If you’ve followed along this month as we’ve covered Mexican food in Chicago, you’ve hopefully recognized the wealth of wonderful Mexican dishes currently available in our city. While host to our fair share of excellent tacos and tortas, our scene goes deeper than that, as the food of Mexico becomes intertwined with local cuisine.
Best of all, Chicago’s best Mexican restaurants are scattered all across the city, at all price points and styles. Sure, some places serve truly traditional offerings, using time-honored techniques and ages-old family recipes, but Chicago is also home to hungry upstarts ready to explore uncharted territory in search of the exciting and new.
Considering how many options are now available, landing a spot on our essential Mexican restaurants required a serious level of obsession on the part of the chefs and restaurant owners. Sometimes, that focus is put to one dish, like the birria at Birrieria Zaragoza or the carnitas at Carnitas Uruapan. Other times, it’s a creative desire to try something new, like Dos Urban Cantina. Sometimes you’re Rick Bayless, who keeps developing distinct concepts to explore the many facets of Mexican cuisine.
The most exciting prospect is that it’s just starting. Fascinating new Mexican restaurants continue to open at a rapid pace. We felt like two newcomers, Quiote and Mi Tocaya, needed a little more time before declarations could be made, but they are definitely ones to follow.
Here are the restaurants that we consider to be the essential Mexican restaurants in the Chicago area right now, listed in alphabetical order.
I was convinced I’d hate Antique Taco when it first opened. Here was an excessively cute storefront outfitted with antiques in a trendy neighborhood (Wicker Park) serving willfully inauthentic tacos. Then a gorgeous, old-timey plate was set in front of me, and I was stunned by the beauty. Here were tacos unlike any in Chicago, made with incredible care and attention. Sure, there’s something primal about steak with just onions and cilantro, but who says you can’t also enjoy fresh mushrooms mixed with a red adobo and pert pickled onions or a crackly tempura fried fish topped with a spicy tartar sauce and smoked cabbage? It helps that the tacos are built on fantastic freshly made tortillas. Various locations, www.antiquetaco.com.
— Nick Kindelsperger
Inexpensive neighborhood taquerias can be found up and down the Fox River Valley (a 2013 Tribune story found two dozen from Crystal Lake to Aurora), but the 2007 arrival of Bien Trucha (the name, appropriately, is slang for "on top of one’s game") raised the bar for Mexican dining in the far west suburbs. Upscale but not ostentatious, Bien Trucha seats customers in cheerful and sunny surroundings (particularly the outdoor deck), and people line up well ahead of opening time to secure one of the no-reservations tables. Superb tacos are the main draw, but there are fine tortas (lunch only), brochetas (dinner only), any ceviche your waiter recommends, and fresh-fruit margaritas and cocktails. Proof that fine Mexican food can thrive 40 miles outside of Chicago, right in downtown Geneva. 410 W. State St., Geneva, 630-232-2665, www.bientrucha.com.
— Phil Vettel
Ordering a plate of birria at this small storefront in Archer Heights sets the whole kitchen in motion. Four small bowls appear containing dried chiles, cilantro, onions and limes, along with a glass bottle of dark red hot sauce. A woman picks up fresh masa, rolls it into balls, flattens the balls on a tortilla press and then griddles the paper-thin discs until they puff up into steamy corn tortillas. Finally, roasted goat is removed from a roasting pan, picked over to remove excess fat and then drenched in an orange-tinted consomme. To take this all in, it helps to grab a seat at the counter, though no matter where you sit, you’ll recognize instantly that it’s all the small details taken together that make this an astonishing dish. How you dig in is your choice, but I like to dress the plate with onions, cilantro and lime juice before slicing into the tender chile-stained goat. Then I like to wrap up those bites in the warm corn tortillas. 4854 S. Pulaski Road, 773-523-3700, www.birrieriazaragoza.com.
Despite what Chipotle tries to sell you, carnitas are not a synonym for pulled pork. Pulled pork is mushy and wet; carnitas at their best are richly seasoned, golden-colored and crispy around the edges. To experience the real thing, visit Carnitas Uruapan in Pilsen, which makes its namesake dish fresh daily in enormous pots. While you can get individual tacos, what you want is a platter of carnitas served by the pound with a wealth of salsas, toppings and tortillas to construct your own. 1725 W. 18th St., 312-226-2654, www.carnitasuruapanchi.com.
La Casa de Samuel
La Casa de Samuel is one of the warmest and most welcoming restaurants in the city. Each time I stop by, it’s bustling with families and friends, all mingling in the tastefully decorated brick-lined room. Perhaps that’s because there’s no way to be shy when you’re served a hunk of roasted goat leg. You just grab one of the restaurant’s supple, freshly made tortillas, pile on some of the luscious goat and top it with the unique warmed tomato-based salsa. 2834 W. Cermak Road, 773-376-7474, www.lacasadesamuel.com.
When most people think of Mexican sandwiches, the torta is what they have in mind, but Cemitas Puebla got us to care about a distinct regional sandwich from Puebla called a cemita. The crusty bread is dotted with sesame seeds, and it’s stuffed with tangy cheese, a smear of smoky chipotle, a fresh Mexican herb called papalo and meat of your choice. Since first opening, the restaurant has expanded to three locations, crafted a shiny new logo and yet somehow gotten even better. While the bread used (also called a cemita) has always been good, the recipe used now is a marvel — delicately crispy, while soft and flavorful inside. Various locations, www.cemitaspuebla.com.
La Chaparrita #1
Hidden away on a residential stretch of West 25th Street in Little Village, La Chaparrita doesn’t look like much. Inside, you’ll find only a handful of tables, along with a tiny grocery store. But peek into the kitchen, and you’ll see something rather unusual for Chicago taquerias: a charola, a circular pan of bubbling fat with dome peeking up in the middle, where you’ll find all kinds of cuts of meats bobbing about. Don’t call it a deep fryer. The meat slowly bathes in oil here, luxuriously tenderizing, while the juices of the different cuts of meats mingle. You can’t go wrong with the chile-spiked longaniza, a house-made sausage similar to chorizo, but the tripas steal the show. Pulled straight from the oil, these small intestines of a cow are soft and almost squishy, but ask for them crispy and they’ll be griddled until they become gorgeously browned nuggets of beef essence. 2500 S. Whipple St., 773-247-1402.
Don Juan Restaurante
A fixture in Edison Park for 33 years and counting, Don Juan’s identity as a serviceable, predictable Mexican outpost changed dramatically in 1991 when Patrick Concannon, son of owner Maria Josefa Concannon, assumed control of the kitchen. Concannon, a Charlie Trotter’s alum, enhanced the menu with contemporary dishes, such as lamb shank with chipotle sauce and tacos featuring barbecued veal, shrimp and bacon. Patrick’s sister, Josefa, upgraded the wine and tequila offerings. Today, the kitchen is in the hands of Patrick’s brother, Jacob Concannon (Patrick owns Osteria Ottimo and Mama Maria’s Taco and Tequila Bar, both in Orland Park), whose menu is largely traditional but includes a single sheet of seasonal treats. There, you’ll find trout with mojo de ajo and a Rockefeller-like oyster dish with spinach and chipotle bearnaise. Maria still runs the art-filled dining room. 6730 N. Northwest Highway, 773-775-6438, www.donjuanschicago.com.
Dos Urban Cantina
Brian Enyart and Jennifer Jones Enyart are not the first Rick Bayless alums to demonstrate that there is Life Beyond Frontera, but they certainly have made the most compelling case. Enyart, who was chef de cuisine at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo for 19 years (most of them as executive chef), and Jones Enyart, Topolo and Frontera’s award-winning pastry chef, opened a Logan Square restaurant that takes the Frontera/Topolo conversation in new directions. The two have created a very personal slate of Mexican-inspired dishes; early menus combined sea urchin with tomatillo and chicharron-infused cream, and reimagined carnitas as part of a Mexican-Polish mashup with buttered potatoes and caraway-laced sauerkraut. On the sweet side, there is banana-leaf ice cream, perhaps carrot flan and a chocolate cake the whole city raves about. This is Mexican as inspirational springboard, and the Enyarts stick the landing. 2829 W. Armitage Ave., 773-661-6452, www.dosurbancantina.com.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of 30-year-old Frontera Grill, or its impact on Mexican dining in Chicago and, really, Chicago dining overall. Eschewing the chips-and-salsa formula in which virtually all other Mexican restaurants were mired, Frontera introduced Chicagoans to the wonders and joys of regional Mexican cooking, at the same time leading by example in its support for sustainable, local ingredients. Chicago’s warm embrace of Bayless’ approach did much to cement the city’s reputation as a knowledgeable and curious food city, and the restaurant’s success established that a market for fine-dining Mexican cooking did, in fact, exist — to the benefit of numerous restaurants that followed. Today, Chicago has a wealth of serious Mexican restaurants, many or most of whom owe some measure of gratitude for Frontera Grill’s groundbreaking work. 445 N. Clark St., 312-661-1434, www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/frontera-grill
Lena Brava and Cruz Blanca
The Baja Norte is Mexico’s most multicultural food region, and also one of the least represented in U.S. restaurants. In Lena Brava, Bayless paid homage to the region’s abundance of seafood and to open-fire cooking, which is all Lena Brava does — no gas ovens here. Cruz Blanca saw Bayless delving into tacos for the first time (how is that even possible, after 30 years?), and, predictably, the offerings were anything but predictable, while the attached cerveceria brewed up a number of food-friendly beers. Cerveceria, taqueria, Baja Norte — the side-by-side Lena Brava and Cruz Blanca can be considered three checks on Bayless’ Mexican-cuisine bucket list. 900 W. Randolph St., 312-733-1975, www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/lena-brava.
Mexican-born Carlos Gaytan came to Chicago and worked (among other places) for three years at the late Bistrot Margot. That was the inspiration for his 2008-born restaurant in West Town, where Mexican flavor combines with French technique and Midwestern seasonality. "I wanted to be creative, basically," is how Gaytan put it. "I love traditional Mexican cuisine, but there’s always room for improvement." So Gaytan pairs a traditional herb-crusted rack of lamb with lamb-shoulder barbacoa tucked into a sope, and enhances roasted duck breast and leg confit with a tamarind-chipotle glaze. The food was spectacular enough to earn Mexique a Michelin star in 2013 — only the third Mexican restaurant in America so honored. 1529 W. Chicago Ave., 312-850-0288, www.mexiquechicago.com.
Rick Bayless’ follow-up to Frontera Grill was viewed originally as Frontera’s fancy sibling, a smaller, more refined dining room that actually accepted reservations, which at the time, Frontera did not. (Fun fact: Topolobampo was actually the restaurant Bayless wanted to open first, but business sense prevailed.) In the years since (nearly 27 of them), Topolobampo has evolved into so much more, its loose tasting-menu format (choose five or eight courses) and daring menu headings (dishes are labeled "vibrant," "soulful" and "unexpected," among other categories) giving the kitchen, including chef de cuisine Andres Padilla, free rein to create stunningly original dishes. Bimonthly themed menus explore Mexico’s art and history. Topolobampo is easily one of the best restaurants in the country, and a Chicago civic treasure. 445 N. Clark St., 312-661-1434, www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/topolobampo.
The "little sister" (literally; that’s what the word "xoco" translates to from Spanish) to Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, Xoco was Rick Bayless’ first new restaurant in 20 years when it debuted in 2009. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and offering a counter-service menu of mostly sopas and tortas (though it would be a grave mistake to overlook the agua frescas and ground-from-beans hot chocolate), Xoco mirrors the clean cooking and sustainable and organic ethos of its elder siblings, but does so at a fast-casual price point, making the food accessible to a much wider audience. 449 N. Clark St., 312-334-3688, www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/xoco.
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