Restaurant Tours: 21 years in a Mexican standby 

Entering the restaurant pool with a splash isn't all that hard to do--remember Cucina Cucina?--but toughing it out over the long haul is another matter. Times and tastes change, and a savvy restaurateur has to stay flexible while keeping his old customers and good employees. Mi Casa-Su Casa at 2524 N. Southport seems to have managed.

For 21 years, Felix Gomez and his wife Micky have served interesting, reasonably priced Mexican fare in their comfortable dining room. Though the restaurant was already a success, over time, the menu, service, and decor have improved.

Mi Casa is no taco stand. The handsome stuccoed dining room is intimate and well appointed, with linen on the table and striking artifacts on the walls. There's a small bar, handy for waiting when the place is busy (weekend evenings and 7 to 9 many weeknights). The atmosphere is casual, and the servers are affable and efficient. The crowd, which used to be a blend of DePaul types and local Latinos, is increasingly young married professionals as the neighborhood goes town house crazy.

"The change in the neighborhood hasn't really forced us to change what we do," Gomez says, but one casualty has been lunch--"It was popular when there were a lot of factories around here; now that the neighborhood has changed, we don't bother with it anymore."

The food at Mi Casa is thoroughly Mexican, with a nod to Anglo tastes, and offers more variety than most places on 18th or 26th Street, where budget-priced dishes from northern Mexico are the norm. A native of and frequent visitor to Acapulco, Gomez has kept Mi Casa ahead of most Chicago Mexican restaurants by keeping abreast of food trends in his hometown. For the most part, he doesn't serve the bland tourist food that you find at Cafe Azteca or Lindo Mexico--the red pepper salsa on the table is uncompromising, and the strength of the menu is in the entrees, not the antojitos (tacos, enchiladas, burritos, and the like, the Mexican equivalent of a pasta course), though they're just fine.

Appetizers ($3.50-$7.95) show Mi Casa's edge in sophistication for a restaurant of its type. The guacamole and queso fundido (melted cheese with a slathering of chorizo sausage on top, spooned onto sections of flour tortilla) are excellent, and two botanas (assortments) offer items like chalupas (small crisp tortillas) not always found on Chicago menus. In an interesting twist, nachos--usually tortilla chips covered with melted cheese and a slice of hot pepper--can be ordered with mushrooms. There are unusual dishes like natice, jalapeno croustade cups filled with guacamole, chorizo, beans, beef, and a sour-cream topping, and puff pastries filled with chorizo. In cold weather, it's not unusual for appetizers to be followed by a complimentary bowl of soup.

Mi Casa's strongest suit is its skirt steak dishes--tender and full-flavored, the skirt steak stands up well to the smother-style sauces used in Mexican food. Aside from carne asada, Mexican steak and potatoes (also served Tampico style with a cheese enchilada and guacamole), Gomez serves skirt steak en brochette, smothered in cheese, onions, and poblano peppers, and steak fajitas and burritos. The best skirt steak of all isn't on the menu ("I'll be honest with you," giggles Gomez, "our printer just goofed up and left it off the menu"); the Mi Casa-Su Casa steak is a version of the classic Mexican dish bistec Mazatlan--steak drenched in tomato sauce laden with chunks of aromatic vegetables. Like most entrees, which cost $7.95-$12.95, steaks are accompanied by creamy refried beans and Mexican rice dotted with green peas.

While there's nothing wrong with the usual chicken dishes at Mi Casa--chicken in mushroom and wine sauce or breast of chicken topped with poblano peppers and melted cheese--the winner is Pollo Coyuca 22, an Acapulco import named for a restaurant there. A breast of chicken covered with a subtle cheese sauce and poblano strips is surrounded by sections of avocado. Served with a tossed salad, rice, and beans, it's a real palate refresher. How fiery is it? It depends on whether the poblanos are from alkaline Mexican soil (hot) or the milder climate of California, but poblanos never achieve the heat of sport peppers or the all-time killers, smoked jalapenos (chipotles).

Gomez buys fresh seafood and freezes it himself, so the selection ($10.95-$12.95) is tasty, if limited. Shrimp in the usual Acapulco style--plain broiled with garlic butter--or dipped in batter and fried Oaxaca style, an unusual dish in Chicago Mexican restaurants, are good, and red snapper can be eaten Vera Cruz style or Acapulco style. Whitefish in lemon and butter sauce is probably the most Anglo item on the menu.

If choosing makes you crazy, opt for a combination. Antojito combinations run $8-$14, entree and antojito combinations $14-$22, and the substantial portions are the menu's best bargains. Two of the tastiest are the Combination Pueblo (for two), which combines the restaurant's signature skirt steak with chiles rellenos, guacamole, rice, and beans ($14.95), and the new Parillada Mixta, a belly-boggling assortment of chicken and steak fajitas, chiles rellenos, four broiled shrimp, guacamole, rice, and beans ($21.95)--after feeding two adults and a six-year-old with it, we had enough left over for two lunches.

Variety is a Mi Casa strength, except for dessert--flan, ice cream in several flavors, or breaded and fried plantain bananas garnished with sour cream. The coffee is good, and there is a wide variety of after-dinner drinks from the well-stocked bar, which can dish out everything from boysenberry margaritas to Spanish wine or a dozen special cocktails, most based on tequila, 43 liqueur, rum, or Kahlua.

A dinner of appetizers and antojitos, drinks and coffee will run under $30 for two, a combination dinner and drinks will cost $35-$40, and the pig out--two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts, and two drinks apiece--would result in a tab of $40-$50 and lots of leftovers for anybody smaller than the Fridge. Mi Casa-Su Casa is open every night from 4 to 2 and the kitchen closes at 1 AM. In the works for this summer is a tentable, full-service outdoor cafe. Reservations (525-6323) might not be a bad idea for weekend evenings, when a gypsy trio often drops in to play everything from Django Reinhardt to "La Bamba" for tips. Felix's advice, which he'll be happy to give you, is free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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