Restaurants: All Over the Map, August 17, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

Restaurants: All Over the Map, August 17, 2008 

More Mexican regional specialties

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All Over the Map

More Mexican regional specialties

El Barco1035 N. Ashland | 773-486-6850

F 6.4 | S 5.6 | A 7.1 | $ (9 reports)Mexican | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, other nights till 11 | Reservations not accepted

Shaped like a boat getting ready to cast off across Ashland, El Barco isn't short on gimmicks: menus are so absurdly gigantic that one covers half of a four-seat table, and many selections come on huge troughlike platters. The house-made salsas are very good; the tostadas they come with less so. We enjoyed some excellent grilled squid and octopus, fresh and meaty, with a slight char that contrasted nicely with the tender white flesh. The breaded fish and shrimp on our mixed seafood grill, however, could have come from the kitchen of Señora Paul's. The signature dish at El Barco is huachinango, red snapper, which we saw perched in front of about half the diners in the place. Available with a variety of sauces, this whole cooked fish is mounted upright on a rack for easy access and pierced with a number of red plastic swords, as though done in by a mermaid matador. The downside to this presentation is that the fish isn't cooked in the sauce. Still, the moist, flavorful meat alone is worth a trip. —David Hammond

El Burrito Amigo5238 W. Grand | 773-637-2188

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

You should schedule your trips to El Burrito Amigo to coincide with the firing of the spit: 5 PM to 9 PM Monday through Saturday. If you're lucky, you'll get it right off the cone; come when the fire is turned down, though, and you'll see the pork cut off the spit and griddled to ensure, as owner Miguel told me, that it "cooks all the way through." Whenever you arrive, expect full-dress tacos al pastor, loaded with onions both raw and grilled (atypical, but nice), fresh cilantro, and radishes, the sharpness of the dressings balancing the richness of the pork, which is slightly underseasoned for my tastes. Take advantage of the fresh-squeezed orange juice ($3 for a large cup, without ice, which may tempt you to get a cup to bring home for breakfast). There are a range of tortas (we had a well-browned sandwich of carne asada, easy on the mayo, tasty), but the real star here is the taco al pastor. —David Hammond

Caoba1619 N. Damen | 773-342-2622

$$Mexican, Seafood | Lunch: friday-sunday; dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight, monday-thursday till 11

Caoba slipped into the former Pacific Cafe space, with a barely audible shout-out (on the tortilla baskets) to the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. Its specialty is tabletop parilladas, in this instance perforated molded metal boxes filled with burning hardwood charcoal, the vehicle for sizzling meats and vegetables. My first time I plowed into the seafood and meat versions with abandon, but quickly ran out of gas, wondering why I was exerting myself for such powerfully unspecial meat. The scallops, squid, and head-on langoustines all bore textural traces of freezer abuse compounded by overcooking, and the meats, chicken, chorizo, skirt steak, and excessively glazed orangey baby back ribs suffered similarly. About the only thing redeeming these were the piles of juicy sweet peppers and onions roasted in the juices. A ceviche appetizer of shredded tilapia settled to the bottom of a goblet of sweet citrusy tomato juice, and a coctel de camaron was chock-full of shrimp, though they were small and chewy. Nice house-fried tortillas chips with a tangy sweet salsa introduced a menu with another nod to the hometown in enchiladas Potosinas. Despite it all, the flat-screen TVs and long fauxdobe walls that open onto the Wicker Park parade may be all the place needs to survive on this turf. —Mike Sula

Carnitas Don Pedro1113 W. 18th | 312-829-4757

$Mexican | breakfast, lunch: seven days; dinner: monday-friday | Reservations not accepted | Cash only | BYO

The Sunday-morning pork rush at Carnitas Don Pedro presents a trial of forbearance appropriate for the after-church crowd. First one must worm one's way between two counters and a handful of small tables to the back of the line, which may snake into the kitchen, where sturdy men are stirring giant brass vats of roiling pig parts with paddles. Whether you're in the line for a table or the line for takeout, you'll be inching forward among a scrum of customers, cooks, and waitresses. If you're taking out, you'll eventually return to the front of the store, where birria, barbacoa, menudo, brain tacos, and a piquant cactus salad are ordered on the right side; chicharrones, fresh chorizo, and mountains of glistening, steaming carnitas on the left. Specify meat, fat, offal, or some of each and the man with the long knife chops it, piles it high in a cardboard boat, wraps it tight in butcher paper, then hands you a sizable snack to help you fight the urge to break into the package on the way home. At $5.80 a pound, the well-seasoned carnitas here are among my favorites in the city—the high turnover ensures they're hot and juicy, and they come with a brilliantly flavored dark green salsa flecked with plenty of red chile. Open weekdays 6 AM-6 PM, Saturday 5 AM-5 PM, Sunday 5 AM-2:30 PM. —Mike Sula

La Casa del Pueblo1834 S. Blue Island | 312-421-4664

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

Next to a grocery with the same name, this little cafeteria offers middle-of-the-road Mexican food at reasonable prices, starting at breakfast with egg-and-tortilla dishes like migas and chilaquiles. Dining here is hit-or-miss, with the pork in chile arbol and pollo en salsa (chicken breast cooked in a clear stew of zucchini and corn) among the hits. North Mexican-style tamales, moist with manteca (lard) and filled with slightly piquant meat, are available for carryout; barbacoa, too, is available to go. Chiles rellenos with meat were tasty, layered with chayote and slightly spicy. But patas de puerco (pigs' feet) were the worst thing I've eaten in a very long time: I wouldn't have thought even trotters had such large pockets of meatless and generally tasteless fat wrapped around the bones. Gorditas dulces are an excellent dessert for those who like pastry, flavored with vanilla and shreds of cinnamon bark for a pleasant explosion of flavor. Servers are very friendly and speak English as well as most of us speak Spanish. —David Hammond

La Cecina1943 W. 47th | 773-927-9444

$$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

Tired of dull, tasteless beef? Then get to La Cecina and savor the salt-dried traditional steak of Guerrero: when rehydrated and grilled, cecina is deliciously toothy and succulent. Other representative foods from Guerrero include a guajillo-spiked chicken soup in a bright red broth with fresh squash and carrot. This place is swimming with seafood: fried smelts were especially tasty spritzed with lime, and ceviche was helium light. My dining partner had grilled seafood with gently charred chunks of octopus, shrimp, and, alas, krab in a light sauce. Less routine menu items include quail, game hen, and bull's testicles. The tortillas at La Cecina are handcrafted, and we enjoyed quesadillas with requeson, Mexico's answer to ricotta, and fish (minced and fried in the tortilla). No booze is served, but there are healthful beverages including a fresh-squeezed concoction of mixed veggies and fruits and a milk shake of mamey, a starchy, honey-tinged tropical fruit. —David Hammond

Cuernavaca Restaurant1160 W. 18th | 312-829-1147

$Mexican | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: every night till 11

For 40 years this large, family-run Mexican restaurant has been drawing a crowd. It's one of the few in the neighborhood with a full bar, offering a selection of Mexican beers along with frosty margaritas. The menu is loaded with standbys like fajitas, burritos, and tostadas and also boasts several house specialties, including pollo asado (roast chicken) and costillas al carbon (Mexican-style barbecued ribs). There's also a cook-at-the-table parillada option available for the ambitious. —Laura Levy Shatkin

El Huarachin Huarachon3320 W. Lawrence | 773-267-3926

$Mexican | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Cash only| BYO

George Ortiz didn't name his Albany Park restaurant after his nine-year-old place Quesadillas y Mariscos Doña Lolis because he didn't want people to think he was starting a chain. But like the Rogers Park restaurant, quesadillas and huaraches are the game here, in addition to the familiar lineup of antojitos, little snacks like tacos, sopes, gorditas, pambasos, and tlacoyos, all made from fresh masa, ground and cooked at the mother ship. I got burned with some leathery old asada, but other toppings such as cactus with scrambled egg and a pork, mushroom, and poblano mixto are more durable and pretty tasty. The less common fillings that make Doña Lolis so notable (squash blossom, huitlacoche) are available, as is the house-made champurrado. —Mike Sula

La Justicia3901 W. 26th | 773-522-0041

$$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days| Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday-Sunday till 11

This Little Village restaurant puts out the usual Mexican dishes—with a few surprises. We started with exceptionally thick and flavorful caldo de mariscos in a broth so good even the krab in the mix seemed tasty. Our order of camarones rellenos turned out to be shrimp wrapped in bacon bathed in a chile de arbol sauce with praiseworthy bite and texture. Fajitas chiyonas was a blend of chicken, steak, fish, and shrimp in a red sauce, not bad despite the disconcerting mix of beasts. But the side of frijoles charros was just the best: plump pinto beans nestled into superb liquor with bacon and strips of ham—quite possibly the smartest two bucks I've spent in a long time. —David Hammond

May Street Cafe1146 W. Cermak | 312-421-4442

$$Mexican | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | BYO

On a dismal industrial stretch of Cermak, the bright, tropical-toned facade of May Street Cafe jumps out like a red-hot tamale. There are other surprises in the cuisine: never having met an alligator we liked, we ordered it for an appetizer, and with a nutty, sage-based mojo criollo, it's not bad, tasting something like—you guessed it—chicken. Michoacan-style mole was more hot than sweet, with pasilla and ancho chiles and just a touch of chocolate, and the chiles rellenos also packed a lot of peppery punch. The Caesar salad wasn't one—just knife-cut romaine with croutons and what could be bottled dressing, but the double-cream Brie and pear quesadillas were inspired; served with sweet crema and chipotle ketchup and listed as an appetizer, they would also be a rich, sweet way to end the meal. A patio is slated to open in late July. —David Hammond

Nuevo Leon1515 W. 18th | 312-421-1517

$$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days| Open late: Monday-Saturday till midnight, Sunday till 11 | Reservations not accepted | Cash only | BYO

They serve a heap o' flour tortillas and meat in the northerly Mexican state of Nuevo Leon, and for more than 40 years this restaurant has done a fine job of doing the same. Tacos de sabinas are house-made white tortillas with a soft, crepelike consistency—they seem to melt around strips of seasoned steak. Frijoles con chorizo is a densely textured accompaniment that's worth every calorie. Carne a la Tampiquena is the classic skirt steak—found all over Mexico and the menu—with beans, enchilada, and guacamole, steak's soul mate. We really liked the guisado de puerco in salsa roja, a piquant stew with slow-cooked, chile-sauce-saturated pork. Pig also makes an appearance in tangy tamales. If you come earlier in the day, consider ordering some of the renowned breakfast chilaquiles or machacado con huevo (seasoned steak in egg). You can BYOB, or for a buck get a cup of foamy, cinnamony Mexican cocoa. —David Hammond

Nuevo Leon3657 W. 26th | 773-522-1515

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till midnight

At first glance the Little Village Nuevo Leon looks like just another corner joint, with many of the usual Chi-Mex standards. A few distinctive foods typical of the restaurant's Mexican namesake, however, set it apart. Machacado con huevo is a scrambled egg taco showcasing cesina, shredded beef that's been dried, then rehydrated and pounded. With this we enjoyed a michelada, kind of a beer-based Bloody Mary made with Angostura bitters and Tabasco sauce, fresh-squeezed lemon, salt and pepper, and beer over ice (there's some evidence to suggest that this drink is the long-sought cure for the common cold). The state of Nuevo Leon is landlocked—perhaps that's why the fish we had here was so dry and unduly fishy. Both it and the soggy fries it came with, though, become much more delicious when splashed with the house-made pico de gallo. The chicken mole was good if unmemorable, the meat relatively meaty and the sauce quite chocolaty. Flour tortillas are most common in the north—and this is one of the few restaurants in Chicago that make their own tortillas de harina; you can really taste the difference. This is a very friendly place; when you come in on weekends, you're offered a south-of-the-border amuse-bouche: a taquito with a dollop of barbacoa, a juicy mouthful to get the meal going. Afterward you're brought a complimentary plate of melon, apple, and orange. Nice. —David Hammond

La Pasadita Restaurant1141 N. Ashland | 773-278-0384

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days| Open late: Every night till 3 | Reservations not accepted | BYO

La Pasadita had 15 minutes of fame last October. LTHForum anointed the hole-in-the-wall on the east side of Ashland one of the year's Great Neighborhood Restaurants, while top British chef Heston Blumenthal and friends paid a late-night visit to the larger of the two restaurants on the west side (at 1132 N. Ashland), an event chronicled by the Chicago Tribune. That location was also featured on Check, Please! And truth is, all three are local institutions, notwithstanding the debate about which is "best." The reason they're clustered within half a block of each other is an example of the American dream come true: the patriarch of the Espinoza family that runs them opened the first shack in 1976, and when it took off, he expanded across the street to 1140 N. Ashland. A competitor's plans prompted him to acquire 1132 N. Ashland, which made its debut in 1996 with more tables and a bigger, somewhat Americanized menu. Fans of the original praise the authentic atmosphere—counter seating only, and not much of that—and a menu limited to a handful of tacos and burritos. I enjoyed the carne asado burrito packed with smoky, chewy steak, onions, and cilantro (no beans, lettuce, tomato, etc) and decent doubled-up soft corn tortilla tacos folded over barbacoa, tongue, and chile relleno with onions and cilantro. But 1132's creature comforts beckon, even though it's nothing fancy. The food is on about the same level, with choices including quesadillas nortenas, cheese-stuffed corn tortillas smothered with onions and fresh tomato sauce, and parrillada especial, a tortilla pan heaped with enough chicken, spicy sausage, carne asada, and thinly sliced short ribs to feed a family of four for a mere $25. —Anne Spiselman

La Quebrada4859 W. Roosevelt, Cicero | 708-780-8110

$$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days| Open late: Every night till 11 | BYO

You'd expect a restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Guerrero, on the Pacific coast, to have some decent seafood, and La Quebrada does—especially the shrimp cocktails and ceviche. But when I go to this tiny joint in a dilapidated industrial zone, I want the goat barbacoa and fresh tortillas. La Quebrada's rendition of this dish is exceptional, featuring meaty hunks, perfectly cooked to a slightly pink center, served with cilantro, onion, and guacamole. On the side is a bowl of frijoles de la hoya, plump pinto beans in a mild broth. Handmade tortillas are a rarity for any Mexican restaurant, especially for one with a number of locations (there are three others in Chicago and one in Cicero). The ones here are pliant and absorbent, providing a perfect platform for piling on meat and vegetables soaked with the house molcajete (salsa ground and served in a mortar). Cornmeal also finds its way into other selections on the menu, among them huaraches, which are a vegetarian's nightmare/carnivore's dream come true, topped with a selection of tasty animals including marinated pork, chicken, regular steak, and dried steak (cesina). To drink there's freshly squeezed orange or carrot juice, as well as aguas frescas, lightly flavored beverages of sweet rice flour and cinnamon, tamarind, or hibiscus. The place is usually crowded with families and other locals who know they'll get the real thing—and lots of it. As I was eating, I watched two of Chicago's finest, each as big as my car, patting their bellies and leaving with doggie bags full of too much good food to finish in one sitting. —David Hammond

Sabas Vega Carnitas Restaurant1808 S. Ashland | 312-666-5180

$Mexican | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days

Family owned since 1966, this former butcher shop now specializes in carnitas. Shimmering with fat, the drop-dead-gorgeous piggy bits are available seven days a week, but weekends are when Sabas Vega shines. Crowds line up starting at 6 AM for weekend-only treats of birria de chivo, tender goat accented with chile; barbacoa made exclusively from cheek meat and tender as a dying lover's last words; menudo, the perfect cure for that wild Saturday night; and cabecitas de chivo, steamed goat head. Rice and beans shine with flavor and glisten with lard, cactus salad is a flavorful counterpoint, and there's a full range of aguas frescas and soft drinks, Mexican and American. The tables are comfortable and the waitresses efficient, and occasionally some strolling mariachis make the rounds. On the weekends—especially if you're interested in the specials—I suggest arriving early. —Gary Wiviott

Taqueria El Milagro1923 S. Blue Island | 312-433-7620

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

This festive, brightly painted cafe sits on the main floor of the renowned tortilla factory of the same name. The green and salmon walls, painted with trees and oversized flowers, make it one of the more attractive rooms in Pilsen, although the food isn't quite as nice to look at, served up cafeteria style. Pan after steaming pan is loaded with daily offerings like puerca en verde (pork in green tomatillo sauce), guisado de res (house-special beef in a dark sauce), and lengua de res (stewed beef tongue). Tacos, tamales, chiles rellenos, and burritos are available for takeout, and a large dispenser of chilled horchata (sweet rice milk) bubbles behind the counter for dessert. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Taqueria El Pastor4418 W. 63rd | 773-284-1003

$Mexican | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Every night till 2

The sign in front of Taqueria El Pastor shows a hand slicing meat from the flaming meat cone, but before you go in, peek in the front window and make sure the spit is spinning. You can get your tacos al pastor carved fresh, but you have to ask for them that way; standard operating procedure seems to be to griddle meat before serving—which is understandable, especially during slow periods. We had several tacos of lightly marinated, excellently broiled meat, squirted with a little hot sauce to add piquancy. Tortas of carne asada are also very good, and though much of the menu is standard taqueria fare, birria and menudo are available every day rather than just on weekends, as at many places. There are fresh-squeezed juices, and fresh fruit milk shakes that may make you feel a little better about being so unabashedly carnivorous. —David Hammond

Xni-Pec5135 W. 25th, Cicero | 708-652-8680

$$Mexican | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: friday & Saturday till 11

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the Chicago area got a rare Yucatecan restaurant when Xni-Pec (pronounced "shnee peck") opened in Cicero. Owner Antonio Contreras's mother runs the kitchen, and his grandmother has come up from Yucatan several times to help with the recipes. Unlike the foods of many other Mexican regions, Yucatecan cuisine isn't inherently spicy, so you can savor the flavors without heat or amp it as you please with xni-pec (it means "wet nose") and other incendiary salsas made from habanero chiles. Cochinita pibil is a typical Yucatecan dish: pork spread with a paste of ground annatto seeds, lime, and vinegar, wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a pit. This pre-Columbian preparation is served with bright pink pickled red onion, which supplies a welcome acidic note to the silky pork. Huevos Motulenos—the finest rendition of this dish I've had outside the dusty town of Motul—are eggs on a tostada, sprinkled with ham, cheese, peas, and salsa and paired with black beans and a little mound of rice, with a disk of plantain. For dessert there's calabaza y comote, a sugary blend of a pumpkinlike squash and a sweet-potato-like tuber, candied and served with a slice of orange, another example of a basic but delicious preparation of common ingredients. Beverages include a light, refreshing melon water—cantaloupe juice and water—or, more exotic, xtabentun, a flowery honey liqueur flavored with anise. —David Hammond

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