One thing I have noticed as a food journalist is that everyone has a recommendation for you. Quite often, their suggestions fall flat. And many times they hit the mark. I have never been one for following the crowd, as I feel weird and a bit too much like I am a part of group think. Loss of individuality frightens the hell out of me. That also carries over into how I approach my dining experiences. Going to certain eateries because everyone else has been there brings to mind my parents asking me the question, “If your friends jump off a bridge, are you going to jump, also?” Where recommendations come through that make the visit worthy, I accept the fact that everything is okay in the land with the hint. Such was the case when going to Uncle Julio’s at 855 W. North Avenue in Chicago’s Old Towne. Big box. Packed with hungry faces. Full of action. Mexican flavours all in the air. Ready for action.
The friend who suggested the restaurant and I got a table and ordered drinks, she ordering a strawberry daiquiri, and me ordering a margarita on the rocks. If I have not said it enough, Latin American bartenders do not hold back when making drinks. The first sip popped and I swooned. Since I was not one of those kids who was glad to get out of his parents’ home so that he could start drinking and, thus, got a big kick out of liquid satisfaction during my college days, I am a bit of a lightweight. Had I been one of those overzealous alcoholics in training, I would have turned up the margarita like I was downing a glass of lemonade. Instead, there was a basket of warm, crunchy chips and home-made salsa at the fingertips. Crunch, crunch, chomp, chomp, chomp, sigh. Warm chips mean they were not from the chips aisle at the local grocery. Well, that was good. And the salsa was not from a jar. If I had not sworn off partaking of salsa from a jar, I did after indulging the chips and salsa at Uncle Julio’s. After that, I could resume drinking my margarita without feeling as though I was floating a foot above the floor.
We had guacamole. Well, it would be a crime to go to any restaurant and not have guacamole. It would be like going to an Argentinean steak house and not having any meat. It’s just wrong. With more warm, crunchy chips, the guacamole was delectable. My friend likes it mild, so there was a bit of the kick missing that I love most about guacamole. Then again, mild food leaves me slightly unsatisfied — a detriment of having grown up in a home with parents who had no fear of spices and growing up going to ethnic restaurants where spices were the main ingredients in recipes. Fresh and home-made, indeed, we polished off the guacamole and noticed another version on the menu. We ordered it, too.
Version two of the guacamole at Uncle Julio’s is prepared with corn and topped with crab meat. Two things worked well with the guacamole. One, adding corn mixed it up a bit, rounding out the guacamole not only with a different texture but also with a hint of another flavour — that being corn. Two, the “real” crab meat was an added touch, as guacamole is always vegetarian style wherever you get it. Because this version of the guacamole came with Habanero peppers, we requested to have the peppers on the side. They are not like jalapeno peppers that you can eat solo. Habanero peppers are dangerous little goodies and I am baffled when I see YouTube videos of village idiots eating them and then being surprised at what happens thereafter. In moderation and certainly with the guacamole con maiz y crab, the mild burn of a few Habanero peppers was tolerable and a bit flavourful as a complete package. Yes, I drank a lot of water to put out the fire.
My friend ordered a chicken tortilla soup. It was not bad, albeit more lukewarm than I would have wanted it. It also came to the table a bit faster than I would have wanted my soup to arrive. Quick arrival of cooked dishes to the table makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. As I intimated, the soup was quite tasty. I have had vegetarian style tortilla soup at a restaurant in Chicago named ¡Que Rico! and can’t say enough about how much I loved it. That bowl of love has since become my benchmark for damn good tortilla soup and the cup of it at Uncle Julio’s was a hint that there is still some more work to be done. And part of the work may be to exclude the crumbled feta cheese. You find that there is a bit of a Mexican and Greek competition in the cup.
For an entrée, I had enchiladas pollo verdes con arroz y ensalada. Now, that was done to satisfaction, almost to the point of rivaling any of the small taquerias dotted throughout the Mexican neighbourhoods. The green salsa had a spicy bite to it that I was glad to have working in my jaws. While I have had some rushed Mexican platters, the rice is one menu item that has not been messed over and the same was applicable with the rice I had with my entrée. I could have eaten it as a complete meal. Now, usually there would be a side of frijoles. Not the case here and I made a mental note that this is a point that taquerias always get correct. You would not expect to have a staple missing like that, but each restaurant has its own feel. The entrée was completed with only the remnants of gravy smearing left on the plate. And I also washed it down with a strong mojito.
Uncle Julio’s is a chain with locations in Texas, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida. The Chicago location certainly embraces Mexican authenticity in the ingredients and preparation. No doubt the kitchen staff comprises Mexicans only anyway. Be forewarned that you will enter a crowded restaurant that is practically bursting at the seams. There are two rooms — the main dining area and the seat-yourself bar area. Having opted to sit in the open bar area, I can only speak to how much high energy there was in that section. As to the main dining area, the queue looked long and an extended wait coupled with a growling belly may not be an appealing thought. For all that came to the table, the price tab was far less than I had anticipated. Once you have been to Uncle Julio’s, it is easy to understand how it is a favourite to many dining patrons. If ever I am in the Old Towne area and have a hankering for something with a Mexican flair, and I am not famished to the point of chewing on curtains, a dash to Uncle Julio’s will do just the trick.