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Critic's Choice 

Three Latin Favorites Near Clark and Addison

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OTRO MAS, 3651 N. Southport, 773-348-3200: Owner Hubie Greenwald and chef-owner John Manion gave their second restaurant the same design and lively ambience as the Wicker Park Mas, with faux-finished walls and ceilings and funky Latin music that's loud but not too loud for easy conversation. Marbled cream-colored leather banquettes provide comfortable seating, though tables are so closely positioned that privacy isn't really an option. Starters include a complimentary cumin-heavy bean dip served with bread; a daily seviche; gazpacho with crabmeat; and a thick arepa (corn cake) with fried shrimp, beberete salsa (made mostly of tomatoes), and buerre blanc. The dry-aged New York strip is charred on the outside and nicely medium rare on the inside, accompanied by chipotle butter, potatoes mashed with Cabrales (a Spanish blue cheese), and "tobacco" onions--onion rings coated in a tasty combination of chilies and spices. An elegant seared duck breast comes fanned out around a mound of pear salsa next to a flaky empanada filled with tender duck-leg confit and drizzled with a rum reduction. There's a selection of high-end tequilas and Brazilian cocktails and a limited but thoughtful wine list with an emphasis on Spanish varietals.

ARCO DE CUCHILLEROS, 3445 N. Halsted, 773-296-6046: One of Chicago's first tapas restaurants (and a relative of the fabulous and now defunct La Paella), this family-run place serves reasonably priced "small dishes" with interesting touches. The "caliente" side of the menu offers the greatest variety, including such classics as chorizo con pimentos and calamares a la plancha (squid with lemon juice, white wine, garlic, and oil). Save room for a large portion of savory paella Valenciana, a saffron-seasoned rice with pork, chicken, seafood, and chorizo. Our Raters prefer Arco to the noisier Cafe Iberico. "It's nowhere near as hokey and theme-y," says one. "It's just really good tapas."

COOBAH, 3423 N. Southport, 773-528-2220: Giving neighbor Otro Mas a run for its money, Coobah serves the nuevo Latino food of chef Jimmy Madla--Veruca Salt's drummer and formerly a chef at Zaven's. The 12-ounce strip steak is encrusted in peppercorns and served with seasonal vegetables and potato gratin, while the tilapia comes with olives, chickpeas, peppers, and tomato jam. A good choice for late-night dining--the kitchen serves past midnight--might be the homemade tamales, $2.50 each and filled with cinnamon beef, spicy pork, braised chicken, or beans and chihuahua cheese. Owner John Litz designed the space, including clever details like oversize copper light fixtures shaped like flowers. (Check out the bathrooms too, where the faucet handles are huge multipronged wheels.) Some will appreciate the Latin tunes piped in through the powerful sound system; others will be annoyed that it's so hard to converse. (On Sunday nights Jesse de la Pena spins dance music.) The mostly Chilean and Spanish wine list is full of reasonably priced gems, close to a dozen of which are poured by the glass; earthy red varietals like Malbec, Carmeniere, and Tempranillo work well with the heady cuisine. There's also an extensive list of goofy mixed drinks (e.g., the J. Lo, a frothy, shaken sangria served in a martini glass with pink sugar and a chunk of pineapple on the rim).

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

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