Mexican in Chicago
- Tom Armitage
Usually, I eat at least once at Topolobampo or Frontera Grill when I'm in Chicago. And, despite some of the recent ho-hum critiques, particularly regarding Frontera, I've always had terrific stuff at Bayless's restaurants. Duh--why else would I keep going back. But, for this next trip, I think I'll branch out and try some new places for Mexican food. Needless to say, I've gone through Chowhound's Chicago Board for suggestions. Maiz sounds interesting. Las Pinatas got posted as "The Best Mexican Food in Chicago," and a couple of others agreed, but with no specifics about the food there. Lalo's got a brief mention, again with no specifics. La Pasadita has its advocates, though which of the various La Pasaditas is best sparked some disagreement. Salpicon got trashed by one poster, but with very few specifics as to what was wrong.
So, what about Salpicon? Yea or nea? How about the other places run by Topolobampo/Frontera alumni, like Chilpancingo Restaurante and Ixcapuzalco? And how about some specifics on places like Las Pinatas, La Pasadita, or Lalo's?
Personally, I don't think that Frontera/Topo can be beat, but we all need a little change of pace once in a while.
I'm perplexed by the raves that Las Pinatas has received, as of late. It may be a contender in the Tex-Mex category.... The salsa is strangely addictive. The atmosphere is tripped-out. The margaritas are potent. Big deal. FWIW, my favourite in the Tex-Mex category is Taco Veloz, on Chicago Avenue.
I think that Ixcapuzalco and Salpicon are both worth trying. I've been to both places, several times. I'm not willing to get too specific, as the menus change regularly. This past summer I had grasshoppers for an app. and soft-shell crabs (entree) at Salpicon. They pride themselves on their tequila list. Ixcapuzalco has a different mole dish every day. The last time that I was there, I had day-boat scallops (entree). Both places have interesting appetizers and salads on offer.
If I remember correctly, you like Tufano's, A Tavola, and Blackbird. So do I. A lot. Maybe, more generally, we have similar tastes?
Lalo's, as far as I know, started out with one or two places on 26th street--this is going back some 20 years or more. I can recall one place on around Central Park and another just west of Pulaski. (I don't know if these places are even still open.) In those days, their food was cheap, simple (pretty much just a little more sophisticated than street food), but good and fresh and honest--actually, thinking back on it, these are exceptional claims. Some years later, another Lalo's opened on Cermak Road, in Cicero (near Austin?). Again, food quality was generally as described above, but I made a few disurbing observations: Was that projectile vomiting immediately after dinner (which spackled Cermak Road in festival colors) caused by the Red Snapper--or was it just one tequila too many? (Not likely.) And that cockroach that crawled over the back of my wife's booth--waving and tossing his little antennae about, as though conducting an orchestra of mariachis--this, too, was distressing, but don't all restaurants have roaches?
More recently, perhaps a decade or so ago (maybe longer) another Lalo's opened in Berwyn, on Harlem Avenue (around 32nd). By this time, more items were being offered on the menu, and of course the prices had gone up. And, there was effort made to cater to popular tastes (Fajitas!--big deal! Big Margaritas!--big deal!) instead of effort made to cook simple, delicious, honest, fresh food. So, on my last visit to Lalo's in Berwyn several months ago, I was not surprised to find that they are skimping out by no longer giving the little dollop of guacamole with the side salad with each dinner--perhaps their MBAs counseled against this--and my wife, while not attacked by a cockroach at this location, found her tamale to be dried out, totally inedible, as though someone had just left it in the bottom of the pan of a steam table and didn't really give much of a damn--an attitude which is now generalized in the staff's comportment.
I think there are several more Lalo's now--another on Cermak, and one on 63rd in Chicago (rough neighborhood--I know, I used to live around there), but I doubt I will be trying them.
If you want good, simple, delicious, Mexican street food and you are not fussy about surroundings--I will not guarantee against roaches in this place, and you must turn a blind eye to the gang grafitti in the fashionable unisex bathroom--try Mr. Taco on Austin and Ogden in Cicero. Go there during daylight hours if you are not comfortable around bikers, drinkers, etc., as these flock over at night. Best bet is to get stuff to go (which is about 75% of the business--only 6 or so tables there). Try the steak taco and put some of the green hot sauce on it. Or, try the cheese quesadilla--done up with garnishes much like a taco. Or, try the number 8: Huge pork burrito, home-made (moist) tamale smothered in red gravy, and steak taco, with rice & beans on the side--about 4 pounds of food for(last time I checked)$5.50. Yes, I know the place is feelthy, and yes, I know that the ambiance under the railroad viaduct is wanting--but I confess, during my last trip to Chicago, I enjoyed this food more than all the fancy stuff to which a friend of mine treated me(much to his surprise and chagrin).
I really like the steak burritos at La Pasadita (the one with the yellow tile foyer, on the west side of ashland, I think it's the second La Pasadita down from DIvision). It's an incredible burrito.
It's incredible because of the steak. All too often the steak burrito is the blandest item in the Taqueria repertoire. I've had Carne Asada that tasted microwaved, that had been heated and chopped on a fry griddle without ever having touched a lick of flame.
La Pasadita's carne asada practically oozes carcinogens, slightly charred, generously salted, the meat takes their burrito head and shoulders above any other I've eaten in the neighborhood.
Furthermore, they're not afraid of simplicity. If you order a plain steak burrito, you get charred steak, raw onions, and cilantro in a tortilla. None of the lettuce, tomato, and rice, and avocados that other, lesser joints fill their "head-sized" burritos with by default to disguise the quality of their ingredients or the amount of time the meat has spent in a steam table. You can get those toppings at La Pasadita, but they seem extraneous, their burrito needs no dressing up.
Their salsas are pretty good (if a little irrelevant)--they have the usual fluorescent green sauce of death that lights your tongue on fire, and a more subtle dark black oily pepper that offers up more than raw heat.
As for the rest of their menu, I'm not sure. Everytime I go in I look up at the over the counter list, and think for a moment, jeez, maybe I oughta try some other menu item--go for a steak dinner, or a chicken taco, or something, but invariably a waft of smoke billows out into the waiting area, my mouth begins to water, any novel ordering strategies disappear, and I promise myself that I won't order the steak burrito next time or at least I'll bring a friend and talk up the other menu items so that I can have a bite.
I've been to Maiz several times. It's interesting, but not a place that I return to frequently. It's more of an anthropological seminar than an eatery. It's interesting to taste the corn variations of the ancient olmec culture, but when it comes down to making hard choices about where to eat and where not, I tend to choose places with menus that are motivated by more gastronomic less pedagogic factors.
Whichever places you end up at, please post copious results here. Frontera is (for me) the La Pasadita Steak Burrito of chicago's upscale mexican menu-the default choice. I'd love to hear about places that force me to reevaluate my menu choice.
it's hard for me to be objective about Frontera as I have been going there since they opened and the ceviche ,two salsas served with their chips, carne asada, and margaritas have been and always will be top notch. Geno Bahena heads Ixcapuzalco and Chilpancingo and both are delightful in their own ways. Ixcapuzalco is small and located in an ethnic neighborhood. their specialty is their mole sauces and they are very interesting. the ceviche may surpass Bayless' at Frontera. Chilpancingo is a much larger and more urbane experience but the food is superb, don't miss the masa corn boats with assorted fillings. Also the rack of lamb is a don't miss.