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Friday, June 21, 2013

Eating solo at Logan Square's Polanco

Posted By on 06.21.13 at 04:11 PM

Polancos Spanish onion soup
If a half-naked Aztec warrior-princess appears in a restaurant and there's no one there to see her, does she cause a fuss? Remember last November when some anonymous upright citizen hollered cop about the exposed breasts on the fierce maiden who hung on the wall in Logan Square's Real Tenochtitlan, and then management painted over them?

Real Tenochtitlan is gone, but the painting, by muralist Oscar Romero, is back, and the areola mammae have reappeared as well, peeking out from behind some sort of binding antisupport garment. It's hanging in the exact same spot on the wall at Polanco, the "classic Latino steak house" that replaced Real Tenochtitlan. That means owner Cesar Reyes, who's cheffed in a bunch of places over the past few decades (Spruce, Nine, Smith & Wollensky, Park Grill, Chicago Firehouse, 33 Club, and Zapatista), is offering a range of classic steak house standards—oysters, onion, soup, wedge salads, steaks (naturally)—with overt and not-so-overt Mexican twists.

Somehow this hasn't captured the imagination of the neighborhood. I've eaten there twice, at prime time, on a Tuesday and Thursday, and on both occasions I was the first and last diner during the length of my stay. Not a good sign, is it? Usually when that happens it's a telltale indication the food is bad, or that there's some other, perhaps nefarious, purpose for the restaurant's existence.

An empty, echoing, cavernous restaurant is discouraging enough to color the appreciation of any meal. That being said, there are some fairly decent things to be plucked off the menu, namely a pair of tiny "pork wing carnitas"—tibia shanks frenched and deep-fried to a crackly extreme and served with creamy radish and carrot slaw. A simple tuna ceviche was surprisingly fresh for a place that couldn't have been turning it over very much, which was the same reason I couldn't bring myself to order raw oysters, or nearly anything off the seafood menu, until a walleye special was offered—a reasonably well-executed pan-seared fillet perched atop a mound of bland, reheated risotto, which wasn't so bad once amalgamated with its surrounding moat of "smoky," "cheesy" tomato sauce. Poblano pepper murked up the color of a side of creamed corn, but the mildly spicy addition was an inspired one. The "Spanish" onion soup is great, mildly amped by jalapenos, thick with sweet caramelized onions, and blanketed in bubbly melted cheese, which echoed an effect on one of the most unusual munches I've come across in a while: shrimp chicharron. These have nothing to do with pork skin, but are shrimp-stuffed pockets of crispy charred cheese, sprinkled with pickled peppers, and bedded on some of that risotto's smoky tomato sauce.

If you started there and moved on to the dino-sized double-cut pork chop "al pastor"—a luscious, fatty hunk of meat and a worthy approximation of the pineappled pork-on-a-spit taco standard—you might be mystified as to why Polanco seems so abandoned.

Well, there are some stinkers, namely the wedge salad, browning on the edges and Mexicanized with hominy, black beans, and watery tomatoes. The whole roast chicken was tiny and overcooked. And the risotto tasted like it was held and reheated in the microwave, just as the garlic-whipped mashed potatoes did. Most of the entries on the de rigueur house cocktails list are diluted with an overabundance of crappy ice-machine ice.

As for steaks, there are relatively few choices for a dedicated steak house. While a 12-once skirt ordered rare—that's right, bloody—was just about perfect despite being drenched in a watery lime-butter sauce, a 16-ounce T-bone could easily have passed for something plucked out of the cooler at Jewel. So it's a mixed bag.

But these are not reasons to act as if this place doesn't exist, people. The restaurant appears to be moving into desperation mode. There's a giant banner hanging in front now advertising a $5 Sunday brunch. Five dollars! It's not hard to speculate that there might be a lot of stuff to unload at the end of the week, but that seems like an appropriate, low-risk way to give this place a chance.

Polanco, 2541 N. Milwaukee, 773-227-9898

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