I use food to fuel my wanderlust. When I want to be transported to another land, I suck on a big hunk of palm sugar that I picked up at an open-aired cooking class in Bali or sip on Moroccan green tea that I bought at a weekend market in Spain. I wander around Trader Joe's, Fox & Obel
and Whole Foods, scanning the grocery aisles. Names like Madagascar (red tea), Thailand (hot peppers) and New Zealand (oysters) pop out at me from colorful boxes and make every country seem just that much more attainable.
Tasting my way around a menu is another story all together. I've got an adventurers mouth, but sometimes it's tough for me to go way out, especially if it involves meat. Still, I try to eat something totally different every week. This week it was a brilliant green seaweed salad at the pan-Asian sushi bar Usagi Ya. I rarely make it over to Wicker Park, but something about Usagi Ya's exterior made me squeal on the brakes and head inside with my pal Lisa. We wanted liquor and fish, so why not?
The place is definitely on the funky, eclectic side, with hip-hop music bouncing off the walls, but it has that mom-and-pop feel that always makes me happy. We were immediately seated in the deep crawl space in the front window, even though we were just a party of two and the big tables usually seats five or six.
Lisa fired off an order for a gigantic lychee martini and a glass of my favorite wine, pinot grigio. If you've never had lychees, you don't know what you're missing. Years ago I did a stint in a popular French/Vietnamese Los Angeles restaurant called Le Colonial and every day when I rolled in, I'd shove down about a hundred lychee nuts (the 2,000-year-old Chinese fruit is the most delicious and refreshing dessert you can imagine, especially if they're fresh) and copious amounts of thick-as-mud chocolate mousse (mind you, this was to avoid eating the duck-bill soup the chefs would whip up for the staff meal).
I'd never had lyychees plunked down into a vodka martini, and sadly, the drink was a little too strong for me (good for Lisa, bad for light-weight drinker Misty). Still, the liquor-soaked lychees were delectable.
Since I'm on a round-the-world sailing research project right now, the first thing that caught my eye was the wakame seaweed salad. Grown off the coast of Japan, this impossibly psychedelic green algae is incredibly tasty; when you soak the seaweed, it bubbles out to quadruple its size and has the consistency of al dente spaghetti. Dusted with sweet rice vinaigrette and served with slivers of marinated cucumber, it was pure oceanic flavor, putting me straight on the sailboat in the South Pacific that I'm dying to be on right this second.
We'd ordered up a tangle of go mae (blanched spinach) which Lisa loved, but I was a little unsettled at the amount of sesame sauce dripping over the huge ball of spinach. I did get wild with the Japanese fried rice, though. It was extremely light and peppered with plenty of egg and green veggies...I had to shun the chopsticks on this one and go straight for the fork; bigger is better when it comes to bites of fried rice. The table was a disaster when we were finished but I guess that's what a little liquor and good food does to you.
The Final Rave: Though we were stuffed to the gills, we somehow managed to unhinge our jaws and toss back beastly portions of unagi and shrimp tempura rolls. Seriously, these portions were out of hand and Lisa and I were snorting with laughter watching each other cram golf ball-size pieces of maki in our mouths.
Keep It Going:
Order it: Lycheesonline.com
This informative website has everything you ever wanted to know about lychees, right down to lychee skin care, lychee clothing and lychee tea. Who knew?
Eat it: Joy Yee's Noodles
Try the quirky lychee tapioca crystal jelly freeze at this popular Pan-Asian haunt. With a name like that, it's bound to be good.
Read it: Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce
This well put together website is packed with notes on where to eat, shop and play in Chinatown, and every grocery store down there has packs of seaweed for sale. Cheap stuff.
Get crazy with it: Apdurutis photos
Check out these Flikr photos and you'll instantly be transported to Micronesia via a globetrotting sailor who chucked it all, bought a sailboat and hit the high seas. Damn him!
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.