the one we loved is actually not really okay anymore. We don’t go there, now.

So, whenever I get out of town I look for Thai food. And my main source is Urbanspoon. Well, you have let me down twice now on the Thai front.

I went to the Bangkok Café in Arlington Heights with great anticipation. The reviews were fantastic. I walked in at 12:30 on a Saturday. There was only a four top in the whole place. I probably should have turned around at that. But I had my tongue set on Thai food.

I don’t like writing poor reviews. I know there are people who joy in the negative turn of phrase. But I realize that writing a poor review means that I have paid for and consumed a poor meal. I take no joy.

But here it goes.

I should have known when the tea arrived. While it’s not always a tip off, a hot tea pitcher with a bagged tea does not usually bode well. I want the loose leaf in an Asian restaurant. The tea also tasted more of the water than the tea. I really don’t want to taste water at all, much less over the taste of the tea.

I ordered the Spring Rolls because I love those things. Paper thin, diaphanous rice paper embracing crisp veggies, cellophane noodles, cilantro, maybe some tofu or shrimp. I love them. And, I have to tell you. I was stoked when these rolls showed up, because they were gorgeous. They were cut and displayed like maki sushi with bright orange julienned carrots and a huge sprig of cilantro. They were sitting on a wash of orange plum sauce. Beautiful.

Then I tasted them. They were actually dry. Dry as in difficult to eat dry. The “paper-thin” wrapper was not paper thin, and it was triple wrapped around the roll. It felt and tasted like they didn’t soak the wrapper enough. The vegetables within were medium diced, not julienned.  The large diced tofu was dry. The plum sauce was more sweet than flavorful. And —sacrilege! — instead of scallions they used large slices of raw red onion. It is possible the first time I have ever not finished a plate of spring rolls. It was something I might imagine producing the first time I tried spring rolls at home.

The soup, which came with the meal, was kind of unbelievable. Mostly because I can tell you exactly what was in it. Chicken broth, large chunks of red pepper, sliced carrot, barley. No herbs, no spices. It was the kind of thing I might quickly whip up when I’m sick. Except, I would at least add some cilantro. One of the things I love about Thai food is that I can rarely name everything that I taste in it. This was a very sad moment for me.

The entrée, however, boded well. It looked fun and smelled fantastic. I ordered Rama Noodles, which is a peanut sauce based chicken with spinach and carrots over very broad noodles. It smelled fantastic. And the noodles that I could see around the sauce had been lightly fried —almost always a good thing.

But, alas, again I was hammered with disappointment. The peanut sauce, which was lacking any solid peanuts or even peanut matter, looked, tasted — and more importantly felt — like it came from a Trader Joe’s bottle. I know this because I have recently used such a bottle to make dinner.

And the noodles…oh the noodles…which looked so promising…. I don’t know how they managed it, but half of them were crispy, the other half was gummy. Gummy! So sad.

I once had a date with a gorgeous woman. I asked her out because she was gorgeous. I guess she accepted because she thought I was funny. It was one of the worst, most painful dinners I have ever had. It turned that not only was she unrelentingly uninteresting, but she expected me to do all the work that night. She actually said to me, “Say something funny.”

She told me she liked shoes and bags. “No just purses, either.” She didn’t read, because nothing she read was ever interesting.

Honestly, I can’t even remember her name. Mandy, Mindy, Monica? I can’t remember. I did not call her back. She did not call me back.

This lunch reminded me of her.

Okay. So one of the things I like to do when I stay with my parents is to head out to a local coffee shop in the morning and do some writing.

Still in bed, I whir up the old Urbanspoon and start cranking through my options. Today I found a little place called La Barista, on the corner of Grand Ave, and EP True Parkway in West Des Moines. But don’t look for the name “La Barista.” It’s not on the awning. It just says, “Coffee Bar.”

And it’s tiny. It seats perhaps eighteen people.

I love places like this. I walked and the woman behind the bar — well along into pregnancy — said, “Grandma, can you bring in the new plates?” And in came Grandma with the new plates.

I’m not exactly sure what Grandma said. She spoke with a thick accent, perhaps Eastern European.

I ordered my customary cappuccino, dry, and a cinnamon scone. It was one of the best cappuccinos I have tasted. Just a little bracing, just a little bitter, and strong, healthy foam. And the scone, made in-house, also very good.

I was shocked to hear they have been open for 17 years. Seventeen years. My parents have lived here since 1979. I have never been to this place. It actually struck me a little dumb.

There is Starbucks across the street. It opened about two years ago. But the young barista said that it hasn’t really done anything to their business.

A man came into the café and café and she said, “Hey, Dave. Same thing?”

“You betcha.”

Just then another car pulled to the drive-up window, which is right behind the counter. Dave said, “Hey, John,” to the man in the car. I am not making this up. The three of them — Dave, standing at the counter, John, in his car at the window, and the young barista — carried on a conversation about a third customer who had recently had a heart attack.

Now, I don’t really have anything against Starbucks. I know that to Seattleites they are a local company. But there is something about size that almost necessitates a simmering hierarchical anonymity. The further away a leader is from led the less connection they have, thus the less empathy and understanding they can have. It’s the same with customers. Decisions become matters of cost analysis, branding, and public relations. They really aren’t about the customer any more.

La Barista is about the customer. For them, small is powerful. I mean, 17 years? There is pluck in a family coffee house that survives for 17 years.

I may be done browsing for my café away from café. Now, if I can just find a good Thai place again.

Okay, so I was pretty excited to try Gumrai Thai in Arlington Heights. It wasn’t too far from my hotel and Thai food is one of all my all time faves. And Urban Spoon gave it a great rating: 91%.

Now, I was a little disappointed at first when I found that it was in a strip mall. But Bandung Indonesian (in Madison) was also in a strip mall and it blew my shoes off. So, I went in excited and hoping for the best.

The interior could have been any Asian, Asian-fusion restaurant in the Midwest. The dark oak bar was front and center. Some sake bottles perched upon it. There was muzak, which has never boded well for pleasant digestion.

The best part of the ambience was a vibrant discussion between a woman and her seemingly luckless “man-friend.” They were discussing her relationships and views on men. He was essentially agreeing with her, injecting, “I’m a nice guy, but I get where you’re coming from,” and “Yeah, I’m a nice guy, but I can totally see you’re point,” and “I know, what a dick, I’d never do that.” And finally, “You know, if Jeff would drop you it would be a blessing.”

Now, as my friends know, I’m pretty relationship dense, but I’m pretty sure there was something going on there that she was totally missing. Or maybe he was missing something. I don’t know. You know how I am.

Anyway, they have a $7 lunch which includes entrée with soup and appetizer. I was waffling between the Pad Thai and the Panang Curry, both of which I love. I opted for the Panang Vegetable Curry, because I figured some of you would mocked me if I went to a Thai Restaurant and wrote about Pad Thai.

The soup was a chicken Tom Kha. It was okay. It had a first bright hit of lemongrass and cilantro. Then it settled onto the back of my tongue with deep fish sauce, which wasn’t too overbearing. There was dark luscious cloud of flavor floating in the bottom of the soup, which was also quite nice. The two strips of chicken, however weren’t so good. The soup would have been better without them. They were overcooked and were clearly cooked out of the soup. They tasted like unspiced chicken cooked on my George Foreman at home.

The appetizers were a Crab Rangoon and an Eggroll. The Rangoon was pretty good, it was a crispy baked wonton, not fried. It was very light in crab flavor, but there were discernable crab (imitation crab) bits in the filling.

The Eggroll was heartbreaking. My favorite Vietnamese place in Cedar Rapids has eggrolls to die for, so I have kind of a high standard. But the insidious nature of Gumrai Eggroll is that the initial bite is a wonderfully crisp crackling that then produces little flavor at all. I did not finish it.

The Panang Vegetable Curry came and I was instantly disappointed. The smell was not nearly as full and intoxicating as I had hoped. The curry was thin as a soup. It smelled only slightly of curry and coconut and the taste was a slight heat forward on the tongue, but it did not finish at all with much flavor. Mostly heat … and not much of that.

The vegetable were over-steamed, limp and sopped in the sauce that slipped right off when lifted from the plate. Again, I did not finish it, which, if you know, is, I’m sure hard to believe.

My reason for not finishing it was that I was thinking, “I’m just going to Mitsuwa and order that BiBimBop that is so outrageously good.” I was in the car and half way back to Mitsuwa before I admitted that I might get my eating out privileges revoked if I had two lunches in one day. So I turned around and …

Oh, my god. Some guy dressed as Santa Claus just came into the coffeehouse, taunted the barista — whose name is apparently Sam — saying, “Do I fucking look fat now, you son of a bitch?” Then he turned and left through the door, which ironically enough has rusting sleigh-type bells hanging on them. The barista called after him, “Mike! Mike? Come on!” Fascinating. It way makes this excursion worth it.

…So, anyway, I turned around and drove back to this little coffeehouse that was across the street from Gumrai’s strip mall to write my impressions.

So enough about Gumrai Thai. No need to go there, if you are thinking about it.

Here is the odd thing, though. As I was sitting there writing some notes about the soup into my little memo pad, a young woman came with her laptop open and sat down a couple of tables away from me. She looked around and began typing. Seriously.

Then, as I was trying to park at the coffeehouse, I nearly ran over another young lady who had stepped out into the road so she could get a better photo of a restaurant front.

Seriously? Have food bloggers really become so ridiculously ubiquitous as to have become a stereotype?

Wait. Here comes Santa again. I’m going to pack up and go. He makes me uncomfortable.

I love Mitsuwa in Chicago. Actually it’s in Arlington Heights, but what the hey.

It’s like going to Asia for the price of gas.

And one of the many golden shrines for me is the bakery. They are masters of the filled donghuty-type thing, though to call it a doughnut is like calling Olivier an actor: I mean, sure he’s an actor, but so is Keanu Reaves. So it’s a relative thing.

This morning I consumed two puffy confections. The first is called Coffee Cream. It’s a flat football shaped hollow bread, so moist and delicate that it melts in your mouth. The exterior is a deep caramel brown that glistens like it’s been lacquered with age, which I’m guessing isn’t a good simile for a food product — but it’s beautiful, is my point.

When I bite into it I am shocked by three things. First is the thin delicacy of the bread. It is like a layer of croissant without the crackle.

The second surprise is the amount of custard filling: it is immense, especially when you take into account it’s American brethren, usually hiding, off-kilter somewhere in the second or third bite of your chocolate topped Bismarck.

The third, and this is the one that keeps me coming back, is the sweetness. Nearly every American doughnut I have ever eaten is so sweet that it makes my teeth hurt. It is an imperative that one must consume them with milk or coffee, some acidic beverage to bring the tongue panting back from the abyss of overload. But this hand-sized little cabochon is sweet without being so Americanly cloying. It is a pleasant sweetness with just the very hint of a sweetened, creamed coffee. I was walking back to my hotel when I first bit into it. I stopped to have a moment. It is that good.

I saved the second confection for right now. It is called An Pan Pie, though there is nothing remotely pie-ish about it. It is about the size of my fist. It is wrinkled little guy, he looks a little like Mylar ball with the some of the air out of it. He seems to be made of a croissant dough. Look at the little fellow. I kind of think he’s cute in a sad sort of way.

But he’s packed with a surprise: red bean paste — about as un-American as you can get, culinarily speaking. It’s ugly, thick, with a non-uniformed texture, and least American of all, subtly sweet. It’s a taste I just can’t place, other than … well, red bean paste.

Another bite. Mmm… see there, I just got a whole bean in that bite. If I got this from a McDonalds, I would have assumed it was small hard-shelled insect. I might have been able to sue them and pay for my son’s college. But, alas, I know that it is a bean.

The sesame seeds on top add a burst of toast flavor to the thing that really makes this An Pan wonderfully complex.

I’ve only got about three bites left. I’m savoring this.

You, know — Julie don’t read this — about twice a year, maybe three times, I am overcome by the Hy-Vee bakery smell. I stand at their doughnut case and debate, but usually succumb to purchasing a chop-suey doughnut or an apple thing —fritter, maybe  (I don’t remember what it’s called, but it looks like glazed brains —mmmm, braaaains, and glazed).

And in the car with a mix of nearly debilitating guilt and great joy I bite into it. I might have two bites of the thing before I just can’t eat any more. I actually hate them. I don’t know why I can’t remember that, but it’s true. It is that single note of mind-numbing sweetness just bashing me over the molars. And yet, twice a year… maybe thrice, I go back.

The An Pan is that joy fulfilled.

I have two bites left. I’m going to bite the what’s left of the outside first, so my last bite if from the middle with just a little bit of sesame seed.


It is so good.

I was planning on hitting a supposedly famous breakfast place tomorrow for my other favorite breakfast, Eggs Benedict. But I think I might just rake the pebbles in my Zen garden again with the simple pleasures of a well-wrought An Pan.