Another gorgeous, warm day in Chicago. Maureen wanted to shop for some Cowboy Boots and there’s a very large western wear outlet in a predominantly Mexican part of town, called Alcala. It’s bigger then the ones we’ve seen in Texas.
Now, Chicago is known for deep-dish pizza, Italian beef, hot dogs and bratwurst, reflecting the hearty European stock that settled the mid-west, and for the barbecue and soul food from its African-American population. Less well known outside of Chicago, but very present is the large Mexican community and the volume and quality of authentic Mexican cuisine they represent. So we thought we’d sample the Mexican food that Chicago offers today. We’re going to both ends of the spectrum, from the local humble taqueria to the internationally acclaimed powerhouse of Latin cuisine.
Great Urban Spoon reviews took us to El Taco Veloz for a late breakfast/early lunch. It’s exterior is brightly painted and festive. As we walk through the door we can see the small kitchen up front, in the window, where one of the cooks is cutting up a mountain of poblano peppers — a very good sign. The interior is as brightly coloured, the walls covered in what can only be called “Festive Mexican Amateur Tromp L’oeil”. The room was filling up with local road workers on lunch break and one poor hungover local next to us, with a comforting bowl of pozole with lime, raw onions and tortillas, as well as a side of grilled baby onions and lime.
Everything on the menu looks great and the prices were so low, we asked the server how much food people typically ordered. On her advice we orders two gorditas each with beans and rice. A gordita, despite what you’ve seen in the Taco Bell commercials, is a soft, puffy frybread made with masa harina (corn flour), fried on a flat top to “bake” and then sliced halfway through to accommodate all kinds of amazing goodies. Maureen chose one with pork al pastor and one with cheese and poblanos. I opted for the poblanos as well and one with “barbacoa“, which is beef cooked over an open fire that’s then pulled and is the origin of the word “barbeque”.
Each plate had refried beans, Mexican rice (complete with lima beans, peas and other veggies) and a small adornment of shredded lettuce. The beans were fine, but far from being the star of the show. The rice was classic Mexican rice — made by Mexicans — meaning it was hand made and mixed and built from the ground up.
The gorditas were soft and luscious. The poblano version was rich with melted queso and mild, fried poblanos, a tremendous combination. The pork al pastor was well-seasoned, although we couldn’t detect the signature pineapple flavour in the marinade or the sauced pork, but it was great nonetheless. The barbacoa was rich with char-grilled flavour.
Dinner is a reprise of a visit to Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, an upscale Mexican eatery, that celebrates the best of their regional cuisines and ingredients. We’re not going to give you the full run down because we’ve done it before.
After a couple amazing Micheladas, we settled into dinner, starting with a trio of ceviches:
- Frontera Ceviche (albacore, tomato, olive)
- Yucatecan Ceviche (shrimp, squid, orange, cucumber)
- Tropical Tuna Cocktail (big eye, avoado-tomatillo, mango salsa)
Maureen chose a main of Carne Asada Brava — Serrano-marinated, grass-fed Tall Grass flank steak, salsa huevona (hand-crushed, grill-roasted tomatoes, jalapeños). Grilled knob onions and sweet corn tamales with crema & fresh cheese. It was spicy, but well-balanced by the slightly-sweet tamale and cooled by the crema.
I had the Chipotle-glazed Gunthorp Farm pork back ribs, with tangy cabbage, black beans. The waiter warned us it was spicy. I like it spicy so I had a “bring it on” attitude. I figured I had the beans and the coleslaw to cool things down if it got out of hand. My first bite was of the beans. Damn, they were spicy. The next was of coleslaw, which was full of julienne jalapenos and Mexican chile-pickled carrots and they used the vinegar from the pickles as the dressing for the cole slaw. Turned out I was using the ribs, that I was warned were spicy, as a respite from the rest of the plate. They were spicy and smoky with enough sweetness in the glaze to give me some relief. Well…that and the cold Pacifico beer I was nursing (or was it nursing me?). The ribs were wonderful.