AS YEAR-END TRENDS GO, IT GOT OFF to a slow start—the first of them, Ixcateco Grill, didn’t even open until August. But starting there, Chicago has been in a full-fledged boom of relatively upscale Mexican restaurants, and it seemed like a good time to survey the field and identify the most promising among them.

So what exactly do I mean by a “relatively upscale Mexican restaurant”? Well, it’s fancier than a taqueria, for sure, and it owes something to the more serious approach to Mexican flavors that we associate with Rick Bayless. (I’m also being pretty loose about the term “Mexican,” since some of them proclaim themselves “Latin fusion” or the like.) Many of them come from people who worked in Bayless’s kitchens, and they all benefit from his tireless commitment to treating Latin ingredients with respect and classical technique—and as something more substantial than drunken party food. At the same time, though, there’s barely an ounce of pretension to be found within the whole lot of them—especially in the gray Chicago winter, Mexican food is our instant vacation to a sunnier, more relaxed place.

 

I counted six places fitting this bill to have opened since August, and visited each of them anonymously, paying my own way. Here they are:


Ixcateco Grill


Duck in mole, Ixcateco Grill

Duck in mole, Ixcateco Grill

Where: 3402 W. Montrose (Albany Park)

What: Chef Anselmo Ramírez bills himself as Rick Bayless’s former “master of mole,” the guy in charge of building the deeply-flavored Mexican sauces that are one of Mexican cuisine’s main bids to be taken seriously as fine dining food. The plating here is classic sliced-protein-and-pyramid-of-starch style, like they’ve been doing at Topolobampo (or Sol de Mexico or Mixteco Grill or…) for ages, so it’s nothing very new. But it is delicious—the moles are, indeed, terrific. There’s more variety on the appetizer menu—a veggie-based picadito with black beans in a masa pouch was nice—but ultimately this is a restaurant built on a single, if tasty, approach to dishes. It’s BYO, so it’s a little hard to judge it as a party place, but the bright colors and eager service make it easy to have a good time.

Summary: Like a nice piece of meat in richly-flavored mole? That’s what (and almost all) they do here, very well.

Graziano OMG

 


Cantina 1910


Oxtail and mushroom on bone marrow tortilla, Cantina 1910

Oxtail and mushroom on bone marrow tortilla, Cantina 1910

Where: 5025 N. Clark (Andersonville)

What: A big lively joint that looks more like River North than Andersonville, this place should have been universally welcomed, but instead came in for grief on Yelp for being different from the Mex joints people are used to, which may have contributed to the departure of chef Diana Davila just before Christmas. (Which, incidentally, means this rating is about the past, no telling what the future will be once they hire a permanent replacement.)

So they charge for chips and salsa—well, they’re really good, but honestly that isn’t where I’d spend $7 here anyway. The menu manages to span the scale, from street food dishes to upscale tweezer-arranged dishes that might have come from a Michelin-starred restaurant, but what they all have in common is that pretty much everything tasted great, full of deep Mexican flavors as well as elevated touches. Recommendations include the braised oxtail tortilla (basically a big taco), regular-sized tacos with things like al pastor and fish, and the Puerco en Cazuela, which is basically Pork Six Ways with some earthy beans.

Summary: Really good food (at least under the previous chef), lively atmosphere (that needs to iron out service kinks), and a mix of street food and arty plates. Let’s hope it can stay that way.


dos Urban Cantina


cantina2

Where: 2829 W. Armitage (Logan Square)

What: Brian Enyart and Jennifer Jones, former executive chef and pastry chef of Topolobampo (and also husband and wife), return after a couple of years away with an upscale Mexican restaurant—and despite that impressive pedigree, I have to admit to some mixed feelings. The bar is dark and sexy; the dining room is just dark, all brick walls, and badly needs a dose of style (or to borrow some Oaxacan folk art from old boss Rick) to become more festive and sultry.

Surprisingly I felt the same way about the main courses—a skinless piece of trout on some charred cauliflower looked like the dullest thing… and then I tasted it and it surprised me with well-executed flavors. On the other hand, a seafood tostada smothered the natural flavor of sea bass and shrimp ceviche in too much guacamole, like a backyard barbecue dish. But in general I liked the food—I just wasn’t as fond of peering at it in the dark brown twilight of the dining room. Not that I think every Mexican restaurant has to be in the same bright tropical palette, but here’s hoping that as dos Urban Cantina matures, it also finds some more engaging style for both restaurant and plates, to go with the skillful use of Mexican flavors. Recommendations: the rich, comfy sweet corn tamal, the eggplant sope, the beef pibil.

Summary: Serious understanding of Mexican flavors that needs to find more welcoming forms in the room and on the plate.


Latinicity


mex0005

Where: Block 37 Mall, 108 N. State St (Loop)

What: A big food court (using a similar card system to Water Tower’s Foodlife) devoted not just to Mexican food but to stands offering Latin American foods of all types—though the results are very variable and can leave the feeling that its real nationality is Food Court first, Mexico or Brazil or Peru after. So some of the Latin dishes are clearly chosen because they’ll be perfectly familiar to non-Latin audiences, such as the coca, a flatbread with shrimp and chorizo which will instantly remind you of pizza, particularly the California Kitchen kind. Arroz Aeropuerto may be an actual Peruvian dish cooked in a wok, and it’s utterly scarfable, but since it’s inspired by Chinese food, you may not feel like you got any closer to true Peruvian flavors than the Stir Crazy at Oakbrook Center.

That kind of thing led a lot of people to write Latinicity off quickly—but dig deeper and be smart about what to order, and there are some finds here that make it a genuine exploration of Latin food culture, not to mention a real addition to the perennially weak Loop dining scene. Tacos are pretty good—they’d be even better with a dash of salt—and about as authentic as those get in the Loop. Seafood (there’s a fried seafood stand as well as a raw bar devoted to sushi and ceviche) is a strong area, too. Even the Hamburguesa stand—okay, yes, on my first visit one of our party ordered a standard burger and it was pretty lame, but look past that to the Chori-frita Burger, a patty of chorizo and beef mixed together, which is a perfect gut-bomb to help you snooze through the rest of your workday.

Summary: Think of Latinicity as a bunch of new food trucks that drove up outside your office, some pretty good, others not as much, but a net improvement for Loop dining nonetheless.

This picture pretty much sums up the appeal of Latinicity to Loop workers.

This picture pretty much sums up the appeal of Latinicity to Loop workers.


Rojo Gusano


rojo

Where: 3820 W. Lawrence (Albany Park)

What: The surfin’ bird decor and the concepted “Latin fusion” menu, with its rice bowls and helpful explanation of what a “taqueria” is, may make you peg this place solely for getting wasted again in Margaritaville. But skip past all that and go straight to the food from much-moved-around chef Dudley Nieto. There’s nothing dumbed down about it—nearly all the street food classics here display the same virtues of classic Mexican flavors, clean, sure handed preparation, and price tags just a notch above any taqueria in the neighborhood. (Only the overly acidic guacamole didn’t please.) Same for the nice list of mezcal-based cocktails, most at a reasonable $8—and though the decor suggests aiming for a spring break party atmosphere, at least when I went it was agreeably chill. Recommendations: tamal chicken pibil, chicken verde taco, beer-braised pork shank taco, Dudley’s chocolate tamal (dessert).

Summary: With simple foods impeccably well made and flavored, less Señor Frog atmosphere than you think at first, and very reasonable prices, this is pretty much a gem hiding in Albany Park.


5 Rabanitos Restaurante and Taqueria


Chicken tamal with poblano mole, carnitas tamal in mole, and tacos.

Chicken tamal with poblano mole, carnitas tamal in mole, and tacos.

Where: 1758 W. 18th (Pilsen)

What: Another Bayless alum, Alfonso Sotelo, who worked at Xoco and Topolobampo, opened this family place on the west end of the Pilsen 18th strip, taking the name from the nickname he and his brothers got in his native Guerrero as vegetable sellers—”the five little radishes.” The menu runs from tacos to entrees, tamales in moles, soups and more—not to mention sandwiches (as you might expect from a Xoco graduate). The tacos were good—I liked the big juicy chunks of carne asada—and a Cuban sandwich we tried wasn’t bad (if a bit overdressed with some kind of salmon-colored sauce), but the star of our lunch was easily the chicken tamal with a rich, complex poblano mole. Service was very welcoming.

Summary: A great addition to a sleepy stretch of 18th street, and a more modern spot for a street that in general tends to belong to the places that have been there forever.


Michael Gebert is the big radish at Fooditor.

COVER IMAGE: Ixcateco Grill


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