¡Que Rico! ¡Que Bueno!

Que Rico

Chips and Salsa

What do you do on a sunny Saturday afternoon when the sky is blue, the few clouds that are fluttering about are wispy feathers that look dreamy, and the leaves on the trees remind you of pumpkin pie and crayons the colours of red, yellow, brown, and orange? You rake leaves? You jump in the leaves? You walk hand-in-hand with your lover down the lane? You sit about and be thankful that the temperatures are still in the mid 60′s? Well, if you are me, you are probably out and about hunting for some food. I had made a bet with my international traveling wife during our last international jaunt. I had agreed that for every pound she takes off, I will add a pound. Last report, she had taken off a few pounds, which meant that my current bout of weight gain that has me struggling to get into some of my pants needs to step up. So, when I found myself in front of a certain Mexican restaurant that had the earth tones of the autumn colours, imagine my surprise when I had found an option for adding a pound or two for this particular day.

On the corner of Oakley and Roscoe at 2301 West Roscoe Street is ¡Que Rico! Talk about getting the whole decor of a Mexican establishment right. And with Halloween approaching, there was the whole setup of ghosts, ghouls, witches, skeletons, and pumpkins placed strategically throughout the restaurant. Upon entry, and it was during the middle of the afternoon, I was rather shocked to see that the place was empty. Many restaurants seem to open at 4:00 or 5:00 PM on Saturdays, so I had initially thought they were airing out the place in preparation for the evening seating. But, no, there just were no patrons yet and perhaps most were on the east end of the Roscoe Avenue stretch that attracts a lot of pedestrian traffic. The server had stated that they were indeed open for business and gave me my pick of tables. I chose a window seat.

Sopa de Tortillas

To the table came chips and salsa. The chips were not the neat, flat tortilla corn chips that you get in Frito Lay’s bags. Many were folded, some had been contorted, and all of them were warm. You can’t pour a bag of chips into a bowl, warm them up, and not expect some weird texture after they start cooling off. The chips remained crispy from the time they reached the table until I had finished all but crumbs. The salsa had raised some suspicion at first. I was thinking salsa from the jar and then the peppers slowly started creeping about on my tongue. I have had the “spicy” brand of salsa from the jar and it was still mild, so the complimentary salsa I had this day was either doctored or homemade. I would like to think the latter was the case because there was the authentic flavour that I could taste, much like the homemade salsa I have had at several of my friends’ homes.

I started with a sopa de tortilla. I have never ordered sopa de tortilla — tortilla soup — before and was pleasantly surprised that chicken broth with a tomato base, caramelized onions, chihuahua cheese, peppers, and corn tortillas could be so blooming delicious. We’re talking a fiesta. By the time I had gotten down to the last few slurps, I had dubbed the soup as my autumn Latin soup. It could be the colours of autumn that gave me the hint. Then again, it could have been the mildly spicy flavours that would be perfect for preventing a cold or keeping the body heated during the chillier times of fall and winter that will keep me hankering for cups and bowls of this delight.

Camarones al Ajo

One Latin American dish that has never failed is camarones al ajo. This plate of plump shrimp in a tomato-based sauce over melted cheese with Spanish rice, refried beans, and salad left me smiling and bumbling. The one time I probably could have gotten away babbling twaddle in English and I was instead giving commentary rather fluently in Spanish. Oh how the waiter got a laugh out of that before he was a bit inquisitive as to how my Spanish had such polish. It’s like those people who had surgeries and then awakened with accents so very different from what they had before going under anesthesia. While I am moderately conversational with Spanish, I apparently had not only correctness with words but also an accent. Food is not supposed to do that to me. I am finding it increasingly hard to fight, though.

Now, only an hour had passed and I was a bit full from having engaged the soup and the entrée with a pause of fifteen minutes after each. It was time for a postre. No flan para mi. Favor, no churros. Instead, I had pastel de piña. To have ordered that without first thinking about how I would say pineapple cake in Spanish first was an indication of how fast I tend to switch into languages. The pastel de piña came with a light caramel sauce, baked pineapples, and a fist size scoop of vanilla ice cream over a slice of yellow cake. Along with the cake, I had a cup of Colombian coffee. Gracias, Juan Valdez. It probably would have been nice to have had some Mexican hot chocolate to stay with the whole Mexican theme. Sigh. Sometimes there are modifications made and the ideal gets smashed. And if the food is really great at the restaurant, you eat enough that you are smashed also, such was the case with me.

Pastel del Piña

For a restaurant that has all the trimming of ambience, great service, and pretty good food, it is very bizarre to note how empty the place is. It very well may be the timing of day, as big box restaurants have a tendency to fill up later in the afternoon and early evening hours. It may also be that most of the restaurants that cater to pedestrian movement are a few blocks east of where ¡Que Rico! is. Several reviews I have read hint at the price being more than what is expected for the output and having a disposable income puts me at a disadvantage for moaning about cost. ¡Que Rico! is neither a corner taqueria nor is it Charlie Trotter’s. You have to experience the restaurant for what it is worth. I walked, or rather waddled, away a stuffed man and still had enough cash to get cheese on my Burger King whopper afterwards. Wait! I don’t each burgers. Scratch that last thought.

Que rico. Que bueno. ¡Bomba!

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.

On the Sunny Side

Salsa

The older I get, the more I take advantage of things without seeking permission and without hesitation. A great friend has recently taken on the same disposition and so she and I catch up every Friday after work to wash away the weeks’ ills with laughter while enjoying food and drink. Who needs to sit around pondering what the Joneses are doing when they can find satisfaction with their feet under a table — be it at a restaurant, cafe, picnic table, or under their own kitchen tables — when life does not pause the Joneses to wait for anyone to catch up? Lucky for me, I have the Williams blood in me and the Joneses spend a great deal of time gasping from trying to match my pace.

Tomatilla

Since my friend and I had been meeting in Oak Park every Friday to frequent any one of our many favourite haunts, this was going to be a finale, as I am no longer going to work in the West Suburbs. I will work in downtown Chicago and with me living just on the outskirts of downtown, public transportation, packed subways, standing-room-only buses, and congestion will become my comfort again. So, my friend and I met at Maya del Sol, located at 144 S. Oak Park Avenue. I had passed by the restaurant over the course of a year or so, but never felt compelled to see what was on their bill of fare. There were always limos and high-end cars pulling up with thin Hollywood tanned blond Barbie dolls and Miami oompa-loompa orange Ken action figures springing about stiffly before vanishing into a cacophony of pretty-pretty faces. Considering my friend and I are both so sexy that it hurts, there was nothing holding us back from going in and adding Maya del Sol to our list of fooderies — that’s my first new word for the year.

Our fantastic waitress told us that Maya del Sol has a policy of refunding anything that customers do not like. Hmm. That is the last thing an establishment should mention considering the world is full of people who are unscrupulous and may feel bold enough to order in abundance and then complain about everything ordered just to squeeze out a free meal. But with homemade tortillo, tomatilla salsa, and traditional salsa in front of us inducing smiles on our faces, we let that bit of information given to us go in one ear and out the other. Granted chips and salsa come standard in Latin American eateries, there is something awesome about warm, crunchy tortillas that do not taste as though they were poured from a Frito-Lays bag and served with a jar of Hunt’s picante sauce. Believe me when I say that the tortillas and salsas were worthy.

Mojito

My friend had a glass of red wine. It is clear that she and I have like tastes in red wines — full body, spicy, with a smoky hint. The wine had come per recommendation from the waitress and immediately upped her tip value; this being true and we had not ordered appetizers yet. I had a mojito and I will simply say that Latin American bartenders have the market in preparing mojitos correctly. There are some mojito snobs leaping about in disdain at my observation, I am sure, but there is something fantastic to be said about a mojito that does not have the whole mint bush in the drink and the alcohol is not loaded enough to make a wino scream, Damn! Give me life or give me a bitching mojito. Hmm. Actually, I think I will take both.

Traditional Cerviche

Where things really got pleasing was with the flight of cerviches. Let me give a disclaimer now. I have not been a fan of cerviche until I had tried it at a local Cuban restaurant in my neighbourhood. Those Cubans blew my mind pa-pow-pow style and so when I go to Latin American restaurants and I see cervice on the menu, my addiction kicks in and I want to see if the eatery will satisfy my palate like or better than the Cuban cafe. Maya del Sol provides a flight of three cerviches so that you can get a feel or rather a taste for which one makes you sweat the most. Now, let me clarify that the cerviches are not spicy enough to make you sweat but the flavours pop in a manner that will leave you with a randy twitch. There goes my addiction again.

Salmon Cerviche

The first cerviche was the traditional version. !Dios mios! Fresh raw fish marinated in lime juice and spiced with chilli peppers never tasted so good. Who would have thought that raw fish not prepared as sushi would be so tasty? Additional seasoning of onion, salt, cilantro, and pepper made it that much better. Thinking about the second cerviche — salmon cerviche — has me flustered. Fresh salmon, and I do not mean fishy in taste at all, sat atop avocado that had been prepared in the manner of guacamole, but not quite guacamole. In addition to the tortillas we had complementary with the salsas, we also had some flour tortillas that we used to scoop the cerviches. I made a mental note to never sit at a window seat again. Then again, I realized I would forget all about my window seat presentations as soon as I walk through the door of the next restaurant I plan to sample.

Shrimp Cerviche

Where things left my friend and me rumpled and out of sort was when we began working on the shrimp cerviche. Fat, plump shrimp bursting with vibrant flavour — as if you can describe flavour in terms of vibrancy — the only thing I could describe as being more beautiful or closer to heaven was watching the sun set from Signal Hill in Cape Town, South Africa. And here is where the cerviche snobs leap about in disdain of my statements of appreciation — and I imagine them landing between the sharp teeth of giant Venus fly traps. I have said as of late that cilantro goes great with everything. Well, not everything, but you get the gist. Add avocado to the list. Chunks of avocado sat perched on the wow shrimp that had been accented with cilantro. Heaven and my friend and me smacking the table.

Carne Asada

Although Maya del Sol fills up fast after work hours on Fridays, there was no rush. So, my friend and I watched the Hollywood and Miami types saunter about and strike poses before we summoned our waitress and ordered entrées. Keep in mind what I have written about the complementary chips and salsas, the drinks, and the flight of cerviches. I simply cannot do any justice to the carne asada. I tried to figure out what I would say about the plump tomatoes, my greatest rapture, my passion, my weakness. No, I do not mean just any tomatoes snatched from the shelf at the local market and doused with Lawry’s seasoning. Maya del Sol added love to those tomatoes and did not discriminate on the zucchini either. But it was the steak where the clouds scattered and the last beam of sunlight shined on the plate. It is shameful to admit that I cannot state approximately how many times my friend and I uttered, My God, while handling that steak. Talk about a restaurant getting “well done” correct: no burnt edges, no tree bark texturing, no hockey puck hardness, and no need for steak sauce. Just succulence sat on the plate before we delved in and showed the fashion model types how to appreciate good food without being embarrassing about it.

Shrimp, Vegetables, Rice

The reaction to the second entrée was no better. Shrimp with carrots, squash, and white rice. Not one bland bite did we have. Maya del Sol apparently gets only the best shrimp from market because again there were fleshy but not fishy shrimp that exploded when our teeth sank through them. As to the rice and vegetables, if you want to get your picky child into enjoying his or vegetables, I highly recommend exposing that obstinate child to a plate of shrimp with vegetables at Maya del Sol. Once more, there were chants of “My God!” and long stretches of silence. Amor en el plato. Love on a plate is all that I can say to describe the dish without making a mockery of the perfection the chef had sent to our table from the kitchen.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

By now we were pretty much done with any heavy dishes. We showed our appreciation by polishing off everything on the plates and I do mean everything except for lingering smears of gravy and gypsy rice kernels. No rush, no problem, as we sat for few minutes and then agreed that there was no way we were going to leave without experiencing something from the dessert menu. However, going overboard was not an option. So, we ordered Mexican hot chocolate. Pa-pow-pow! The Mexican hot chocolate was not necessarily spicy and that was fine. There were cloves, cinnamon, and a hint of allspice in it to give a bit of a kick but not enough to leave us with our eyes crossed. From the first intake of the aroma of the hot chocolate to the last sip, the entire moment was magical. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there was a sentiment of having bragging rights because I know I have accepted suggestions from some friends for where to go get Mexican hot chocolate only to receive a small cup of Hershey’s powder in hot water with an ancho chilli added for effect. I am wondering when the pox I wished on their homes will kick in. As if what we had already was not good enough, the chocolate tart with creme fraiche, strawberries, and mint was a perfect ending. Clearly the chocolate was not Jell-O. Sorry, Bill Cosby, I cannot give you props. The strawberries, although not served as a bushel of strawberries, were still bursting. My friend and I cut the mint leaf and indulged ourselves to a beautiful finish. Thinking about it all has me flustered all over again. I never thought I would find myself saying this again, but food as my lover is the greatest love ever.

Chocolate Tart

So, now that I will work from downtown, my friend and I will have to seek out other adventurous locales for our commiserating moments on Fridays after work. Maya del Sol was worthy of our first trip there and will be worthy of our many returns. It may have been that we took blind leaps of faith in the recommendations our waitress gave to us. It may have been that the food was simply outstanding on its on. What I will say is that you pay for what you get and I am not talking about emptying your savings account. Maya del Sol is loud, so be prepared to speak with upped volume to your friends, imaginary friends, or blow-up dolls. While I joke about the stiff Hollywood and Miami types, these are more genuine and fun to talk to than the candy stripers and saucy old men who frequent the Viagra Triangle immediately north of downtown. But, hell, who needs to people-watch when you can leave with a satisfying finish from comida buena?

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