Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Shift drinks......

Ahhhhh, after a long, hard night cooking for all the patrons of Big Star, I know what my cooks and I look forward to- Shift Drinks!!!

A long standing practice in most restaurants, shift drinks are a way to say 'job well done'. Not too mention, a beer and a little whiskey goes a long way towards soothing frayed nerves, and fostering comraderie amongst our employees. It's a side of the restaurant the public rarely ever sees.

So I raise a glass of liquid refreshment to all, and say thank you!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Michael's favorite dish....

Melted cheese, chorizo, and rajas equals magic. So says Michael Rubel anyway. He manages to eat a Big Star Queso Fundido almost every shift he works. Amazing, considering most tables of four have trouble finishing this sublime, bubbling cazuela of melted goodness.

To get to the point, fundido is a conjugation of the word fundir, which means 'to melt'. In translation, the name of this dish is 'melted cheese'. Doesn't sound very interesting. But, truth be told, the combination of chihuahua cheese, spicy housemade chorizo, and velvety rajas de poblano is something to write home about.
Intensely satisfying.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cactus? For breakfast?

Cactus, really? You can eat cactus? Yes, yes you can eat cactus.

Nopales, as they are known in the Mexican kitchen, are young, hand sized, pads from the prickly pear variety of cactus.

Ever resourceful, Mexican cooks long ago discovered that these pads were edible, and began to use them in all sorts of preparations. For the uninitiated, you must remove the spines from the pad before cooking. Obvious, right? A mouthful of cactus spines is not my idea of a culinary adventure. Once the spines are removed, nopales can be prepared in a variety of different ways, sauteed, grilled, even pickled. Yummers!

Here at Big Star, we dip the paddles in beer, and grill them on our wood grill, leaving them slightly charred and smoky. After that treatment, they are diced up and sauteed with onions, garlic, and serrano peppers. After tossing them in some smoky, housemade, chipotle salsa, they go into a freshly made corn tortilla for your enjoyment.

Next week, we will be experimenting with a Mexican classic- nopales y huevos, cactus and eggs. Breakfast will never be the same!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mole like Ole!

It's fried chicken and mole time here at Big Star. Not a bad item to put on the menu considering today's news. Alex Chilton, the lead singer and cornerstone of Big Star (the band), died yesterday of a heart attack.

Chilton was a southern boy, born and bred in Memphis, TN. What could be more southern than fried chicken? Maybe biscuits and gravy, but that is a discussion for another time. What better way to honor Chilton than to serve this fine southern delicacy here at the taqueria?

Wait a minute!! That's right, we are a taqueria, not a chicken shack. How do we make this make sense? With Mole Poblano of course. We will serve the fried chicken with Mole Poblano. Ahhh fusion....

Mexicans in the state of Puebla have been making this classic sauce for more years than I care to count. It is, perhaps, Mexico's best known and most popular mole. Not to mention, it is most always served with poultry.

Mole is loosely translated as 'concoction'. And what a concoction it is! The Mole Poblano at Big Star is comprised of 26 different ingredients, including but not limited to, mulato chiles, toasted sesame seeds, almonds, and mexican drinking chocolate. The resulting sauce is a complex, multi-layered, taste explosion. Much like Alex Chilton was a complex and multi-layered artist. Thank you Mr. Chilton. Big Star will miss you.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Best Soda Ever?

Ahhhh, dare I say Spring is finally upon us here in Chicago, no jinx please Mother Nature. It's the time of year when we cast off the shackles of winter, and start to believe that warmer days are around the corner.

That brings me to the subject of liquid refreshment. Warm weather means more beverages. Being that we are a bar, we have lots of choices to wet one's whistle. Aside from the great drink list, massive selection of whiskeys, tequila, and beer, we at Big Star possess a non-alcoholic drink list of great depth.

Let's start with the obvious, soda. From south of the border, sweetened with pure, delicious cane sugar, we have Coke, Sprite, Jarritos Mandarin, Jarritos Pina, and last but certainly not least, Fresca.

In addition to our Mexican bretheren, we carry the full line of AJ Stephans phosphates. No corn syrup here. These flavors include, but are not limited to, raspberry lime rickey, sarsaparilla, birch beer, ginger beer, cream soda, and good old root beer.

On top of all that, my cocina (that's kitchen for the uninitiated) makes limeade, horchata, and dulce de leche milkshakes fresh daily.

For my money, or hangover, Fresca is hands down my favorite refresco of the moment. But I encourage you to stop by soon and take the soda list for a spin, because while Fresca is my darling, each and every carbonated jewel we carry is delicious. Cheers!

Friday, March 5, 2010


I have to give a shout out to the ladies that make this taqueria tick, my tortilleras, my tortilla makers.

This small cadre of ladies perform like finely tuned machines, hammering out a couple thousand fresh tortillas for the eager taco scarfing masses that frequent Big Star everyday. Simply put, no tortilleras=no tacos.

Pictured is Maria Salcedo, the grand dame of the crew. Her husband custom made a couple of tortilla presses (also pictured) for Big Star, for which I am very grateful. Always smiling, I hope I possess her spirit when I am her age.

Thanks Maria, Mari, Monse, Carmen, and Griselda. Much overdue.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


"Licuado, what's that?" These words were uttered by every staff member at today's pre-service meeting.

Knowing they are completely confused and bewildered, "It's simple",I say. Then I go on to explain that licuado, essentially meaning liquified, is the Spanish word for milkshake. The milkshake. That is a concept most Americans can wrap their heads around. Or so I thought.

I kind of threw a wrench into the works when I told them that the shake is made from avocados. Woops! I know, I know, not your average milkshake ingredient. But after making and tasting a few, it should be!

The resultant shake is luxuriantly thick and creamy. Not overly sweet, somewhat floral in flavor, the licuado looks like fresh sea foam. Reminiscent of the Shamrock Shake anyone? Needless to say, the shake is super refreshing. It makes us all yearn for warmer days here in Chicago.

I like mine with some freshly grated cinnamon on top.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Al Pastor.....

Tonight's Al Pastor spit. A combination of sliced pork shoulder, onions, and Big Star's secret (soon to be not so secret) marinade. Once the pork shoulder is delivered, we salt the pork with kosher salt, slather it in a generous amount of the marinade, and let it sit for 24-36 hours.

Following its initial marinating time, the pork is then skewered, onions and all, roasted before an open flame, and basted in pineapple juice. Yum, right??

How did I get here?

I'm the chef de cuisine of Big Star Taqueria in Chicago,IL. I was born in the United States. I have no relatives from Mexico. Up until a couple of years ago, my knowledge of the Mexican culinary pantheon was limited to the late night offerings at the local Taco Burrito King- no disrespect!

My culinary training was heavily influenced by French and Italian technique. My restaurant background is mostly new American, other than my stint at Little Caesar's in high school. How did I end up being the chef of a taco joint?

Simply put, I took a chance. I had faith in my intelligence, and culinary abilities, so I went for it. The learning curve was steep, but the research was super fun. Who wouldn't want to get their hands on as many tacos as they possibly could in a few months time? Needless to say, I ate a lot of tacos, a veritable ton of tacos. I read so much Diana Kennedy that my girlfriend started getting jealous. "Sleeping with Diana tonight?" was uttered more than once.

Testing was hard. My boss, Paul, was my toughest and most valued critic. He spent a few good years under the tutelage of Rick Bayless, a heavy hitter to say the least. Again, I went for it, I trusted my instincts. Tasting and testing went relatively smoothly, I was expecting the worst.

Opening day came quickly, and passed even quicker. I'm still standing..., and learning everyday. I don't consider myself any sort of expert on Mexican cuisine, but I possess a much greater knowledge of the Mexican kitchen than I did a couple of years ago, and continue to claw for more knowledge everyday. In a very long winded way, I'm trying to express to my fellow cooks that you can do anything you want if you put your mind and energy into it. There are no limits to what you can learn. I want to give a picture of our daily life here at the taqueria. Thanks for reading my little story, enjoy the blog.