Top 10 Jaunts for 2016

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

Brochetas de Pollo y Camarones

Pollo y Camarones

Arrachera

Arrachera

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

Patican Salata

Patican Salata

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

Chupe de Camarones

Chupe de Camarones

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

Roti Pratha

Roti Pratha

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

Beef Rendang, Coconut Rice, String Beans, Corn Fritter

Beef Rendang, Coconut Rice, String Beans, Corn Fritter

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

Fegato

Fegato

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

Masala Fries, Balti Pie, Creamy Masala Chicken, Masala Chai

Masala Fries, Balti Pie, Creamy Masala Chicken, Masala Chai

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

Communal Platter

Communal Platter

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

Meat Pie and House Sauce

Meat Pie and House Sauce

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

Seared Scallop, Grilled Octopus, Ceviche Maki

Seared Scallop, Grilled Octopus, Ceviche Maki

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.

Cantón Regio, Pilxico Tasty

Cantón Regio

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.

Complimentary Soup

Complimentary Soup

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.

Brochetas de Pollo y Camarones

Brochetas de Pollo y Camarones

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.

Arrachera

Arrachera

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.

Flan

Flan

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.

Canton Regio Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bar Takito, Bar None, Bar All Good

Bar TakitoSeveral 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.

Mouthful of Diamonds

Mouthful of Diamonds

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.

Fish Tacos

Fish Tacos

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.

Peruvian Margarita

Peruvian Margarita

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.

Beef Barbacoa Tacos

Beef Barbacoa Tacos

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.

Bar Takito Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Altiro Roscoe Village, Suburbs Come to the City

Altiro Latin Fusion Roscoe Village

Ala Florinda

Ala Florinda

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.

Al Elotito

Al Elotito

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.

Ala Papa Brava

Ala Papa Brava

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.

Al Fundido

Al Fundido

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.

Al Poblano

Al Poblano

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.

Tiramisu

Tiramisu

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.

Al Pepiño

Al Pepiño

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.

Altiro Latin Fusion Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Dón Fresco Quando Frio

Dón Freso

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.

Guacamole

Guacamole

Jarritos Mandarina

Jarritos Mandarina

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.

Quesadillas

Quesadillas

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.

Tamale con Pollo

Tamale con Pollo

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.

Elote

Elote

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.

Mexcais, Frenchican, Mexique

Mexique

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.

Black Bean Purée, Bread, Chicken Pâté

Black Bean Purée, Bread, Chicken Pâté

Chicken Pâté, Bread, Black Bean Purée

Chicken Pâté, Bread, Black Bean Purée

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.

Soup and Wine

Soup and Wine

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.

Ceviche

Ceviche

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.

Mahi-Mahi with Salmon Tartar

Mahi-Mahi with Salmon Tartar

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.

Whitefish with Potato Puree and Black Bean Sauce

Whitefish with Potato Puree and Black Bean Sauce

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.

Skate with Vegetables and Grapes Over Plantain

Skate with Vegetables and Grapes Over Plantain

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.

Arroz Con Leche with Ice Cream

Arroz Con Leche with Ice Cream

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.

Sherry

Sherry

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.

Mexique Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Vaca Margarita Bar Para Cumplaños Para Mi Amiga Buena

La Vaca Margarita Bar

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.

Chips

Chips

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.

Margarita, Rumchata, Hibiscus Margarita

Margarita, Rumchata, Hibiscus Margarita

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.

Flight of Mexican Delicacies

Quesadillas with Chicken. Flautas. Chicken Taco. Arroz, Frijoles, and Chicken in Mole Sauce. Fish Taco. Steak and Chicken Fajitas.

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.

La Vaca Margarita Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato