Chicago Magazine, September 2004
By Dennis Ray Wheaton
After tuning his taste buds during a trip to Oaxaca, Chicago’s chief dining critic scours the city for the best Mexican restaurantsand disheshere at home
ONE MORNING THIS PAST SPRING in Oaxaca, I woke up in my hotel bed hungry. I went straight for the mini fridge, which I was glad to see still housed the previous night’s leftover cheese with grasshoppers and maguey worm empanadas. My wife eyed me like she was about to call the policía. “You’ve been in an uncommonly good mood since we came down here,” she said.
And why not? You can’t toss a tortilla in Oaxaca City, the vibrant cultural center of Mexico’s southern Pacific state, without hitting a fantastic restaurant or fast-food stand. The town’s got the finest regional cooking in Mexico, hands down; even the mezcal had improved since our previous visit, when the rotgut was sold in plastic petrol cans. The thrill of it all reminded me of why Mexican was my favorite ethnic food. The next thing on my plate could be something as soothing as rabbit braised with wild mushrooms in a delicate, creamy poblano sauceperfect with a light tempranillo red wine from Spainor a cojoneschallenging chili fireball that sends me gasping and grasping for my icy margarita.
When we got back to Chicago, I couldn’t wait to test how Mexican cuisine here stacked up. I’ve reviewed the best of Los Angeles’s Mexican restaurants for publication, and I’ve eaten my share of tacos and tortillas all over the United States, but I had never systematically made the rounds in my adopted hometown. Now, with 65 Mexican meals in three months under my belt, it’s clear as tequila blanco that Chicago is loaded with delicious Mexican food, however scarce insects are on local menus. From terrific neighborhood restaurants and taquerías to haute Mex, Chicago is one sizzling tamale.
CHILIES AND I GO WAY BACK. I GREW up in Texas eating Mexican and Tex-Mex from the Panhandle to El Paso and spent my wayward youth living south of the border and in Los Angeles (home to the largest Mexican population in North America) with my first wife, who was Mexican. Her family owned seven ranches in Chihuahua, and I learned the basics of Mexican cooking from her mother, a gentle aristocrat who kept a bottle of smooth Herradura tequila nearby “para medicina.” I learned that being a calm gringo was the safest way to go in hot-blooded Mexico, an attitude that works with the cuisine although it ultimately didn’t work with that wife. (My second wife just laughs when I try to remain calm.)
When I moved to Chicago in the late seventies, I was afraid I’d never find good Mexican restaurants and authentic ingredients. But I soon learned Chicago had the second largest Mexican urban population north of the border. I found good neighborhood spots in Pilsen, and the markets sold everything I needed to cook up my own favorite recipes. Then, in 1987, Rick Bayless brought it all into technicolor when he, with his wife, Deann, as manager, opened the most cutting edge Mexican restaurant north or south of the Río Grande: Frontera Grill. I was astounded by the pure and complex flavors and delighted by the casually chic room. Until then, I had tasted such food only in Mexican homes and markets. Even the rice and beans were worlds better than the clichéd side dishes so often served in American Mexican restaurants. Two years later, the Baylesses dropped another bombshell: Topolobampo, adjacent to Frontera. I was flabbergasted. Topolo perfectly showcased their talent and love for deep and nuanced regional Mexican flavors in an elegant dining room outfitted with trappings usually reserved for French cuisine: white tablecloths, artistic platings, and a sommelier overseeing an impressive wine list. The result was world-class Mexican, which is why the Baylesses’ restaurants have long been destinations for top chefs from all over the globe.
In Oaxaca and other major Mexican cities, the best chefs rival Bayless, but many of their creations qualify as Nuevo Mexicano. They bring in world flavors especially French and Italian, but Asian, tooand fuse them with traditional Mexican ones. Bayless, bless him, is a purist. His robust yet subtle Mexican flavors remain distinct by region, so that the taste of a Yucatecan or Oaxacan or Zacatecan or Sinaloan dish stays true to its classical style. He does rely on artisanal, seasonal American ingredients, but that makes him even more faithful to Mexican cooking, where the choicest local meats, vegetables, and cheeses are naturally raised and market fresh.
Rabbits, ducks, turkeys, deerand insectsinhabited Mexico before the Spaniards introduced pigs, goats, cattle, and chickens in the early 16th century. A purist myself, on my latest visit to Topolobampo I ordered that fantastic braised rabbit I mentioned, plus a wonderful Yucatecan salad of crispy duck carnitas in sour orange and habanero chili sauce with radishes. A few nights later at Frontera, I went for the grilled carne asada made with a naturally raised rib steak marinated in a red chili rub. Its explosive beefy flavor puts many a Chicago steak-house slab in the shade. Desserts are a revelation on both sides of the building, among them Frontera’s Oaxacan chocolate cake sandwiching a layer of house-made strawberry ice cream with bittersweet chocolate sauce. One bite of the rich chocolate-cinnamon cake and I thought of the fabulous chocolate factory I visited in Oaxacaone of many that use the cacao grown on the surrounding hillsides.
And Bayless keeps getting better. He closes his restaurants for a week every summer and takes his staff to a different region of Mexico to learn more about the food and bring home new recipes. In the process, he has trained numerous young talents who have subsequently opened their own places in Chicago, expanding the local Mexican fine dining scene and raising it to its highest level ever. Most notable among FG/Topo alums is Priscila Satkoff, who is now almost as good as the master. The flavors at her white-tablecloth ¡Salpicón! can be slightly less refined than those at Frontera Grill, but not in delights like grilled lamb chops in garlicky pasilla sauce served with shiitake tamales, or a pear and mango cobbler with cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) ice cream. And, like Topolobampo, ¡Salpicón! takes all reservations; FG accepts them only for parties of five or more (and for a few diners who luck out when they make a last-minute call).
Kevin Karales is another Bayless grad, as you might guess from tasting his dynamite thick red chili table salsa at Platiyo. This jammin’ Mia Francescaenterprise spot has the vibrant colors of Frontera and a similar feellike Bayless for Beginners. This is the place to order a shrimp cocktail. It’s kicked up with roasted tomatoes and habanero chilies and just begs to be washed down by one of the 100 tequilas with an excellent sangrita chaser. Then move on to roast chicken with chile ancho, garlic, and lime, and perhaps finish with a topnotch traditional pastel de tres leches. And as you savor the last crumbs of the cake, remember that Platiyo’s desserts come from BomBon, a Pilsen bakery run by the talented Mexicanborn Laura Cid Perea, another veteran of the Topolobampo kitchen.
Patrick Concannon helped develop Platiyo, but his home base is Don Juan Restaurante in Edison Park, where he offers both traditional and Nuevo Mexicano cooking. You’ll find excellent renditions of classic seviche, chiles rellenos, and carne asada with cheese enchilada; but order off the more sophisticated “Patricio’s Menu”same roof, same kitchenfor modern creations like rack of lamb in chile ancho bordelaise with wild mushrooms and herbed risotto.
Geno Bahena has learned Bayless’s lessons as well as anyoneand he brings loads of knowledge from his childhood in Guerrero (a state on the Pacific coast). In 1999 he opened Logan Square’s Ixcapuzalco (named for his hometown), which featured a different one of the famous seven moles of Oaxaca nightly. Still does; but his best cooking now is at River North’s Chilpancingo (named for the capital of Guerrero), where the menu is more ambitious than Ixcapuzalco’s. And moles are still Bahena’s strong suit, and his chicken mole negro (made with more than 20 ingredients) comes close to the ones I had in Oaxacait’s just a bit sweeter than the classic. Too bad Bahena doesn’t put quite enough of the stuff on the plate; just give me a bowl of black mole, Chilpancingo’s handmade tortillas, and no bird at allthe chickens in Oaxaca were far more tender and flavorful anyway.
In south suburban Oak Forest, Diana Davila’s deft Nuevo Mexicano inventions light up Hacienda Jalapeños’s spacious patio-style dining room. Try her crab tamales with blood orange guajillo sauce, huaraches (sandal-shaped masa cakes) filled with duck confit in tequila peppercorn reduction and a crown of radish sprouts, and seared robalo (a sea bass) in chipotle basil sauce with scallion polenta. Davila learned the ropes from Armando Cobian; Cobian worked with Geno Bahena at the late Mi Sueño, and Bahena worked under Bayless at Frontera. Six degrees of Rick Bayless.
BUT THE FRONTERA FAMILY TREE doesn’t have a monopoly on the Chicago area. The folks behind Randolph Street’s Sushi Wabi introduced an upscale West Loop taquería called De Cero in July. Lucky me: At a fair in June, the Taste of Randolph Street, I got an advance tasting of the tuna tacos made with chunks of lightly grilled fish with mango salsa ignited with habanero chilies. Up in Old Town, Adobo Grill, the brainchild of Paul LoDuca, is one of the city’s most popular restaurants. (It recently sprang a second outpost in Wicker Park.) The original has more than 100 tequilas on hand, and the place launched (locally, at least) the theatrical gimmick of guacamole tableside. Chef Freddy Sanchez serves dearto- my-heart quesadillas filled with earthy huitlacoche and asadero cheese coated in chile anchotomato salsa, a four-seviche shareable appetizer, grilled shrimp in chipotle adobo sauce and zucchini-tomato sofrit, and dynamite Mexican-chocolate cheesecake topped with sour cream. An Adobo disciple, Dudley Nieto, recently popped up in Bannockburn at San Gabriel Mexican Café, a comfortable family spot where his seafood creations are great: grilled octopus with guajillo salsa and pumpkin seeds, spicy seafood salad with four kinds of crustaceans, and chipotlemarinated shrimpsorry to say the promising breaded chicken breast stuffed with huitlacoche is far too salty.
Venture out to Hinsdale, where you’ll find Salbute, which I’ve always liked. Chef Edgar Rodriguez offers memorable interpretations of regional Mexican cooking to west suburban diners in a cramped but pretty setting. The two biggest winners there are Oaxacan baby chiles rellenos stuffed with pork, beef, almonds, and coconut in mole rojo, and outstanding grilled venison tenderloin with a Nuevo Mexicano mole of red prickly pear, chilhua cle, and syrah reduction. You don’t see many chilhuacle peppers in Chicago, which is why I bought a bag of the dried picante chilies at a market in Oaxaca, knowing it wouldn’t be a problem with customsit’s the fresh stuff they get persnickety about.
ALL THE RESTAURANTS I have recommended so far have one sad thing in common: Pretty much the only Mexicans we see in them are carrying plates. The same was true of the top restaurants in the city of Oaxaca, where the diners were mostly North American and European, plus a scattering of wealthy Mexicans on vacation. Chicago’s Mexicans who eat out seem to prefer taking their families to places in their own neighborhoods that specialize in the dishes of their home regions. In Chicago, most have immigrated from north and central Mexicooften from the states of Zacatecas, Michoacan, Guanajuato, and Jaliscoand that’s generally the origin of the familiar cuisine you find in Pilsen and Little Village. (Migrating Oaxacans tend to flock to Los Angeles, which explains why there aren’t many inexpensive Oaxacan places heremy one regret about local Mexican neighborhood dining.)
But Nuevo León, a popular late-night destination (open till midnight on weekends), has always been a mainstay. In fact, it was the first Mexican restaurant I tried in Chicago, as a penurious graduate student happy to find a BYO spot. Now, I prefer the food at the second Nuevo León location in Little Village, where the incendiary tripe soup called menudo is richer, the pile of costillas de puerco (meaty chopped pork ribs) slathered in thick salsa roja makes a satisfying dinner for just $7, and beer is served. I always used to ask for a glass of the mezcal de frutas from the big jug steeping in tropical fruit on the counter, but lately, the jug has been M.I.A.
Over the border in Juárez with wife number one, I learned that queso fundido and menudo were the northern Mexican cures for late-night reveling on too many margaritas and Black Russians. Lalo’s, which started as a modest storefront in Little Village in 1971, has expanded its empire, and its terrific queso fundido melted Mexican cheese with poblano peppers has expanded my belt size. Lalo’s biggest location, in the sprawling space that once housed Michael Jordan’s in River North, lures me for many of my favorite homey regional dishes, among them spicy shrimp and vegetable soup and enchiladas plump with shredded chicken breast and slathered with red adobo salsa. Another time-tested Mexican hangover remedy: Jalisco stewed goat, which I like to pick up at Birriería Reyes de Ocotlán in Pilsen to take home. Others prefer the good Mexican chicken soup at the all-night El Presidente, or, even better, the vuelva a la vida (“come back to life”), a mixed seafood cocktail that La Condesa has mastered. It’s a treat whose efficacy I discovered long ago in Veracruz, where it originated. BTW: La Condesa also serves a mean queso fundido. Well stocked with chorizo, it’s so hefty, don’t even think about ordering anything else unless you’re sharing.
Perhaps the world’s best pork dish is carnitas: big chunks cooked in water for hours until the liquid is mostly melted pork fat, giving the soft meat a texture like confit. It’s a Michoacán specialty, and many Mexican storefronts and meat markets around Chicago offer it. My favorite place to get carnitas takeout with tortillas and trimmings is Carnitas Uruapan, named after a Michoacan town. Michoacan is also known for its tamales, and a friend whose family is from that area always shares the outstanding tamales his mother and sister make annually for the holidays. But if he craves the stuff any other time of year, he heads to Taco Mex in South Deering to buy tamales. Smart man. I’ve begun driving down there myself for a supply of rojo pork and cheese jalapeño tamales every now and then. They freeze well and are deliciousthough not as good as his family’s.
ALL WELL AND GOOD, BUT WHERE was the Oaxacan food, the initial reason for my quest? I finally found it at the spiffy little ten-table Taquería La Oaxaqueña, which feels just like an everyday Oaxacan restaurant. The earthy moles, the big chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaves, and tacos with cesina (a semi-dried salted beef) . . . this was a bull’s-eye. And when I asked our waitress, on a long shot, if they happened to have any chapulines (salted grasshoppers) on hand, she brightened and said they did, and would I like a little bowl of them? Yes, I would. Later she noticed that I had finished all the crunchy critters with my glass of Corralejo Reposado tequila and put another packet of them in my doggy bag. Until the pre-Columbian Mexican gods smile on us all, and more Oaxacan restaurants open in Chicago with grasshoppers, maguey worms, and ant eggs on the menu, Taquería La Oaxaqueña will be seeing a lot more of me.
©2004 Chicago Magazine