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.
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.
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.
Wondering what to have for lunch, I was in Wicker Park on the hunt for a Pakistani restaurant that turned out not to be open for business yet. During the middle of the afternoon, restaurants in Wicker Park have lines out the door. My appetite does not play nicely when it comes to waiting. It is almost like a little brat, constantly making my stomach growl, which makes me grumpy. Well, across the street at 1360 N. Milwaukee Avenue was Antique Taco and it looked like there was plenty of seating. Not that any seat had my name on it, there was some food that needed to be shown that I loved it.
Strawberry ginger margaritas. Guacamole and chips. Garlic shrimp tacos. Keema empanada. Let me first say that the price for the entire meal came out higher than I expected. I should have paid more attention to the prices while I was being excessively hungry. But that was not a problem. When I look back on the experience, the delectable component of the food justified the cost.
I had recently been spoiled by having some awesome chunky guacamole at a Mexican restaurant, so the creamy guacamole at Antique Taco was good only to me in comparison. The shrimp tacos were worth writing home about, and ordering again during future visits. When I say that the addition of cauliflower elote and the creamy avocado basil salsa worked divinely in the recipe, I’m actually shouting it. What would have otherwise been two bland tacos were food fantastic. The keema empanada reminded me of keema samosas that you get at Indian restaurants. The meat was in a sauce rather than simply flavoured. Beware that these are not small, cute empanadas, but rather small one-course meals. And the strawberry ginger margaritas were perfect for washing everything down. Not heavy on the alcohol, I didn’t realize how much was in it until I got home and felt a need for a nap.
Antique Taco seems to be a hot spot, much like most restaurants in Wicker Park. Although I arrived shortly after the doors opened for business, about 30 minutes into my dining experience, the restaurant filled to capacity and there was a long line at the door. I get the allure. If you want to enjoy your meal inside, I suggest and highly recommend that you arrive at the opening of business. Now, one thing to note is that Antique Taco may be couched in Mexican cuisine. However, they add a twist to the menu items that make you want to try something new every time I go there. I have no idea where the name for the restaurant came from. What I will say is I love the “new” take on a Mexican staple.
For my birthday weekend, I took a few days off following the weekend to have some proper time for myself. That meant staying up late, sleeping later in the morning, and eating, the latter being a given. I had been going to the Bryn Mawr corridor for quite a bit of dining options. I had gone to Little India Restaurant on Friday and to Little Vietnam Restaurant on Saturday. Isn’t it cute how the restaurants have “Little” in the names? Well, only a block away from both is a restaurant named That Little Mexican Cafe at 1055 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue. Having acknowledged that I have become a fan of the other two “Little” restaurants, I had to see if That Little Mexican Cafe would become a big part of my life.
This is not a hole-in-the-wall. I guess it falls more in line with being a medium-sized restaurant with hole-in-the-wall authenticity. The atmosphere detracts from it falling into the big box category. You do feel like you have gone to a friend’s home, mostly from the setting, and that is a very good thing if you rank customer service over ambience. There were complimentary chips and salsa that I later raved about to friends endlessly later in the afternoon.
With me doing something like an extended birthday celebration from the weekend, I still had a Frankenstein monster appetite. Considering this was a new restaurant to me and my intentions were to try something I haven’t had from any other Mexican restaurants, I was still curious as to the guacamole. I’ve had so much guacamole that I should be tired of it. But the tableside guacamole that I got at That Little Mexican Restaurant is the BEST that I have had outside of Distrito Federal. This was chunky guacamole, not puréed. They recognized that avocado already has a creamy texture, and chose not to mess that up by turning it into a coarse pudding.
The next menu items I wanted to try were taquitos pollos. Imagine small corn tortilla chicken tacos fried to a perfect crisp. Served over a bed of lettuce, tomato, and crumbled cheese, these are fantastic snacks. I was expecting only a few, no more than four. There were eight. And by the time I finished gnashing away on those little treats, there were only a few shreds of lettuce on the plate. I have had taquitos at several Mexican corner stores that were tops and some from a few Americanized restaurants that failed. The taquitos at That Little Mexican Cafe rank up there with “worthy of ordering.”
Not wanting to order a chicken or beef dish that would have left me stuffed, I ordered a cazuela camarones. Plump shrimp in a spicy red sauce served over Spanish rice never tasted better. The sauce had a smoky flavour that made the dish reminiscent of a barbecue. I was not expecting such a pop to the dish and it may have been because I had been so accustomed to ordering tacos, enchiladas, tostados, carne asada, and Tex-Mex that I missed trying other fare like the seafood dish that I was completely enthralled with. For full disclosure, I ordered some more for take-away, along with another side of rice and the delicious black beans.
By the time I did my slow walk out of That Little Mexican Cafe, there were two main things that stuck with me. They do the best guacamole in Chicago. I will go even say that it is better than any guacamole I have had in America, so far. Second is that menu items outside of the usual Mexican fare are outstanding, really, really, very outstanding. Another thing I noticed is that the flavours are not watered down. My server did warn me that the cazuela camarones was spicy and I was very happy that the order went through accommodating my request for the dish to be spicy the way it is served in homes in Mexico. With reasonable prices for the meal, especially given how much I had eaten and ordered for take-away, there is nothing little about That Little Mexican Cafe.
While passing through Chicago’s Andersonville neighbourhood heading to the Argyle area for a sampling of some Vietnamese pho, I noticed a restaurant in my peripheral vision. It was “mex-asian” that caught my attention. Chicago has quite a few very good fusion restaurants. My favourite fusion restaurant is Crepe Town, where they marry French crepes with Thai cuisine and they do it very well. Keeping that in mind, I was curious as to how Mexican and Asian would play well together on the palate. Let’s just say that it is a food marriage made in heaven. So, I reversed my course and found a seat at taKO’s KOreanos at 1706 W. Foster Avenue.
Coming in from a bit of nip in the air, I requested some green tea. Instead of a cup of hot water with a tea bag floating delicately in it, I got a pot of green tea that had toasted rice. Per that alone, I was a fan. With the menu not being extensive, I spotted an appetizer and an entrée that I thought would sate my afternoon craving. Having made some slight modifications to my diet, I ordered beef barba Korea fries. If I were one who had a kiddie palate for the love of chili cheese fries, I would denounce that hankering and indulge beef barba Korea fries daily and without complaint. Pulled beef, seasoned well and topped with shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and chives, sat atop fries that were neither greasy nor doused with salt. I gobbled the appetizer like a man who had been deprived of a rather fantastic culinary delight.
Where I figured I would see the Mexican-Asian fusion would be with the tacos. What I got was Mexican-Korean and food harmony in my tummy. The spicy Korean chicken taco started out as my favourite taco of all times. Topped with a house vinaigrette slaw and roasted sesame seeds, the server didn’t have to ask if I thought that taco was inviting to the palate. Where I was left in awe was with the honey chili shrimp taco. This taco had butterflied panko shrimp, not popcorn shrimp. Also topped with a house vinaigrette slaw and roasted sesame seeds, the honey chili sauce had me claiming the honey chili shrimp taco was my “now” favourite of all times. The tacos came with a potato salad that was clearly not of the fast food preparation and not of the “refrigerator section” variety either. And the kimchi fried rice, that reminded me of spicy bibimbap rice, rounded out an ideal lunch selection.
taKO’s KOreanos ranks up there in the “Absolute Best” category with service. Although I was too stuffed to entertain the Mexican-Korean fusion burritos or any other menu items, what I had was enough to convince me that anything coming from the kitchen will be appreciated fully by anyone who enjoys food without requiring the dishes to be of a purist recipe. One thing to note is that taKO’s KOreanos has a cash-only policy. Never fear, as the prices are reasonable. As to the fusion, there are not many restaurants that know how to balance or “influence” dishes when mixing recipes from different cultures. But when they get it correct the way that taKO’s KOreanos get it, you understand why most of the customers who come in seem so familiar to the restaurant staff. Like me, they love cultural harmony, even more in their food.
A year ago while on my way home from having sated myself senselessly, I received a text message from a great friend with an accompanying photo. Not that I was in any position to eat anything, I did marvel at the appetizing items he had sent in the text message — and in the subsequent text messages. Several months later he sent another text message with more photos and a recommendation that I should venture out to the West Suburbs to sample the small dishes at the restaurant that he was advertising with relish. Fast forward a year and I decided to take his advice finally. It was off to Altiro Latin Fusion Restaurant at 308 Anderson Boulevard in Geneva, Illinois.
Because the restaurant had a swell variety of dishes to try, my great friend thought that it would be better to sample different menu items to get a range of flavours. In keeping with Latin flare in food, we had the al trio. This was a flight of guacamole with homemade chips. There were pomegranate, apple, and traditional. Although I have had some “experimental” guacamole during my comings and goings, Altiro did not disappoint with their variations. And living in Chicago proper where there is a large concentration of Mexicans, I have had more elotes than I can recount. Those who love the street vendor corn on the cob will become addicted to the al elotito. This plate of roasted corn, prepared with garlic aioli, serrano pepper, epazote, onions, and cojita cheese, could easily become a wanted dish at every meal. Having the al trio and al elotito with a pineapple margarita that had been mixed with a homemade chipotle pineapple ice cube and chili powder on the rim was a beautiful start.
Having devoured the appetizers, it was time to begin sampling variety. Starting with the al vegetal, I was completely wowed with how the recipe yielded something flavourful like a succulent steak. The roasted portabello mushroom, avocado, piña, bell peppers, red onions, and chipotle reduction, served with a chipotle and an avocado reduction, was a tasteful deviation from the norm of chicken, steak, pork, and beef tacos. The al camaronchizo was one of those tacos that one could fall in love with and forget that there are other kinds of tacos that you can enjoy. I have limited pork intake in my diet, but the chorizo with basque shrimp, avocado slaw, and chipotle aioli was something I forgave quickly.
After a necessary moment to pause before attacking another set of tacos, there was the al fundido, a taco lovers plate of sautéed shrimp, Chihuahua cheese, red onions, and cilantro-lime oil. I had completely forgotten about fast food tacos and I had also completely discounted any of the Mexican holes in the wall in Chicago proper that prepare and sell authentic tacos. For a finale of tacos, we ordered al gallina of grilled chicken, with enchilado sauce, grilled piña, cilantro, and red onions. By this fourth dish of tacos, I noticed that there was distinction among all of the dishes. Per my great friend’s commentary, there is consistency in the flavouring. There certainly was consistency in the quality.
We gave ourselves a bit more time to let our bellies settle before indulging a postre. I was riding the commuter train back into downtown Chicago and wanted to stay awake, so we opted for something light. Without looking at the menu, I rattled off to the server to surprise us. He obliged. There was a dessert platter that looked like sushi. What we received were four key lime cylinders, topped with strawberry quarters, and indeed looking like something from a sushi bar menu. Ever so grateful that the dessert was light, we consumed it slowly, because it would have been a crime to have left any. And to cancel out my desire to stay alert on the commute back into downtown, I had a guava margarita. I have no willpower.
Altiro Latin Fusion is truly off the beaten path. When people go to Geneva, there are two main strips that everyone crowds. However, Altiro is down a side road on a residential street. Clearly the only way one would discover the restaurant is by getting lost or by inquiring of someone who has gone to Altiro where the exact location is. Because I have had taco overload since moving to Chicago in 1994, I have not been excessively quick to go to any Mexican restaurants or fast food restaurants that serve Mexican fare. Sure, Altiro serves Latin fare, but they add enough pizzazz to their items that after the first bite of food from any other Latin restaurant, you may want to throw your plate against the wall. Well, it may be better to simply request the check and make the trek out to Geneva instead. Altiro Latin Fusion will be there. You should be there, too.