One thing I like about Latinicity is the variety, albeit found in only a few vendors. I must admit that I thought there were more restaurants before. Of course, that was over five years ago. I recall there being restaurants to the right of the entrance as well as the current restaurants to the left of the entrance. Nevertheless, next time I am downtown, I will make plans to stop I again to try some other offerings. Continue reading
Rarely do I ever pass through Skokie, Illinois. A few weeks ago, I was in the vicinity returning to a Jamaican restaurant that I love. On the way, I passed by a Mexican restaurant that, from the outside, looked like it was something akin to a Chipotle. I figured I would try it out anyway. Much to my surprise, it only had the look and feel of a run of the mill fast food restaurant. The flavors are what made it stand out as a restaurant I would frequent.
TBK Grill at 7565 Lincoln Avenue in Skokie, is a spot to check out for authentic Mexican food. With booths and tables spaced out nicely, it doesn’t suffer from congestion. The service was fantastic, and I concede that part of that may be because I switched into speaking Spanish. The grill is behind the cashier, so you get to see your food being prepared.
My appetite was ravenous, which is nothing new. I ordered three plates that I considered to be manageable in one seating. The first was chips with guacamole. The guacamole was chunky, exactly the way I like it. I didn’t think to ask if it was possible to get it spicy and with a little bit more cilantro in. It didn’t matter after I realized that the notion of getting it with a kick and more cilantro came after I had gotten down to the bottom of the cup.
The second plate that I ordered was of quesadillas with chicken, served with a small side of guacamole and sour cream. The guacamole was good enough as an accompaniment, but the quesadillas were flavorful enough without anything else for dipping or dousing. It has been over fifteen years since I had quesadillas that I found to be addictive without any extra sides or condiments. It helped that the chicken was succulent and seasoned well.
The taco platter was my final dish. Instead of ordering the tacos with lettuce and tomato like at Americanized taco restaurants, I opted for traditional preparation with cilantro and onions. These tacos reminded me of the ones that my Mexican neighbor prepares, which are the best that I have had ever. The yellow rice was neither sticky nor overcooked, and the refried beans were also tasty. Given all of the food that I had, I still finished every bit of it, something I never would have completed had there not been authenticity in the recipe.
TBK Grill is in a triangle between the tri-section of Howard Street, Lincoln Avenue, and Skokie Blvd. Depending on traffic and the direction from which you’re coming, it could be a task getting into the parking lot. However, once you are there, you’re guaranteed to find satisfaction on the menu. As mentioned earlier, it’s not a hole in the wall, but the food from the kitchen will put you in mind of small Mexican walk-ups. The best.
After a few months of slacking off from my gym regiments because it has been so nice after work that I’ve been busy lifting knives, forks, and spoons instead of weights, my clothes are fitting me a bit tighter than I would like. That means buying new clothes that have breathing room or getting back to my workout routine. So, while biking twenty miles recently, on my return home I passed by a restaurant that I order from online — Super Jalapeño Grill at 2910 W. Armitage Avenue. And what should I do but stop in any undo my long distance ride.
Certainly not a medium or big box restaurant, it’s one of countless taquerias in Chicago where you get real Mexican food, not an attempt at Mexican. There is nothing fancy about the restaurant and once the food arrives at the table, you really don’t care. Since I had already endured one hour of CrossFit, 45 minutes of kickboxing, and a little under an hour of biking, I was ready to sink my fangs into something to tide me over until I got home.
I had chips and the flight of salsas. There were tomatillo, a mild tomato salsa that reminded me of having a tamarind accent in it, a spicy tomato based salsa, and some pickled vegetables. Loved every crispy bite. Starting with a flight of tacos, I had one camarone, one pescada, and one carne asada. Not stacked with a heaping of lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, avocado, salsa from the jar made in New York City, sour cream, and whatever else was in the refrigerator, these tacos were of the variety that my Mexican neighbours prepare. No meat was dry, no flavours were lacking, and I had room for shrimp a la plancha that came in a buttery sauce along with frijoles and rice. With the accompanying corn tortilla, I placed the plump shrimp, rice, and frilojes in them and devoured all of it in total silence. Oh, I also had two quesadillas with this delectable platter.
Needless to say, my final two miles home felt like I had five more to go. But I was well fed. Chicago has more Mexican restaurants than anyone can keep track of and the beauty of them is that they are all authentic, not placebos to satisfy a common palate. Super Jalapeño Grill is family-owned and operated, so you’re indeed getting genuine Mexican sabor. I have ordered from this restaurant for delivery and always felt they sent the best from their kitchen. The sit-down experience proved that they have pride in what they cook. I’m going back, but not after an intense workout routine and long distance biking.
This has been a rather fast and adventurous year. New restaurants, new cafes, new boutiques, and an appetite to go through all of them. So this brings me to the time for me to present my top 10 list of ethnic jaunts for 2016.
10. Cantón Regio — Mexican — 1510 W. 18th Street
There can never be too many Mexican restaurants in Chicago. If most of them were bad, it would be easier to say which is the best. Cantón Regio falls in the category of Mexican restaurants that make you inner fat child very, very happy.
9. Cafe Orchid — Turkish — 1746 W. Addison Street
If you can make it through a meal without dancing in your seat, let me know. It can’t be possible to sit through a meal here and have no emotions, except for shedding tears for how delectable everything is.
8. Ay Ay Picante — Peruvian — 4569 N. Elston Avenue
Peruvian food served the way it’s enjoyed in Peru. Peruvian food served the “Chicago way,” that being you’ll walk away stuffed. My recommendation for when the food is just “that” good and you start declaring, “Jesus,” clear it up by pronouncing the name the way it’s pronounced in Latin American countries so no one will know that you’re really taking Jesus’s name in vain.
7. Serai — Malaysian — 2169 N. Milwaukee Avenue
When you can get Malaysian food without it being buried on one of several booklet pages at a Pan-Asian restaurant, run to the restaurant, don’t walk. Serai is “real McCoy” Malaysian food. The Malaysians who are always there and my Malaysian friends can vouch for the way the food makes them miss home.
6. Rickshaw Republic — Indonesian — 2312 N. Lincoln Avenue
With there not being a short list of Indonesian restaurants in Chicago, Rickshaw Republic is all-authentic. It’s mandatory to make several trips because with all of the offerings, and all of them being amazing, you have to make more than one trip. You have to!!!
5. Animale — Italian — 1904 N. Western Avenue
When Osteria Langhe opened in Chicago, the city got the best Italian food this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Animale is a more exotic version of Italian food, served in a fast casual setting.
4. Chiya Chai — Nepalese — 2770 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Logan Square is clearly vying for the position of international hub within Chicago, which is already a notable international destination. One of the more recent additions to the Logan Square landscape is Chiya Chai, a spot where you can get some chai to make you give up coffee and some Nepalese food with authenticity that transports you to Kathmandu.
3. Ras Dashen — Ethiopian — 5846 N. Broadway Street
Knives? Forks? Spoons? For the absolute best in cultural dining, Ethiopian dining is what you would want to indulge. While Edgewater boasts several Ethiopian restaurants, Ras Dashen stands out as one of the few that deserves a seating.
2. Little Unicoco — Nigerian — 1631 W. Howard Street
The slow renaissance in Rogers Park is bringing about the presence of several restaurants, many from an international eatpoint (new word). Little Unicoco brings Nigeria to Chicago’s Far North Side, complete with authenticity and an inviting atmosphere.
1. Juno — Japanese — 2638 N. Lincoln Avenue
Most people love sushi, maki rolls, and hibachi fare. But sometimes, it’s better to deviate from the usual and delve into the world of omakases. Small plates, attention to detail, flavours that pop, and the best Japanese food in Chicago without pretension.
There you have it. While this may be the short list, there were several winners throughout the entire year. Once the temperatures warm up, check out a few of them. Oh, what the heck, go even when it’s frosty outside. Not only do you get to take advantage of someone else’s heat, but you also get to eat well. Enjoy. And we’ll see each other in 2017.
Recently, I ran the Carrera de los Muertos 15K — the Race of the Dead — which was a 3 mile stretch through Chicago’s Pilsen neighbourhood. While on the race, we passed a restaurant named Nuevo Leon and I had mentioned it to a friend who was also running in the race. She informed me that after Nuevo Leon had experienced a fire, the owners opened Cantón Regio across the street. After hearing many people speak of how good the food was at Nuevo Leon, there was no reason why I couldn’t make my way back to 1510 W 18th Street to get a sample.
My friend who ran in the Race of the Dead, a mutual friend, and I met one late afternoon through dinner for some Mexican food well worth repeat visits. There is a bit of the woodsy look on the inside, spacious, and with enough tables to entertain several parties. And it’s not loud, so you can have conversation and enjoy all the good eating. Acknowledging their cash-only policy and option for bringing our own beverage, we arrive with empty tummies that we filled.
There was complimentary broth with chicken and vegetables that was quite nice, no doubt a good option for fighting the common cold during our chilly months. We ordered brochetas pollo y camarones. These skewers of chicken and shrimp with bell peppers and onions were outstanding. Accompanied with tortillas, wrapping the tender chicken, shrimp, and vegetables in the tortillas resulted in pure culinary bliss.
For the next menu item, we ordered a kilo of arrachera. I am the first to say that I like skirt steak, but after not being able to shut up about how good it was at Cantón Regio, I may be the first to be head over heels for how good it tasted here. The meat was cooked well, but had the texture and succulence of medium well preparation. The cebollitas cambray, spring onions, and roasted red peppers that came with it left a lasting impression on my palate. With the rest of the tortillas and cups of pinto beans in a savoury gravy, we worked this large platter to completion.
Along with our fourth bottle of wine, we finished with a flan. Whether prepared on the premises or at a bakery, flans are always a delight. And the same was the case here. The texture was slightly creamier than gelatinous, and that is absolutely perfect. Topped with a cherry and drizzled with caramel, we wrapped up a long meal and then had to deal with fighting sleep.
Cantón Regio is clearly a neighbourhood favourite and a magnet for those outside of the Pilsen area. You can probably guess that the food is simply some of the best authentic Mexican food in the city, but the service also makes it have great appeal. There is no rush, so diners clearly take their time to indulge everything in front of them. Again, there is a cash-only policy, but the prices are extremely reasonable for the portions you get. There is also a BYOB policy, so grab some cervasas or a bottle of wine and make a date. It’s a given that I will return in a few weeks for some more arrachera.
Several months ago, I met my former flatmate for dinner in the West Loop. We had designs on a restaurant that is noted for serving some of the best burgers in the city. We arrived to a packed restaurant and a long waiting list. That was all we needed to know that the food was “that” good, but it was too cold to stand around outside. So my good friend offered the suggestion of walking a few blocks to Bar Takito at 201 N. Morgan Street. Well, she certainly knows how to pick a winner.
Since I didn’t get any photographs, not even from my cellphone, I decided that I would return this past weekend and it was just as good of a decision as it was when my friend said, “Let’s go,” back in October, 2015. Knowing the dinner crowd would fill up the restaurant, I went during mid afternoon on Saturday and had a seat at the bar. And after a brief glance of the drink menu, I saw a section with cocktails mixed using mezcal. You can’t go wrong with anything having mezcal in it, so I told the bartender to surprise me with something that would put me in the mind of summer. She won me over with a drink called Mouthful of Diamonds, absolutely refreshing from hibiscus and citrusy from lime and agave.
For a starter, I had fish tacos. There were tilapia that had been battered in rice and served on top of pepita tortillas. There was a cabbage slaw with a chili aioli that had a spicy and citrusy zest to it. To round these tacos off, there were crispy rice and basil. It seems like any time there is news about tilapia, it is all bad. I don’t know where the conspiracy theorists obtain their information from because when you go to a restaurant that does an outstanding job with food preparation or if you’re obsessive compulsive with your own cooking, you’d have to purchase your tilapia from a nuclear waste dump for it to be that awful. The tilapia in the fish tacos at Bar Takito were plump and fresh.
By now, I had worked my way up to wanting another cocktail. As you may have noticed in a few past posts and will notice in future posts, I’m falling in love with mezcal and it’s becoming gold in Chicago. So, I had the bartender mix another drink with mezcal in it. What to my wondering palate should she put in front of me but a Peruvian Margarita. I have three all-time favourite bartenders in Chicago and I’ve stuck with just those three for my list. The bartender at Bar Takito is now in my Top 4 and there is no particular order. There were agave and fresh lime that compliment the aji amarillo pepper purée that’s used to spiced the margarita up. This margarita does not come with mezcal in it, but the bartender added a mezcal float to the recipe. Capital.
And to go along with the Peruvian Margarita were spiced beef barbacoa tacos. These came with a pickled jicama and a queso fresco with peanuts served on a popcorn tortilla. I could come up with a hundred words to describe how much I fell further in love with the tacos during each bite, but I could better sum up the experience with the simplistic word “Wow.” While I don’t have any allergies towards nuts, I never order dishes with nuts in them. I hadn’t really paid attention to peanuts in the tacos. I had noticed that there was a nutty flavour that served well with the savoury flavour of the beef and I was quite okay with that.
There are countless restaurants in and around Chicago that are taking tacos to a new level of preparation that draw those with eager appetites and palates that enjoy different tastes. I have not been to any that I haven’t become a fan boy for. Bar Takito is certainly on my go-to list. The food is capital. The table service that I’ve had in the past was top. And the bar service may make me judge future restaurants unfairly. They have a constant customer, bar none.
In 2014, I went to Altiro Latin Fusion in Geneva, Illinois, at the recommendation of a good friend. At the time it seemed that tacos prepared in exotic fashion were becoming the rage. The visit to that Altiro was the first time I had exotic tacos done right, it seemed. I joked with the owner that they should open a location in Chicago proper in Logan Square. Well, I never thought a suggestion given in jest would be taken seriously. Instead of Logan Square, an Altiro Latin Fusion is now in Roscoe Village at 2116 W. Roscoe Street, a quick ride from Logan Square.
I got in contact with my friend who introduced me to the Altiro Geneva offerings to see if he was game for trying out the Roscoe Village location. Being sure to arrive well in advance of the dinner crowd, we had a seat, he starting with a Modelo Dos Equis, and me whetting my palate with an Al Florinda. The concoction of hibiscus with bourbon, orange liqueur, orange juice, lime juice and chili de Arbol definitely had me off the a good start.
One tapas dish that I enjoyed at the Geneva location and an all-time Mexican favourite is elote. The Al Elitito was not the usual corn on the cob, but was off the cob prepared with garlic aioli, serrano pepper, fresh epazote, onions, cotija cheese, and chile piquin. This may be some of the most addictive corn you will ever devour.
Something different we ordered was Ala Papa Brava. This came as several potato logs, topped with an egg sunny side up and dollops of aioli and poblano sauces. Of all of the Spanish tapas restaurants I’ve gone to that serves papas bravas, Altiro Roscoe Village is in control of setting the bar.
Altiro is outstanding when it comes to tacos and this is another area where they’ve set the bar high — for me, that is. We ordered the Al Fundido, which were tacos prepared with sautéed garlic shrimp, Chihuahua cheese, cilantro-lime oil, and escabeche red onions. It is easy to forget about ordering tacos with shredded beef, ground beef, pork, or chicken after having it with delectable, plump shrimp ala Al Fundido.
In preparation for the final main dish, my friend had another beer and I ordered an Al Pepiño. When I said I wanted a spicy drink, the recipe of muddled cucumber, cilantro, jalapeno infused vodka, fresh lime, and agave nectar was sent from the gods, not the bartender. And with the Al Poblano of tender chicken breast over rice in a poblano sauce and accented with pomegranate seeds, my friend and I were too immersed in working the tortillas to scoop the dish that we hadn’t noticed the Damiens and Rhodas having a run of the restaurant.
After having stuffed ourselves to near food comatose, we waited before having their version of tiramisu. Move over Italian restaurants because you have competition. There were the usual ingredients, but there wasn’t the espresso and usual dusting of cocoa powder on top. There was Rumchata. People who say bacon goes great with everything will promptly start saying Rumchata is considerably better with everything after they have some of this tiramisu.
I remember the service being about 50 miles past exceptional at the Altiro Geneva location. The Roscoe Village has been open for less than a full year and they’re already well down the stretch with top service. Sending something from the kitchen that is not appetizing clearly is not a part of their formula. Not one item have I had that I did not want to eat to excess after the first bite. Although I have to go only a few miles to Roscoe Village for a feast of their good food, I’m okay with that. I’m just glad I don’t have to ride the train all the way out to Geneva.
A few years ago, there was an Indian restaurant in Chicago’s West Loop that opened, had really good food, and then ended in a short shelf life. While on Instagram, I saw postings from a Mexican restaurant that has since taken up residence in the location where the Indian restaurant was. Dón Fresco at 520 W. Harrison Street opened its doors for business within the past few months and the constant postings on Instagram from other diners were the indicators that they were enjoying some good Mexican food.
I had a classic, guacamole. Instead of purée, which is a common way guacamole is prepared, Dón Fresco makes it chunky. Having had guacamole chunky at a restaurant in Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood, I prefer it this way, so Dón Fresco scores high for their preparation. A nice surprise is that the crunchy tortilla chips are made on the premises. They are not purchased at a store; I give a higher score.
The second item I tried was a quesadilla. Made with flour tortillas and Chihuahua cheese, the quesadilla was good with salsa verde. I imagine one can order quesadillas with extra ingredients in them like chicken, beef, or vegetables. I recommend ordering a variety for a good sampling.
Another traditional Mexican staple is the tamale. This may be the one item that made Dón Fresco a winner for me. I ordered one with chicken and one with frijoles and pepper. One of my Mexican neighbours once gave me some tamales that he had made at home. The ones I had at Dón Fresco were reminiscent of what I had from my neighbour. So, I can vouch for authenticity. And the same may be said of the elote, albeit not gobbled from a cob. Anyone who loves corn would find it hard to fight the urge to buy some for takeaway. I gave in and had some for to-go.
The atmosphere at Dón Fresco screams fast food. The food doesn’t taste fast, and that’s the best part. It’s not fancy and there are no tableside servers. You order at the till, pay for your meal, and have a seat if you’re dining in. Much like hole-in-the-wall taquerias, there is indeed authenticity in the food that you can’t deny. The flavours are not doctored down for Taco Bell palates. While you can also get an order for takeaway, I recommend ordering for staying. Authenticity isn’t something to rush off to some destination to enjoy. You must enjoy it on location.
For the past few years, I have been going to a few restaurants in the West Town vicinity of Chicago. During the summer, I got to see much of the area while on foot. One restaurant I passed by several times was Mexique at 1529 W. Chicago Avenue. There was a “white table-cloth” feel to the restaurant and with that in mind, I never went in because I was usually in short pants and walking shoes. So, I decided that I would go one evening after work when I was better attired.
I considered having the dining experience be more ala carte. And then I decided that I wanted a sampling of several menu items. The 6-course tasting menu was the better option. Having received the explanation that the food at Mexique is Mexican with a French influence, I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with a seafood approach to the tasting. While I waited for the courses to arrive, I had black bean purée and chicken pâté with French bread. The black beans as a purée instead of thick frijoles was great for spreading as was the spicy pâté, both a great complimentary start and marriage between Mexican and French.
The first course was poblano pepper soup accented with feta cheese, pineapple relish, quince, and celery root. The remarkable thing about this soup is that neither the spiciness of the peppers nor the sweetness of the pineapple relish overpowered the recipe. A white wine accompanied this dish, one with a lovely touch of sweetness. There were notes of peach and apricots in the wine. Smooth on the palate, it was splendid in the pairing in that it brought out the flavours of the soup rather than competing with it on the tongue.
The second course was an interesting and addictive take on ceviche. Cobia fish in citrus juice was the main seafood ingredient. The French influence came in with the inclusion of the stock prepared with green vegetables, green chilies, also paprika oil and micro greens. There were small dollops of poblana mousse that, once stirred in the ceviche, made the base slightly creamy. The wine that paired with this course was a Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard in California. There was a high mineral aspect to it, a bit tart, that again allowed the ingredients in the ceviche to pop more than they probably would have had there been no wine served with the course.
The third course was one that I initially flagged as the highlight of the evening after a taste of the first morsel. There was mahi-mahi in a lovely sorrel sauce and red quinoa with salmon tartar. The entire dish was drizzled with a burned onion aioli. Those who enjoy seafood would love sampling the mahi-mahi and the salmon tartar. Paired with this was a crisp Spanish Rioja wine, consisting of fully ripe fruits, mainly grapes that played well with the flavours of the sorrel.
Thinking that the third course was spectacular in terms of taste, the fourth course was unforgettable. This was a whitefish with a black bean sauce prepared with a red wine reduction. The white potato purée had a surprising pop on the palate, as it was clearly not seasoned with salt and pepper only. Garnishes were baby carrots, confit style and micro greens. This course came paired with a Chardonnay. The complexity in this wine came in the form of ripe apples, vanilla, and oak. As if the whitefish wasn’t flaky and tender enough, the silky and buttery notes in the wine made the fourth course a culinary dream.
Given each course was progressively better than the previous one, I should have known the fifth course would be a winner. This was another seafood dish, prepared with skate marinated in tequilla over spinach, cauliflower, and picked grapes, and set atop a fully ripe and compressed plantain. There was a nice amount of achiote seeds used for seasoning this dish and all of the ingredients were fantastic for letting each come through individually on the tongue. A French wine came with this dish. Medium bodied wine with notes of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, this was a perfect accompaniment for a dish that had so many complex flavours.
The finale was one that I had to request a pause before having it arrive at the table. The prior dishes, albeit manageable, were slightly more filling than I had expected. I figured there would be a dessert that would be familiar, but perhaps rich. Sure enough, the arroz con leche with vanilla bean ice cream. This traditional Mexican dessert of rice pudding was enhanced with rompope, Mexican eggnog, and sprinkled with candied pumpkin seeds as well as white chocolate crumble. The dessert wine with the course was and Alameda. The figs, dates, prunes, and raisins in this sherry were fantastic, which made this wine a perfect match for the arroz con leche.
Those who are expecting tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, and traditional Mexican fare may find Mexique a bit weird or lacking in purist techniques. Even those who fancy Tex-Mex may not be okay with the cuisine either. This is not a restaurant that one may consider upscale Chipotle or a chic Mexican restaurant. Those who like variety and those with broad palates will find the ala carte and the tasting menus to be worthy of one or more visits. The sitting area is large, so there is lots of room for stretching out in preparation for dining. Make reservations, as the restaurant tends to fill up quickly. The constant influx of patrons is all you need to know that the food is good. Well, I’ve shown you pictures already. Now get ready for the taste.
When my former flatmate announced that she was going to have a birthday gathering at a restaurant in her old neighbourhood of Pilsen, I knew there would be authenticity to the food. She had mentioned La Vaca Margarita Bar at 1160 W. 18th Street. Those who have been in Chicago for several years know how Pilsen has undergone a bit of a change over the past seven or so years, albeit not rapid but definitely noticeable. And La Vaca Margarita Bar has retained much of the Mexican culture that has been slowly fading.
Very much a large setting, the restaurant is rather spacious. The second half of the restaurant has a huge bar with what looks like a remarkable selection of liquid love for any concoction imaginable. With a few of us having arrived early, we started with regular margaritas, rumchatas, and hibiscus margaritas. Wow! What-what! Rara-rara! Hats off to the bartender who made the drinks in a way that would make you guzzle them down like Kool-Aid, but will raise your feet a few inches off the ground.
One word is applicable for describing the food: outstanding. The quesadillas came with succulent chicken that had been accented with a tasty gravy, and were served with a salad under sour cream and fresh guacamole. The flautas were also prepared with fresh ingredients and with the tortillas nicely crunchy. The chicken taco with crispy onions had a very light, savoury gravy in the recipe that yielded a flavour in a way that the tacos required no salsa with them. The arroz with frijoles and chicken under mole is a dish that I recommend highly. Any dish with a good mole sauce should never be passed and the same applies to this one. As to the beer-battered fish taco, this was yet another dream on the palate. The coup de grace of everything was the platter of chicken and steak fajitas served with arroz and a medley of broccoli and carrots. The dish was the length of my elbow to my wrist and I have the arms of a basketball player. But it was the grand taste that was a winner.
As I had mentioned, Pilsen is undergoing a creeping change in the neighbourhood. The Mexican aspects of the culinary representation in Pilsen is not changing, although the influx into the neighbourhood is not Mexican. For those who like to go to restaurants with large parties of friends or family members, this is one location in Chicago that I think is a fit. The food should be shared family style. Even if it is a small party of two or three, I think this is still an excellent restaurant to add to your outing list. With top service and lip-smacking food from the cocina, my former flatmate brought in age 40 with a satisfied look on her face and a filled belly. So did the rest of us.