Category: The ‘Burbs

Have Dinner in the Caribbean and Bake your Own Souvenir

Conch Fritters at Bahama Breeze

One of my dearest friends loves palm trees and the beach. When my work relocated me to Memphis, she and I would often escape to her favorite local “island retreat”. I moved to Santa Barbara 12 years ago, and a few years later, to Chicago. The memory of this neighborhood tropical getaway got lost in the shuffle until, by chance, it found me.

A few weeks ago, a group of local friends and I embarked on our own brief “staycation”. This time, we had been invited to try some of Bahama Breeze´s legendary island cocktails.  I am rarely up for re-exploring a chain restaurant, but the idea sounded like fun, so I accepted. I am so glad I did!

As soon as we arrived, we were directed to the eatery’s deck. The weather was perfect, and the live music along with a fanned breeze, immediately whisked us away from our corporate mindsets. Our business casual attire suddenly seemed to clash with our surroundings.

Next time we will wear our guayaberas.

As our friends gathered, the food also began to arrive. Plate by plate we were treated to Caribbean-inspired dishes that included staples such as plantains and pork.

Everything was delicious. The conch fritters and the coconut shrimp were particularly memorable, though. I was snapping pictures as fast as I could, but the food kept disappearing!

The coconut shrimp disappeared before my eyes. I was barely able to snap this picture.

The crowd’s favorite drink was the Painkiller, a delicious mix of rum, cream of coconut, orange juice  and a touch of nutmeg. The name definitely resonated with this group of overworked professionals, so I ordered a round for the entire group.

These amazing Painkillers, made me feel that I was on vacation.

¡Salud!

I went back on Saturday, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that service on a busy weekend was just as remarkable as the attention we experienced on a Wednesday night.

I had the grilled tilapia with lemon and butter, which was perfect, and just because I already know what the locals do, I got a Painkiller to blend in. I had little room for dessert, but I got this Key lime pie recipe for you as a souvenir.

Grab a few friends and check out your neighborhood Bahama Breeze. Your own escape to the islands might be closer than you think!

Bahama Breeze on Urbanspoon

Everyday Food with a Hint of Celebration

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Tomatillo Soup at Nordstrom Café. Woodfield Mall, Schaumburg, IL

I was recently delighted to find that tomatillos, the main ingredient in salsa verde, were creatively used to craft this delicious soup at my local Nordstrom Café. This glorious bowl knows how to please crowds while giving a secret handshake to Mexican food fans- the soup brilliantly merges both the everyday salsa and the celebratory pozole. If you know what this means, I am sure you are nodding in agreement.

The chef at this hidden gem is a curator, an artist, an interpreter. This dish captures some of the most representative ingredients of Mexican cuisine,  pours them into a glorious cup and serves them with a side of memories- both special, and deliciously quotidian.

Nordstrom Cafe on Urbanspoon

The Best of Two Worlds: Mariano’s Fresh Market

Have you ever wished you could get the Whole Foods experience minus the price tag? After picking up your fresh-from-the-oven pizza, have you like me, ever experienced a little pang of angst knowing that instead of a Diet Coke you will have to get a bottle of green tea to wash it down?

Sure, no one disputes the benefits of antioxidants, but if you have dreamed about a perfect balance, a hybrid offering the best of both of worlds-  specialty foods, extraordinary in-store dining and your favorite brands under one single roof, your dream is a reality. It is called Mariano’s Fresh Market.

I have shopped and dined quite a few times at two of the five Mariano’s Fresh Market stores in the Chicagoland area, the Arlington Heights and the Lakeshore East locations. Whenever I visit, I feel like pinching myself  to make sure I am awake.  See for yourself. Aside from choices, you will consistently find live music at the register and an impeccable service. The depth and breadth of assortment covers anything from groceries to deli, bakery and flowers.  If you like food, Mariano’s Fresh Market makes it difficult to believe that you have not entered an altered state of consciousness.

What’s even dreamier, prices are very reasonable.

Aside from visiting the store to do your shopping, if you have the good fortune to be a local and want to run in for a quick bite,  you will find quite an array of options – sushi, guacamole and a variety of salsas (my favorite is the pineapple salsa), as well as seasonal dishes. Today, for example, a good selection of fish choices was available for those observing lent.  There is also a great variety of drinks and dessert, freshly-squeezed juice, Italian prosecco, beignets and even gelati.

I found my bakery and deli foods and even my favorite Mexican staples at Mariano’s Fresh Market.

Mariano’s has a nice casual indoor dining area that is equally suitable for families with small children, hungry teenagers or busy time-crunched professionals. In its downtown location, the store also has a patio with umbrellas.

The quality of the food is superb. I had the best rice pilaf I’ve had in years, baked chicken, grilled vegetables and for dessert, hazelnut gelato.

And yes, I had a Diet Coke.

Mariano's on Urbanspoon

Fabulous Food in the Suburbs and Other Unlikely Places

Schaumburg is definitely not known for its collection of boutique restaurants,  much less Mexican eateries. Interestingly,  an oasis in an otherwise food chain-dominated town is Nordstrom. Yes, I just found this amazing chicken torta at my local retailer. I saw this as a special on the menu and had to try it. I am not sure how long it will be featured for, but if you have a chance, swing by and try it. This is truly the best interpretation of a torta I have ever had outside of Mexico.  If you don´t happen to see it on the menu, usually the daily specials are a good way to go.

Nordstrom Restaurants give the concept “boutique restaurant” a completely new meaning.  This gem awaits you on the third floor of Nordstrom at Woodfield Mall.

Nordstrom Cafe on Urbanspoon

¡Échele Mariachi!


Gaetano´s in Forest Park is one of 600 restaurants in the world to have been acknowledged with the “Ospitalita Italiana” award for having an “Authentic” Italian restaurant.  Consider México Vivo for your own serenata, call  (312) 510-6011.

I really miss serenatas. I especially miss how my friends celebrated their mothers on Mother’s Day. They would pitch in to pay a mariachi to accompany them while they criss-crossed our neighborhood singing. The young troubadours would flag down a mariachi band nearby, and would then go door to door singing for each other’s moms. I miss hearing birthday serenatas, engagement ones, or those that happened just because. The Doppler effect of a mariachi in the distance is a cultural vignette that I am sure I share only with a lucky few.

Although mariachi is often portrayed as “comical” in many movies, in reality, mariachi music is an important part of our celebrations. From festive to solemn and romantic, these bands are a staple of events of any size. Pretty much any mariachi band holds a repertoire that touches on anything and everything that is sacred to us, except for fútbol. Playlists are learned as part of an unspoken social etiquette of sorts. Mariachi trumpets, regardless of the quality of their sound, have the uncanny ability to make me cry.

Knowing this, and wanting to distract me from my doomed battle against gravitational pull, my wonderful, wonderful husband hired a mariachi for my birthday. OK, he asked me to hire one, and to negotiate with them in Spanish for a really good rate. I know it sounds funny, but mariachi bands or at the very least tríos románticos are quite ubiquitous in Mexico. You just call them or flag them down. I didn´t realize what a luxury that was until I tried to find one in Chicago that did not require a notice way in advance and a formal contract.

I finally landed one. How to go wrong with a mariachi named “México Vivo”?  We agreed that we would meet at my favorite place. Wait. My husband reminded me that we had to make sure the venue I had chosen was OK with the idea. My favorite restaurant, Gaetano’s in Forest Park, is a culinary heaven that sits only 60. There were 12 elements in the band alone. Plus, If the name has not given it away, Gaetano’s is an Italian restaurant. It would have been difficult to make an argument for the band being representative of Italian folklore.

Enrico called Chef Gaetano DIBenedetto, the talented and gracious owner of this gem to share with him our plan. Gaetano welcomed us mariachi and all. The food was magnificent, as usual. And the mariachi did not disappoint!

Gaetano's & Ristorantino Mediterraneo on Urbanspoon