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Jul 14, 2006 06:55 PM

Visitor seeks Mexican/Puerto Rican/Soul food


I'm coming to Chicago for six days later this month to eat (and write about) food that's unique to your city and not really/fully available in mine (Toronto).

I'll be focusing on Mexican, Puerto Rican and Soul food and would love tips. I'm looking for the complete range - street-level to upscale to fusion (had memorable Indo-Puerto Rican churrasco/mofongo in Puerto Rico a few years ago).

Have compiled tips for hot dogs, deep-dish pizza et al (from previous threads, guidebooks, other chicago websites) - but really would love up-to-date advice for Mexican/Puerto Rican/Soul food.

A few random queries:
1. Is chicken vesuvio any good, or kinda dull/you had to grow up with it?
2. Are there any must-eats at Maxwell Street Market (or, what else to do when you get to town at 8am on a Sunday)
3. Is there still a Nigerian food truck on N. Upper Columbus Dr. Is it worth a meal?
4. Is Nacional 27 worth a visit?

Too many questions, I know. Any answers greatly appreciated.

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  1. I can help with the Mexican restaurants. The most interesting/exciting places are probably Topolombapo, Frontera Grill, and Salpicon. The former two are Rick Bayless' restaurants and occupy one space. Topolo is very much high end. Fronera Grill is more casual. Salpicon is my favorite, though. It is a bit more upscale than Frontera. Definitely check out the menus on line, though. I also like Dorado very much.

    There are a ton of other places, though, and the above three tend to get the most "air play" on this site. Hopefully others will chime in with some other suggestions. The above four are definitely not your typical Mexican restaurant with the same old same old fare. They are known for authentic, yet original creations.

    1. Thanks. Will absolutely check out the big three (Frontera, Topolo and Salpicon) plus Dorado - and will scour Pilsen.

      But do Chicago hounds not eat Puerto Rican or "soul food" (African-American that we don't have in Toronto - not Ethiopian/Somalian/Jamaican/Caribbean/African etc that we do have)?

      2 Replies
      1. re: Gritseeker

        Sure, Chicagoans eat soul food. Army & Lou's is a venerable South Side soul food restaurant. Edna's is a touted West Side soul food restaurant as is Mac's. The latter is the subject of a chapter in Alex Kotlowitz's book "Never a City So Real," a stirring Baedeker to Chicago beyond the tourist realms. A search on might help. is a good source of addresses, phone numbers, and hours.

        Bravo to you for doing your research. Have a great time here and eat well.

        1. re: Mugs

          For Soul Food:

          A little bit closer to downtown is Pearl's Place which I think is owned by the same people who own Army & Lous. Excellent fried chicken and catfish, and don't miss the peach cobbler. (It's not too far either from the IIT campus, if you want to visit some great buidings by van der Rohe--he taught there and designed the campus--Kohlhaas, and Jahn).

          Pearl's Place
          3901 S. Michigan Ave.

          My best advice for Maxwell Street is look for the booths where the tortillas are being made by hand (usually towards the southern end of Canal). Also look for the churros truck.They're freshly made, and the best I've had in Chicago.)

      2. For Puerto Rican, go to the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Two places to try are:
        1720 North California Avenue

        Papa's Cache Sabroso
        2517 W. Division

        What you need to try at at least one is the jibarito, which it is said to be a Puerto Rican sandwhich but invented in Chicago. It's lots of good stuff in between two smashed, fried plaintains. It one of the best sandwhiches going.

        1 Reply
        1. re: jjo

          The owner of Boriquen invented the jibarito. Note that Borinqen has at least three locations that are quite different. The Central Avenue location is a converted fast food joint and is not the best example. The California Avenue location is the oldest and is prototypical ethnic hole in the wall. Borinquen Lounge at 3811 North Western Avenue is fancier but far from plush and has a liquor license. The last location has a decent lunch buffet for 6.95.

        2. As far as Mexican goes...I agree that Topolobampo, Frontera Grill, and Salpicon are very good. My pick of the three would be Salpicon. I'm growing kinda tiresome of them though...they're all I hear about with regard to Mexican Food on the Chowhound site. What about other more traditional options like;

          LA CASA DEL PUEBLO in the Pilsen neighborhood: This is where Mexican people go to eat. It's a total hole in the wall with ultra traditional homestyle Mexican food. This is not a burrito and taco joint. A few notable dishes are: Picadillo with rice and beans, mole rojo, mole verde, guisado de puerco en salsa verde, caldo de pollo, caldo de rez, and of course the delicious tamales.
          EVERY TRADITIONAL MEXICAN RESTAURANT HAS AN EXTRA SALSA OR TWO IN THE BACK FOR THE EMPLOYEES. The warm red salsa at La Casa Del Pueblo is served only by request. Most people don't even know that it exists. Give it a try. It's simple yet delicious and packs heat.

          PANCHO PISTOLAS in the Bridgeport neighborhood on 31st street and Union, just east of Halsted, for the best carne asada around. This place has very good traditional Mexican food in a pleasant exposed brick storefront. Service is very good as well. My only complaint would be that the Margaritas taste like a bad premade mix.

          You mentioned Nacional 27, mexican food, & puerto rican food. Don't forget Cuban & Spanish.
          CAFE 28: Mexican and Cuban. I know what you're thinking, oh no, another bad fusion restaurant, not exactly. The gracious hosts/owners are cuban and mexican...she is mexican and he is cuban. Anyway, they serve up some fantastic traditional and contemporary Cuban and Mexican dishes. It reminds me of my mothers cooking. Cafe 28 started as a coffee shop and slowly started items to the menu like soups and sandwiches, etc. Little by little the menu grew and the crowds began to grow year after year.
          SPANISH: Emilio's Tapas in Hillside is my favorite for Tapas. This is Emilio Gervilla's first restaurant and his very best. There are two downtown Chicago locations and a few other suburban locations as well but I like the one in hillside the best.
          Cafe Babareeba on Halsted in Lincoln Park is good as well.

          El Asadero on Montrose just west of Lincoln Avenue in Lincoln Square/Chicago: The very best steak tacos and steak burrito's around. The rest of the menu is only so so. This place did not make it on the Chicago's Top Ten steak taco joints list. It has however won awards on many other lists over the last few years.

          TANGO SUR:Great Argentine Steakhouse in a fun neighborhood. It's BYOB!
          Las Tablas: Great Columbian Steakhouse.
          La Fonda: Great Latin Steakhouse...mostly Columbian.

          Walk south on Canal from Roosevelt just beyond the viaduct. Look on the right hand side for a busy taco stand. This taco stand serves hundreds if not thousands of delicious tacos daily.

          1. I haven't actually tried any of these restaurants, but my friend and her boyfriend (who's Mexican), who are the biggest Mexican cuisine experts I know, love the following places:

            RIQUES: In Uptown, at Sheridan and Argyle. This is their favorite place in the city, by far. They recommend bringing your own wine and then spending the rest of the evening at Big Chicks, a bar around the corner.

            DORADO: In Ravenswood. "Amazing" and "phenomenal." I'll be checking it out myself this weekend.

            PICANTE GRILL and MAY ST CAFE, both in Pilsen.

            UNCLE JULIO'S HACIENDA, at North and Clybourn, for Tex-Mex.

            1 Reply
            1. re: carotexan

              Uncle Julio's is good, but I wouldn't recommend it to an out of town visitor. The menu is pretty much your standard fare, though done very well. They do cater to the 20-something crowd, rather than those interested in something authentic. I like it, especially when I am shopping in the North & Clybourn area, but as I said, a visitor would be better off picking somewhere else.

              Dorado is excellent, but my experience there last Saturday didn't live up to my expectations from previous visits. For the most part, the dinner was excellent. We started with the duck nachos, which had a very nice smokey flavor. Then we had a gazpacho soup special, which was also excellent. Finally, we had a wolffish special, which was extremely tender and was served over garlic mashed potatoes, and an almond crusted trout that was served with cilantro rice and plantains. Most of the dishes seem to come with either garlic mashed potatoes or cilantro rice. It gave many of the dishes a comfort-food feel. The menu seemed to lack some of the originality I remember it having, and it would be nice if there was a little more variety.

              Finally, keep in mind that some of the Mexican restaurants mentioned on this thread are going for authentic but "standard food" while others are aiming for more "gourmet" versions of Mexican (such as Topolombabo, Salpicon). It is probably best to think first about which style you want. Although both are Mexican, there are different types of restaurants and it is silly to compare restaurants in one class to restaurants in the other.