Disclaimer: In a few photos from past dining outings, my friend’s hand was in the photo. A past co-worker saw the hand and remarked on the fact that she didn’t know I had White friends. What I should have told her was that the hand belonged to my brother. That is an inside joke that only my friend and I would get. Anyway, there is a picture in this write-up with — take a deep breath — White people in it. And all the Chicken Littles start scrambling.
The great hunt for the Holy Grail of restaurants continue. Yum! My friend, three other food adventurers, and I traveled to the friendly suburb of Cicero, Illinois to sample some comida de Yucatan and what good food it was. Located at 5235 W. 25th Street in a slightly industrial area, Xni-Pec was a just what the belly needed.
Our friend, Amy, had arrived at the restaurant before the rest of us and she had asked for recommendations in advance. The waiter had told her that his mother was in the kitchen and he had been eating whatever she cooked. Not everyone’s mother is a good cook, but we were not going to complain or frown. So, that settled it. We would not bother ordering from the menu. Instead, we decided to just eat whatever the waiter’s mother prepared. We placed our orders at one table and had to move to another table to accommodate five hungry adults and all the food we planned to eat.
The waiter, whose name is Javier, told us what they would prepare for us and then off to the cocina he went. What he later brought back to us was enough to make enemies become great friends, divorce couples remarry, and non-smokers like me to want a cigarette afterwards. If I were to have a smoke after every good meal I have, I’d be a slave to the demon nicotine. Because we ordered “off the menu,” I shall attempt to describe all the wonderful dishes that sat before us before we devoured them.
We had empanadas, which were corn dough in semi-taco shape filled with ground beef, corn, mushrooms, potatoes, and chorizo. The second appetizer was a plate of enchiladas filled with cheese and eggs, topped with grated cheese and a red salsa. The third appetizer was a plate of tamales pollo, which were filled with spiced, shredded chicken with a tomato-based gravy. I have sworn off tamales made by anyone other than the ones we had at Xni-Pec. The fourth entrée was a plate of shrimp tacos. Val dios. These were flour tacos filled with plenty of huge pieces of shrimp, red cabbage, tomatoes, refried beans and a spicy mayonnaise. Now, mayonnaise is one of the top three things I fear, as I may have mentioned once before — small boats, small planes, and mayonnaise — but it was ridiculously good on the shrimp tacos. There was absolutely nothing left on the plates after we were done, except for a few crumbs and a smearing of gravy. Bomba!
After we had finished gobbling down the appetizers, Javier then returned to the table to tell us how they prepared each dish. He explained the ingredients, the preparations, everything. He even had a great deal of humour, making fun of two at our table jokingly jousting with their forks for one lasting morsel of the tamales. Mind you, there were other customers in the restaurant and with it being a Friday night, it was extremely busy. Still, he took the time to give us full detail about the food that he had served us. He stepped away to give us time to rest up for the main course.
Once again, Javier came back to the table and told us what they were going to cook for us. As we sat in anticipation, customers exiting the restaurant would ring a bell over the door and everyone in the restaurant would then shout Bomba! and clap. Having eaten the appetizers, we understood why. When the entrées came, we really understood why. We had three huge plates of food. The first plate was heaped with grilled beef adobo style, white rice, refried beans, and vegetables. Right about the fifth swallow, I started wanting to go outside to have a smoke before I was finished. I had to put that sensation aside because there were two more dishes that needed to be loved. The second dish was a plate of juicy shrimp, rice, and vegetables. The shrimp had been cooked with exotic chillies, tomatoes, and onions. We finished off the third plate of pescado tikin-xic without a mumbling word. The pescado tikin-xic was charbroiled red snapper brushed with achiote sauce and wrapped in a banana leaf, served up with rice and vegetables. As we washed this all down with cervezas negros modelos, cerveza dos XX, and margaritas, we all knew what true satisfaction was and that the combination of great friends and greater food brings about a sense of community that the world needs badly.
While we sat in our seats full of food, beer, and margarita, Javier came back to give an explanation of how each entrée was prepared. Outstanding! I got accustomed to that travelling abroad. The waiters, waitresses, and owners always seemed more than glad to give some history on dishes served as well as give detailed steps on the preparation mode. And even in America, only in the ethnic restaurants where we have gone have we had this kind of experience. That, right there, is customer service.
As if the appetizers and entrées were not good enough to make you want to sing and dance, the desserts were indeed a fine wrap-up for a delectable dinner. We had a deep-fried tortilla covered in a home-made caramel glaze that was a big hit. We had camote en dulce that only needed some crust, and we would have had sweet potato pie. There was a plate of caramelized bananas that sat in front of us for all of a few minutes before they disappeared. We showed how much we liked the flan by attacking it, not with the ferocity of a bear, but with the delight of people who enjoy life and good eats. The dessert that really won us over was the arroz con leche con compope y coco — rice pudding and coconut and egg yolk with sweet liquor and pineapples. Javier had prepared this and was either afraid his attempt was not good or he was extremely modest. We showed him what we thought of the rice pudding by eating it all. Bomba!
After we had done our damage and then had to fight the feeling of comatose that was getting ready to take over, Javier came to the table, pulled up a chair, and sat to talk with us as though we were old friends of the family from the neighbourhood. I think that it was the Moroccan restaurant where my friend and I had gone that we got the same kind of courtesy. Wait, add the Greek restaurant to that list. Anyway, Javier asked where we all were from and then gave us a history on the restaurant. He spoke of the family moving from Yucatan, some in Florida, and some in Chicago. He told of his mother who started out selling tamales from a push cart and her desire to start her own business. He filled us in on how hard it was starting out because the community wanted taqueria food and they were only about preparing authentic Mayan/Yucatan food. He joked about how he will remember our faces although not our names, but we’ll end up going back so much that he will know our names and we’ll become primos y primas instead of mere regular customers. We all will remember Javier and his mother who prepared us food with the right amount of herbs, spices, portions, and a lot of love for the craft of cooking.
The prices at Xni-Pec are incredibly reasonable. We had a great deal of food and drink, and ran up a huge tab, but it was well worth it as well as worth the trip to the Western edge of Chicago proper for some authentic food from the Yucatan. It took a while before we gathered our faculties and could stand so that we could leave. There were five of us who came in ready for some good food and good company. There were five of us who left filled to capacity and taking our turns ringing the bell to signify that we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Ding! Ding! Ding!