Mexican Tapas | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Mexican Tapas 

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Sol de Mexico

3018 N. Cicero

773-282-4119

On July 14 a lightning rod sprang up on the culinary chat site LTHForum.com. "After a psychically draining day (no, week, no, month, no, . . . year) I picked up Himself . . . and suggested we stop for supper before heading home," the poster wrote. In the window of a storefront on Cicero near Belmont she'd seen a hand-painted sign advertising "tortillas hecho a mano," handmade tortillas. She and her husband went in to dine on lamb in mole negro and pork in mole manchamanteles--both excellent, she reported--along with sopecitos, small stuffed masa cups. The restaurant, she wrote, is BYO and has been open just a few months; its chef-owner, Carlos Tello, is engaged to the sister of Geno Bahena, well-known for the now shuttered Chilpancingo and Ixcapuzalco (Geno's brother Tomas runs Ixcapuzalco/La Bonita). Within 48 hours Sol de Mexico was filling up with foodies who know a hot tip when they get one.

A portrait of Bahena (alongside one of Rick Bayless) features prominently in the Maxwell Street panorama that hangs inside the restaurant's front door. Tello says that when he drew up the plans for the place Bahena was generous with advice but insisted that Tello dream up the menu on his own: "Geno said he could do it for me but it would mean nothing because the menu had to come from me, from my heart. I learned from that, and I want my guests to feel the passion and love I put into my food." Sol de Mexico is a family affair: Clementina Flores, Bahena's mother, consulted on the dishes.

Tello himself has been in the restaurant business for the 20 years or so he's lived here, working his way up from dishwasher to prep cook, bartender, and waiter--he was a server at Coco Pazzo for eight years. A native of Ciudad Hidalgo, in Michoacan, he says that though he's embarrassed to admit it, he was naive about the distinctiveness and diversity of Mexican cuisine until landing in the States. "When I came to this country and met people from Puerto Rico, Peru, and Cuba, I realized that Mexican food was different. That started me learning more about the food of the country I love," he says. His concept for Sol de Mexico he calls "Mexican tapas," regional small plates emphasizing, as did Bahena, the classic varieties of mole, though large plates and standards like tacos, tortas, and burritos are also available.

On my first visit I savored four of the seven moles of Oaxaca: a dark and chocolaty negro, a just slightly hot rojo, the fruit-based manchamanteles, and a mild mole verde made with pumpkin seeds. Tello offers tastes of each and seems open to mixing and matching, but he knows his way around a spice rack and it might be best to trust his palate. His moles, which are made without manteca (lard), deliver a quick burn with subtle lightness. The mole verde, in particular, sparkles with clean flavors; it's delicious smeared on a tortilla.

The sopecitos--silver-dollar-size tartlets ridged around a mound of moist chicken in mole roja and topped with seeds--were magnificently simple. Deep green corundas, flat tamales of masa mixed with ash, provided an interesting and unusual complement to sauced pork. The hard-to-find tamales de elote--served unfilled or "blind"--were remarkably sweet, squiggled with crema and salsa verde and dotted with queso fresco. Like the tortillas, the tamales are handmade by Lalita Mendoza, a veteran of Ixcapuzalco and Chilpancingo.

Some dishes here swim in a creamy chipotle sauce, which at first seemed a sop to popular tastes but proved a smoky, smooth counterpoint to meat and fish. Sopa Azteca is a rich broth, piquant with Oaxacan pasilla chiles and a touch of heat; enchiladas Michoacanas are stuffed with chicken and ladled with moderately hot guajillo salsa. Chiles rellenos are made with a milder poblano, a good foil to spicy picadillo, and the enchiladas suizas are dressed in a salsa made with serrano chiles, a hotter pepper that makes for a nice contrast to the chicken and Chihuahua cheese.

Tello says customers aren't always ready for authenticity but are learning quickly. "A man came in and ordered enchiladas in mole rojo. He asked for cheese on it, because that's how he always had it. I said I could do that, sure, but the cheese is going to steal all the flavors from the mole. Why don't you try it the more simple way? So he tried it, and he liked it because he could really taste the natural flavors. Now he comes back for it."

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

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