Due partly to celebrity chef Rick Bayless, Chicago has become a mecca for Mexican food that reveals the cuisine to be as rich and complex as the country itself. Mexico is a mezcla (or mix) of cultural influences that include French, Lebanese, Italian and, of course, Spanish, that fold into the country's indigenous past -- forming the country's proud mestizo (cross-
bred) identity. A night in one of Bayless's restaurants like Frontera Grill or Topolobampo, offers a delicious, but pricey tour, of most of the country's flavors.
But for the truly adventurous, take a trip into Chicago's Mexican neighborhoods to see what's really happening. There, food from the many regions of Mexico calls out to you.
Several restaurants specialize in the cuisine from the central state of Michoacán, reflecting the largest portion of Chicago's Mexican immigrant community.
Those restaurants are all fairly well known among savvy Mexican-food aficionados in the city. Below are a few that are still considered hidden gems that show why Chicago is THE place for Mexican food.
Riviera Nayarit, at 1514 W. 18th Street, offers a panoply of seafood cooked "Nayarit style," which means a medley of spices, tropical fruits and lime that hearken back to the Pacific Coast state known for its big-game fishing and lush greenery.
In a way, that's true. Except the fish can be lobsters, crab legs or red snapper grilled to perfection in guajillo chili sauce and onions. Or, fresh oysters on the shell, or oysters marinated in juices that call for chewing instead of swallowing them whole. Or, "cucaracha" shrimp (better not to think about the name,) that is marinated and kept in its shell. And, the "chips," are a pile of fries that accompany many of the plates and serve as a perfect way to soak in the sauces left behind.
Symbolically, the restaurant sits right across from the famous "Nuevo Leon" restaurant, a Chicago mainstay tourist magnet around since the 1960s that while always crowded, caters to folks more happy with beans in their cheese, enchiladas and jalapeños that come in a jar. If those folks looked up from their taco plates, they'd see evidence of a revolution in Mexican cuisine under way in the city.
A squad of burly Chicago cops walked in and ordered a “siete mares” soup with red snapper, octopus, crab and, even, crawfish.
Diners received a complimentary tostada packed with a marlin ceviche that was both juicy and sweet and a flaming hot bowl of habanero chili salsa -- cut with lime and vinegar.
There aren't many Mexicans in Chicago who are from Nayarit, so the restaurant was missing some of the more tropical flavors that the state is known for -- such as mango, a variety of bananas and pumpkin. But the spices were unmistakably unique to most other Mexican restaurants in the city.
Other Nayarit choices in Chicago:
Mariscos Nayarit, 4318 W. Fullerton Avenue.
Mariscos el Veneno, 1024 N. Ashland Avenue
Las 3 Islas de Nayarit, 3108 W. 59th Street.
If you’re a tourist in Chicago hankering for a good Mexican torta, it’s a sure bet that you’ll be happy by wandering over to Xoco at 449 N. Clark Street, Rick Bayless’s “street food” restaurant that, true to the master chef’s ethos, will offer flavors from across Mexico. It’s a sure bet, even at $12 per sandwich, but it’s debatable whether it's the best bet.
Take a trip to Cemitas Puebla in Humboldt Park, at 3619 W. North Ave. There, you’ll taste how mouth wateringly delicious a torta can be. Or, in the case of this restaurant specializing in dishes from the great state of Puebla, how awesome a “cemita” can be.
What is a cemita? You’re likely to get a very detailed answer to that question the moment you walk into Tony Anteliz’s storefront restaurant. Carrying a tray of raw ingredients in his arm, the wise-cracking owner with a saggy mustache and beard stands posted near the restaurant entrance to greet all newcomers with a borderline aggressive spiel on the wonders of Puebla cuisine.
It’s out of love for the largely unrecognized sesame-crusted sandwich whose slightly sweet roll beats out the plain torta in its lightness, and it’s ability to hold in more flavor.
If you start off with an "arabes" al pastor sandwich, you may never move on to the rest of the menu. Al pastor-prepared pork – usually found in a taco – is a spit-roasted testament to the influence that Lebanese immigrants had in Puebla. Think of the Middle Eastern shawarma. The arabes pork is sautéed in an unforgettable molasses, chipotle sauce.
Served with onions, a thin layer of guacamole and Oaxacan cheese imported from the markets in Puebla, the pork is so tender that it barely needs to be chewed.
A large wall decorated with easily more than 200 photos of Antelliz posing with visiting celebrities including boxer Oscar de la Hoya and the Food Network’s Guy Fieri, who featured the restaurant on his “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Like any self-respecting chef, he’s proud of what he puts forth, and is a little bit snobbish about how Americans perceive Mexican cuisine.
“Don’t you dare ask me about the burrito,” he says, in Spanish, after his cemitas presentation.
But, those, too, are on the menu.
Other Puebla options:
Restaurant and Taqueria Puebla, 2658 N. Milwaukee Ave.
High up in the green cactus-filled hills of Guerrero, about 83 miles southwest of Mexico City, sits the shade-filled city of Teleloapan. Hikers make the trip there to witness the Tecacampana, a "ringing rock" that, when struck, sounds like a large bell. But what everyone who goes there remembers most is the smoky, sweet red mole that is offered in every
The mole con pollo is a must inside this family restaurant whose rust-colored ceramic tiles, beneath a TV blaring Mexican novellas, offer a somewhat faint-hearted tribute to the village back home. That dish comes with beans "de la hoya," or fresh from the pot. It all adds up to melt-off-the-bone succulence.
Not everything on the menu screams "Guerrero" -- there are hamburgers on the menu, for example -- but the typical Guerrerense dishes are soulfully authentic.
The nopales - or stewed cactus -- are a Guerrero specialty. They're served, in a spicy red chili sauce, with eggs (breakfast served all day!) or with grilled skirt steak "carne asada."
The Carne a la Tampiquena, a slowly grilled skirt steak is worth the wait.
Sadly, this restaurant does not serve Guerrero's famous green pozole stew. But, with Guerrerenses the second-largest group of Mexicans in the city, there are plenty of other places to trek to for that.
Here are some other options:
Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero, 7024 N. Clark Street. (some of the best tamales in the city.)
La Condesa, 1003 N. Ashland Ave. (you'll find the green pozole here. Also, fun fact: owner Alex Manjarrez used to be mayor of Teleloapan.