TBK Grill, Skokie Mexican

TBK Grill

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.

Chips and Guacamole

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.

Quesadilla con Pollo

Quesadilla con Pollo

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.

Tacos Pollo con Arroz y Frijoles

Tacos Pollo con Arroz y Frijoles

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.

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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.

Precious Memories

Pico de Gallo

Are there times when your mind wanders back to something that brought a smile to your face and you wish that you could return to that time and live through that smile-inducing experience again? Are there moments when you recall a certain dish that was so good you found yourself thinking that it would never be as good as the first time? Are there times when you pass by places and find yourself captivated by something you saw in the window briefly? I have those deja vu episodes all the time. Mostly my precious memories involve food. And, yes, I smile. This was the case recently when I was in Oak Park going to a certain wine shop to buy a bottle or two of wines. On my way, I took the scenic route and to my wandering eyes should I espy a Mexican cafe. Nothing spectacular, rather small in size, I recalled my days of living in Chicago’s Rogers Park where I had my pick of Mexican holes in the wall that served food so delicious that it had dawned on me several months after constant visits that my Spanish had improved.

Quesadillas Con Arroz, Frijoles y EnsaladaFresh Mex Cafe at 1110 Westgate Street is immediately off of Marion Street, a thoroughfare where you can find a plethora of cafes, restaurants, and specialty boutiques. With only a few chairs for seating and rather cramped, it was also a bit reminiscent of some small shanties where I had been warned not to go in Mexico City when I was there years ago with work. American accent intact, I ordered quesadillas con arroz, frijoles, and salad. And there was no way that I was going to have anything to drink other than a pineapple Jarito. For all you lovers of high fructose corn syrup in your beverages, get your fingers around a Jarito that gets its sweetening from cane sugar. You will thank me.

Truly Fresh Mex Cafe is about authenticity. I started with chips and salsa. The chips were not unflavoured Dorito’s — absolutely not. These were fresh and a bit warm, which was all the indication that I needed to realize that they were made in-house. The pico de gallo, although looking rather pedestrian, had a kick to it that made me want to dance the mariachi music playing in the background. Chunks of fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapeno peppers were all that I needed to have me no longer wanting any kind of salsa from a jar. Then the quesadilla with all the trimmings came. Chihuahua cheese between corn tortillas and cooked on a griddle were served up with Spanish rice that was neither al dente nor mushy. And let me not forget about the frijoles with extra crunch tortillas and the salad that came with a dollop of sour cream and a grande scoop of guacamole. Mind you, the guacamole was just avocado and tomatoes, no extra additives, but the taste was perhaps ten notches past divine. No mentira. With pineapple jarito in hand, my lunch was complete. I had not just entered a restaurant, but I had gone into some Mexican’s kitchen and had a taste of home.

Flan

There were only two dessert options on the menu. One was a flan. The other was tres leches cake. The main plate was so filling that I opted for the flan. Accented with a thin caramel glaze and topped with a cherry, this flan was so creamy that you would have thought that it was custard. There was a texture akin to the lemon in the lemon meringue pies that I bake. Only in Mexico where no one spoke any English — or tried — have I had flan that heavenly. It may sound cliché, but I didn’t know what to do with myself, everything was so remarkable on my tongue. I think I discovered some secrets, whatever they may be.

Fresh Mex Cafe is indeed a hidden gem. On a side street that enters into a stretch for a parking lot, you could pass by it and think that it was one of the few businesses that have closed. There are no fancy signs, flash, fanfare, or indicators to grab the attention. Much like me on the day that I went, you have to casually stroll through the area and take in the scenery slowly, not in a rush. And once you go inside, be prepared to be served some outstanding comida de concina por Mexicanos quienes saben comadia buena.