Chicago has the best and most diverse Mexican food scene north of the border—in many ways even more so than Los Angeles. It's impossible to overstate how much the fine-dining part of that can be credited to a certain non-Mexican who's introduced more gringos to real Mexican food than anyone else. But it's also interesting to note that Rick Bayless's particular marriage of authentic and local doesn't extend to every white tablecloth restaurante in town. Eusebio Garcia, a veteran of MK, proved that when he and his ex-wife, Katie, opened Mundial Cocina Mestizo in 2006. He did it again taking over Amelia's Bar & Grill in Canaryville, adding a few Mediterranean and Asian accents to a Mexican foundation. Now Garcia and his cousin Leo have taken that same idea north, to where the Kennedy spews cars into the Loop gateway at Grand and Ogden, a neighborhood where the success of Twisted Spoke and Coalfire flies in the face of the sparse and purposeful el foot traffic it gets.
To snare what little there is, Garcia's plying a menu of large, extremely busy appetizers and entrees piled high with riotous bushes of vegetal garnish and layered with blankets of sauce, melted cheese, and cream. Overcomplication characterizes a number of them, as with slices of grilled pork tenderloin atop fat fava beans and diced andouille, their topnot of thin frazzled onions losing integrity under a salty fruited sauce. Or consider the huitlacoche quesadilla, which enfolds inky corn smut deepened by a medicinal dose of epazote and a thick billfold of melted Chihuahua cheese, the whole thing peaking in a tangle of sprouts and julienned root vegetables.
It's also drizzled with crema, in line with a maximalist incorporation of dairy that figures thoughout the menu. Whatever shellfish resides in the wan lobster empanada set amid a spread of sun-dried tomato pesto is engulfed by deposits of cream cheese. A crema bomb adds superfluous richness to a special thick tortilla soup that one afternoon came accompanied by a shockingly ill-treated room-temperature oyster on the half shell.
Such executional gaffes occur often enough to erode confidence: a spicy, chunky chicken tinga was served on a soggy torta with limp iceberg lettuce at one lunch, and on another occasion the fat shrimp buried under an otherwise nutty and delicious pipian were unnervingly mushy.
A few dishes—among them Garcia's signature tamarind-glazed grilled salmon—have made the trip north, as has a penchant for unlikely or contextless fusions: a side of eggplant stir-fried in oyster sauce, "Asian crab roll" taquitos, and, oddest of all, a grilled rib eye with Gorgonzola and polenta.
Often these dishes are less than the sum of more interesting parts like a peanut salsa served with the crispy skinned chicken breast or the deeply concentrated roasted tomatillo table salsa. The multiple components at play in these plates need to harmonize or be streamlined if they're going to command prices more commensurate with addresses a few miles eastward. Or if they're going to attract the same destination diners that have kept Amelia's afloat.
E-mail Mike Sula at firstname.lastname@example.org.