Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Taco Tuesdays: Ula's

Before we get into the Mexican food, I feel the need to address, um, THIS:

No, I'm not referring to my atrocious cuticles (though, hot dang, get it together Ogonosky). I'm referring to the GIANT (okay, small) om tattoo I got on my wrist after dinner on my 30th birthday last week (Shoutout to Texas Tattoo Emporium, I can't recommend them enough)! I allowed myself a year of wanting it, and the result is that I love love LOVE having it.

Speaking of, on my birthday my sister Emily offered to treat me to lunch at Ula's. Going there seemed a little slimey, as I felt like I was cheating on my husband across the street, El Tiempo. But I've heard that Ula's and El Tiempo are friends, so I trudged on.

Our server and server-in-training were incredibly friendly and helpful. The place was packed, and service was pretty slow that day.

We were provided with warm chips and salsa, and a bean dip of some sort (which I didn't eat because it clearly had meat in it). The salsa was of the pureed variety and INCREDIBLY spicy, which we loved.

I ordered a vegetable quesadilla (not listed on the menu). When I asked if their rice was vegetarian, the server told me no. Then I asked if they had vegetarian black beans, and they said yes - refried or charro. I opted for the non-meat charro version. Right before they left the server said, "Do you want corn or flour tortillas for your quesadilla?

Huh. I've never been asked that. I've always only ever had flour tortillas with my quesadillas, so I opted for flour. He then said, "okay, but our flour tortillas are cooked in animal lard."

Huh again. I never even knew that was a thing. How many times have I ordered flour tortillas that were - unbeknownst to me - cooked in animal lard? I was equal parts miffed by this fact, and impressed with the amount of care and knowledge our server had. So I went with the corn tortillas.

Well, I learned that day that there's a reason quesadillas don't typically come in corn tortillas, and the reason is this: They're not as good. I personally love corn tortillas and prefer them with fajitas, but the corn flavor of them overpowered the quesadilla. All I could really taste was the tortilla and a hint of cheese (because it was super mild). Perhaps more spices on the veggies and a stronger cheese would have helped this quesadilla out, but for the most part it was unremarkable.

The beans were pretty bland and unexciting as well.

After we had finished eating, all of a sudden my sister goes, "Okay, don't kill me Kimberly." And I'm all, "Why, did you forget your wallet or something? No big deal." Then I looked up and saw a group of men coming towards me with a ginormous dessert, complete with sparkler.

(and yes, they sang to me.)

This dessert made up for my lackluster meal. Eating the warm, fluffy cinnamon sopapillas atop gobs and gobs of vanilla ice cream was a lovely indulgence that was totally birthday-appropriate.

While I felt that the vegetarian options were lacking, and that the quesadilla I had was uninspired, I did very much appreciate the wide range of knowledge our server had on the menu. And I thoroughly enjoy the chips and salsa, as well as my birthday dessert. Also, it should be noted that my sister absolutely loved the steak salad she ordered. And Jon is always telling me how much he likes it there. So take what I write with a grain of salt - Perhaps the meat dishes at Ula's are where they really shine!

Photo Credit: Emily
(Not to mention their fabulous sparkling desserts.)

Click to add a blog post for Ula's Mexican Restaurant & Cantina on Zomato

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Vacation Days: Chicago

Well, it's official. As of today, July 22, 2015, I have been living, breathing, eating, sleeping, and laughing for thirty years on this big blue planet we call earth, and doing my best to love every second of it!

(That last part doesn't apply to my teenage years. Those were some cranky times.)

(Sorry Mom.)

(Also, Mom, thanks for giving birth to me!)

Things have been relatively quiet with me on the blog/social media front lately because two weekends ago, Jon and I took a trip to Chicago in celebration of my big 3-0, which was followed by an out of town staff trip for work. Combine that, family and friends coming in to visit, and a move to the Heights next month (which Jon and I have done zero packing for so far, of course), and July/August are some pretty jam-packed months for me!

But, yep, today is my 30th birthday, and I'm so excited to share it with you all! In celebration, I'd like to show you 49 pictures of our trip to Chi-Town! (consider yourselves lucky, the first cut was 65 pictures, down from 300.) I'll do my best to keep it as brief as possible, but #WordyThirty.

We left for Chicago on a Thursday afternoon, and I apparently had the world's craziest eyes on the plane ride there. My cousin Rob who lives in Chicago had to work that night, but his awesome wife Amber picked us up from Midway, checked us in to our adorable Airbnb apartment we stayed at in Lakeview, and joined us for dinner at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba, a super charming tapas place that had been recommended to me by about 37 people.

The food was stellar. Some of the scrumptious plates we shared (top four pics above, starting with top left) included the goat cheese baked in tomato sauce with garlic bread; fried green peppers & course salt (YA'LL THESE WERE SO INEXPLICABLY GOOD); spicy potatoes with tomato aioli; and mushroom, toast, aged roncal cheese & sherry gastrique. The food was truly delightful.

Also I apologize for my likely misuse of semicolons in my food descriptor sentence. There's no way that sentence is grammatically correct.

HELLOOOOO THIRTY!

On Friday morning we met up with Alex, one of my sweet old friends from high school whom I hadn't seen in several years. We had a lovely breakfast at Ann Sather, which from what I gathered is a place that all Chicagoans know and love, and if you don't love it they'll kill you.

Just kidding, everyone in Chicago is literally the nicest person ever. They seriously give Houstonians a run for their money on the Friendly Meter.

Um, hi Alex, I'm stealing your hat, kthanks.

This is how people in Chicago commute! I was so sneaky with my iPhone, they couldn't tell I was a tourist at all!

After breakfast, Jon and I took the "L" train downtown to visit the Field Museum because Jon could not go to Chicago without seeing a couple of taxidermed lions in a glass cage who apparently ate some people including Val Kilmer in Africa over 100 years ago.

Oh, I mean they were really awesome.

On the walk from the train there were a bunch of signs for the Field Museum as well as Soldier Field. We passed by these statues of legs, and I said "Look Jon, that must be Soldier Field!"

Did I mention how cool the lions were?

You know what else was awesome? (but like actually awesome, and not some old fading lions who were rumored to have eaten like 247 people but only actually ate like 36, which I mean still is certainly awful?)

Sue the T-Rex.

Sue is the most completed Tyrannosaurus Rex in existence, with 90% of her bones being real. Fun fact though, her head is so flipping heavy that they have the actual head in a case upstairs, while the one on her body is a cast.

Let's have a photo shoot with her, shall we?

Umm...can we please ignore the two 30-year olds in the photos above and check out the AWESOME kids posing in front of Sue to the left? They are my spirit animals, and they really shouldn't go unnoticed.

Also for the record that is not a knife that I'm holding but a t-rex tooth some kind lady thrusted into my hands before taking our picture (I told you people in Chicago were nice).

Okay, and I was just giving Jon a hard time. The lions of Tsavo and their story were actually very interesting. Sue just makes everything else pale in comparison. So definitely go to the Field Museum if you get a chance - I wish we'd had more time to explore the many exhibits there!

As Jon and I were averaging on about 3 hours of sleep per night during our visit, we grabbed coffee every chance we had. After our 6th serving that day (okay, 5th), we walked west and met up with my awesome youth pastor from back in the day, Kelly, for some real, true, Chicago deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnalti's!

Since I am an avid thin-crust-lovin' gal, I went in with the lowest possible expectations. But y'all? This pizza was the 'ish. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed "The Lou," a pizza containing a spinach mix, mushrooms, roma tomatoes, and cheese atop a garlic butter crust. Equally as impressive was the Malnati Salad, which was tossed in the most amazing sweet vinaigrette dressing I've ever had. Lucky for me, I can order the luscious dressing online, even out of state!

Then we walked around for a bit and had some divine bloody marys at Miller's Pub because #yolo (is #yolo still a thing?).

After we said goodbye to Kelly, Jon and I walked over to Millenium Park and took about 167 photos with the giant bean (but don't worry, I'll only show you 5).


After that (are you tired? I'm tired), we walked over to the John Hancock building to enjoy a cocktail in the Signature Room at the 95th floor and take in some killer views of the city.

Then we went back to our apartment, took a 12 minute nap, and got ready for dinner at Balena.


Out of all the meals I had planned for the trip, I was most excited about this one, but unfortunately it didn't live up to my expectations. I originally had made reservations that night for RPM Italian, but after reading reviews on Balena (with a nod in 2012 from Bon Apetit as one of the best new restaurants in America), I decided we should go there. After looking at the menu, we thought we might have a Coltivare experience, but as you all know, those are some heavy boots to fill.

While the service was attentive and friendly, though albeit slightly uniformed (when I asked if their pizza with apricot, broccoli leaves, and pancetta would still be good without the pancetta, they said yes, and spoiler alert it was so tart it was almost inedible), the atmosphere was very stuffy and scene-y (seen-y?). It reminded me of the atmosphere at Brasserie 19, which I'm not crazy about. 

The burrata panna with olive oil and sea salt (pictured above, left) was the best thing we ate that night, and it was incredible. The toast was smokey and peppery, and the burrata was seasoned perfectly. The chilled beets I had (above, right) were good at first, but the scallion mixture quickly became too overpowering, and I could only eat a little bit of it.

With Coltivare dreams in mind, we ordered the spaghetti cacio pepe, and while it was good, it was surprisingly heavy, and not what we were anticipating.

We also ordered the ricotta gnudi with sweet pea crema. It was different, and definitely an interesting flavor/textural experience. I did enjoy this dish.

Don't get me wrong, Balena is certainly a good restaurant, but I don't think it holds a candle to the Colitvares, Backstreet Cafes, and Underbellies of Houston. Overall though, I sort of wished we'd tried RPM instead (especially after hearing that Guiliana Rancic was there that night, partying with a bunch of celebs! Okay, maybe that place is scene-y (seen-y?) too....)

So that was Day 2! 2 down, 7 to go!
Juuuuuust kidding. On Saturday (Our LAST day), I did something unexpected and strayed from the plan.

I don't know if you've figured this out, but I'm sort of an extreme Type-A planner. As in, I do my research, make reservations well in advanced, and plan my vacation schedules out pretty much to the minute.

BUT. In my 30 years of life I have also learned the importance of being flexible and adaptable to my surroundings (okay can't take credit here - that's a direct quote from my Aunt Donna). And in this particular situation, Jon and I had brunch reservations down on the river on Saturday morning. But the night before, when we were about to go to sleep - completely exhausted from our 82 mile Chicago walking day - I turned to him and said, "How about we get 4 hours instead of 3 hours of sleep tonight, ditch the schfancy reservation, and walk around Lakeview until we find a place to eat breakfast at?"

And that's how we happened upon an incredible breakfast at Sam & George's. At this super duper laid back diner, they specialize in the friendliest, chattiest servers in the world, the freshest fresh-squeezed orange juice in the Americas, and the most robust, incredible egg skillets to have ever graced my lips. It was a beautiful accident ending up at Sam & George's, and Jon will probably still affirm that this was his favorite meal we had in Chicago.
Hypothetically, if I told you we'd planned the dates of this trip based on when the Cubs were playing the White Sox at Wrigley field, would you still be my friend?

Hypothetically of course.

Photo Credit: Amber
What a cool experience. Wrigley Field is oozing with history, and the enthusiasm of the fans there is beyond electric. I am so glad we were able to meet up with Rob and Amber and see such a fun piece of Chicago!

Photo Credit: Amber
After the game, we headed down into town (inside the loop? Eh?) for dinner at The Purple Pig, where we waited two hours for a table. Amber was concerned that we'd be upset about having to wait, and I was like "Girl I will wait 4 whole days if it means waiting for good food! But forgive me if I start confusing your hands for apples."

Photo Credit: Amber
Here's a picture of my handsome cousin and my handsome boyfriend to remove that whole bizarre apple hands comment from your short term memory.

Remember how I could barely eat the beets at Balena? Well I could barely keep my face out of the salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette at The Purple Pig. Ugh, they were awesome. And so was the cheese plate we ordered!

In total, no lie I think we split 17 different small plates, and each one was more unique, intricate, and exciting than the next. Pictured above was one of my favorite dishes we ordered, the eggplant caponata with goat cheese. The cool, sweet, almost chili-like eggplant dip spread atop the goat cheese-smeared pieces of toast was absolutely breathtaking. 

Dining at The Purple Pig was a truly exciting culinary experience!

Photo Credit: Amber
It was an insane, whirlwind of a weekend, but quite the adventure! For two Texans who had never been to Chicago, I feel like we saw, did, and ate quite a bit in the mere 72 hours we were there. It was admittedly quaint and laughable hearing the locals complain about the "humidity" (sorry Chicagoans, you have NO idea), and the summer weather there (lows in the 60s, highs in the 80s) was perfect - July is for sure a good month to go for a visit. I am definitely now a huge fan of this beautiful, buzzing, friendly, clean, delicious city!

Come at me, 30.