Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Baby's got barbecue -- Sweet Baby Ray's, Elk Grove Village

Shortly after we moved to DuPage County, my husband was lucky enough to win a gift card for the Wood Dale Sweet Baby Ray's restaurant in a raffle. So it was one of the first places we visited in town.

A quick history -- the man who created Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce is from Wood Dale. Back in the '90s, he sold his famous sauce formula to a national distributor but retained the rights to open four restaurants under the SBR banner in the Chicago area. So far he has opened two. The original Wood Dale location is fairly small, with seating for about 30 and a more limited menu; they do a lot of carryout and catering.

The Elk Grove Village location, at 800 E. Higgins Road, is a full-service restaurant with a bigger menu and a bar area. It's a cozy place, with a lot of highly polished wood.

We already knew the food was good, but we wanted to see if it would measure up. And oh, it did. The service was friendly and helpful; the menu extensive. They feature both traditional barbecue favorites like ribs and brisket and New Orleans-style cajun dishes.

Note that this is not a terribly vegetarian friendly place. (They do have one or two meatless salads, some fish, a meatless pasta dish and some vegetarian sides.) The meat is the star here. We started with pulled pork nachos, which sounds sort of weird, but is truly tasty. The meat was sweet, tangy and tender and went well with the cheesy, crunchy chips, beans and pico de gallo.

At this point, we knew we'd probably ordered too much food, but hey, then we had leftovers. Most of the dinners come with soup or salad, two sides AND cornbread. So I had my half a jerk chicken, plus salad, green chile mac and cheese, Tchoupitoulas potatoes, and cornbread. Ooof. The chicken was tender and flavorful (but not hot, actually), and the green chile mac and cheese is awesome.

My husband had soup, ribs, baked beans, french fries and cornbread. He had some leftovers, though not as many as me. :) He loves the ribs there and says they're the best he's ever had.

All in all, SBR is a fantastic addition to Chicago-area barbecue. They do their meat right and the sauce is pretty darn good (and I'm a snob for Kentucky barbecue, which has a less-sweet sauce). If you like your meat done right, SBR is the place to go.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Plentiful produce and more -- Caputo's, Addison

You know what I love, much to many people's bemusement? Grocery shopping.

I really enjoy big grocery stores and supermarkets, where the produce stretches for yards and I can find interesting, exotic and familiar foods that inspire me. I enjoy cooking, too, and sometimes inspiration will hit right there in the middle of the aisle.

So I was thrilled to discover, first in Algonquin and now in Addison, the Caputo's family of stores. They go by a couple different names -- the one in Addison is Angelo Caputo's Fresh Markets, while Algonquin features the Joe Caputo and Sons Fruit Market -- but they are all very similar stores with similar features.

The first thing you see when you walk into a Caputo's is their enormous produce section. They have all sorts of fruits and vegetables you'll never see at Jewel or Dominick's, all at great prices. (They also have fantastic homemade pico de gallo and guacamole in the cold case, at least at the Addison location!)

The second big feature of the store is a large meat/deli/bakery section that stretches across the back. I have not yet tried any of the deli products, but I hear they are delicious, especially the Italian cured meats. We have gotten some great cuts of beef from Caputo's.

The third big thing about this great store is the dizzying array of ethnic products -- tons of imported and fresh-made Italian goods, more kinds of cheese than you can count, plus Mexican, Polish and Asian imports. They even have imported French and Irish butter!

This store can get pretty crowded, so I try to go during off-hours. But it's a great place to get some inexpensive produce, a fresh loaf of bread, some tasty deli treats, and so much more.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Taj Mahal, Bloomingdale -- a taste of India in the suburbs

My husband is not the biggest fan of Valentine's Day. He prefers meaningful gifts to flowers and heartfelt expressions of love to cheesy cards. I don't blame him, but a little romanticism never hurt. (He came through for me this year.)

And while we certainly enjoy the classy Italian restaurant with dim candle light and overpriced wine, we went a less traditional route for our Valentine's dinner -- Indian food.

I love Indian food, having been practically adopted by an immigrant family in our church as a kid. The mom loved to feed me naan and whatever else she had on hand, and the smell of curry takes me back to sitting in her kitchen, 8 years old. My husband is a recent convert, but as a lover of spicy food and rice, he has taken to it well.

We chose Taj Mahal (111 E Lake St., Bloomingdale) based on its proximity and good reviews on Yelp. I guess nobody else had the idea to eat Indian food on Friday the 13th, because we were basically alone for our meal, with a few takeout customers coming in and two women coming to eat in as we were leaving.

The service was very good, as you would hope. We chose cashew nut rolls as an appetizer -- these were a delightful combination of mashed potatoes rolled in a crispy finely-ground nut mixture. Think mozzarella sticks with potato inside instead.

My husband chose chicken vindaloo, a spicy dish that had just enough heat for his tastes, and I had a tandoori chicken dish that had been marinated in ginger, garlic and yogurt with onion, tomato and green bell pepper. We shared saffron rice and it came with a basket of naan.

The food was delicious, with incredibly tender chicken and perfectly-made rice. The flavor was great on my dish, and my husband's managed to be both very flavorful and quite spicy at once. We had plenty left over and finished it for lunch on Sunday.

Decor-wise, Taj Mahal is basic but nice. Everything was clean and there were a variety of motel-style landscapes on the walls. The strip mall it's in (at the corner of Lake and Bloomingdale) is very quiet, so parking is unlikely to be any problem. The menu features a variety of vegetarian, chicken, lamb and seafood dishes. (Notice that no Indian restaurant ever serves beef?:))

Taj Mahal features a buffet during lunch hours and has a decent wine list and variety of imported Indian beers. We'll absolutely be back to this quiet spot, and I hope they do enough business at other times to stay open!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fire Bar & Grill, Crystal Lake -- sports bar fun for (nearly) everyone

Being a relatively new Crystal Lake resident, I'd heard a lot of things about Fire Bar & Grill.

None of them were really good. But after having a late dinner there Friday night, I'm not sure what all the negativity was about.

As a former server at a bustling sports bar, it felt a little like home. It's spacious and dark, with flat-screen TVs, Big Buck Hunter Pro and plenty of pool tables in the back.

The vibe there felt more bar than restaurant, but the food tasted great.

A group of co-workers and I ordered from a very pleasant server, who gave helpful suggestions to the half of us who are vegetarian. The menu had tons of stuff: sandwiches, wraps, appetizers, salads and more.

One friend ordered the spinach-artichoke dip and chips and said it was tasty and filling enough as an entree. A couple others ordered different sandwiches and quesadillas, also giving nods of approval. Meanwhile, I ordered the buffalo chicken wrap, and my only complaint was the sauce was medium or hotter, when I thought it was mild (I'm kind of a wuss when it comes to heat). But the steak fries were so fresh; the best I've ever eaten.

We also had a few rounds of beer and other drinks, all decently priced.

Surprisingly, we saw a few families with kids later on around 9 p.m. Probably for the game machines and food, but again, it's a little bit more on the bar side. One cool thing I noticed was a sign for free pool between noon and 5 p.m. every day.

They also have karaoke on Tuesdays, live bands on Thursdays and a guest DJ spinning on Friday and Saturday nights. Sundays are typically devoted to NFL games, with prizes and giveaways.

I think the group of us would definitely go back, probably for the drink specials and the atmosphere. It's somewhat hard to find a variety of late-night hangouts in McHenry County -- outside of your corner pub -- but I'll be adding this to my list.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A taste of Ireland - Peggy Kinnane's, Arlington Heights

I had a busy weekend last weekend. In addition to spending over two hours at the Freddo Cafe, I had lunch with some friends in charming downtown Arlington Heights, at Peggy Kinnane's Irish Pub (8 North Vail Ave.). I'd actually been there once before, but since it was the night of my bachelorette party, let's just say my memories are a bit fuzzy.

On a Saturday around 11 a.m., downtown Arlington Heights is pretty quiet, but there's a lot to see and explore. (Someday, I am going to Fuego. But that is neither here nor there.) Peggy Kinnane's is what you expect an Irish pub to be - lots of wood and signs about whiskey and green. The menu is a bit broader than more chain-like places, though, with more authentic Irish dishes including boxty, shepherd's pie, fish and chips and even an Irish breakfast. Of course, they also have more typical pub grub, including wings, nachos, burgers, sandwiches, etc. I had the fish and chips on my previous visit; on this one I went for a wrap, looking for something a bit lighter. I'm not sure that what amounted to a buffalo chicken wrap qualifies as Irish, but it was tasty.

They also have a wide selection of beers and whiskeys, along with a full bar and decent wine list.

Service was very good, and while we were the only people in the place, I remember our waitress being stellar when I was there in August of '07. So it's good to know they're still hiring good people.

Peggy's is one of those places that serves several functions. It is equally good for a lunch with friends, a nice dinner out with the family, or tearing it up late at the bar. They have an outdoor seating area for use in nicer weather, and it would be fun to sit there and people watch when it's warm.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Freddo Cafe, Addison - A touch of Europe in the 'burbs

I can't quite tell what part of Europe the Freddo Cafe, at 1250 W. Lake St. in Addison, is supposed to represent. But it's definitely European. With rich wood, a flat-panel TV showing European football matches, paninis, Greek coffee, espresso and more, this is a cute and quality choice for a coffee break in Addison.

The cafe has about eight tables and a comfy leather couch with a table. It's not big, but it doesn't feel cramped. The menu includes the typical assortment of lattes, cappuccino, espresso macchiato and iced drinks. They also have frozen blended drinks (you know, frappes) that are called Freddoccinos. Cute, huh? My friend and I each had one, and they were tasty, thick with a nice coffee flavor and not too sweet.

And, although my friend and I didn't try them, they also have paninis, thin-crust pizza, pastries and ice cream.

The staff was very friendly and kept checking on us, offering napkins and water. It's a great option for a snack, a great cup of coffee or a light meal. I'm sure to be back.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Slacking in the Suburbs

I don't have much to report because we haven't been as active lately in going out and exploring. I mean, we had Popeye's for dinner last Friday. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not exactly local or original.

But. This weekend, my husband will be out of town and I am going to take the opportunity to meet with friends at a few points. So I may well have new places to write about.

One place I'm really looking forward to trying is the Freddo Cafe in Addison. The Freddo, in case you're wondering, is a cold coffee-based drink with whipped cream. I think. (The menu makes it sound like an iced double-shot latte with whipped cream.) The Cafe is a European-style cafe that advertises Greek coffee, paninis and pizza, pastries and ice cream. The pictures make it look cute, and we drive by it all the time, so I'd love to have a local hangout where I can go get a good cup of coffee.

There are also a few other area places I'd love to visit, and they're on my list:

# Mitsuwa Marketplace, Arlington Heights: This is a Japanese/Asian wonderland, from what I hear. Tons of imported groceries, health food, books, bakery, videos, and fresh sushi and ramen.

# Solace 601, Addison: This looks to be a cozy, Northern Italian/Southern French restaurant, suitable for a romantic dinner or special occasion. We passed it last weekend and were intrigued.

# Schweppe Inc., Lombard: A restaurant supply wholesaler that is also open to the public. I watch and love Alton Brown, and he recommends restaurant supply stores as fantastic places to find quality kitchen equipment at good prices.

I know there are plenty of other places I'm curious about, but I think that's a good list for now. I'll report back over the weekend if I go anywhere interesting!