Chicago has a lot more Mexican cuisine to offer than the Bartlett burrito station. In fact, the most well regarded, high-end Mexican restaurant in the country, the Frontera Grill, is right on North Clark Street. No one should graduate without paying a visit.
But there are great Mexican restaurants on the South Side as well, and at prices much easier to fit into the typical college allowance.
I recently tried Nuevo León, on South Ashland and 18th Street. Their braised, barbecued, and burnt meat selections offer a rich depth of flavor, delicate chewy textures, and the occasional superb crunchy crust. In particular, the chuletas a la Mexicana, for which I’ve attempted a recipe (below), were infused with peppery flavor, while remaining practically fork-tender. The flautas and enchiladas were also excellent and opulently portioned, featuring properly thickened brown sauces and high notes of cilantro. And the BYOB policy—with no corking fee—always makes for a good group dining experience: There were three birthday parties in the main dining room the night I visited!
For the late-night Mexican snack, skip Bart Mart and head west. Atotonilco’s Tacquería, at South Ashland and 47th Street, offers far more delicious fare at comparable prices. The restaurant is open until 1 a.m., and the horchata machine stays on until 12:30 a.m. Try the lengua tacos or the tacos al pastor for a richer, yet less greasy, flavor, than your typical tex-mex crap offers. The prices are unspeakably cheap: $1.25 for a taco, $1.50 for a horchata, and $3.50 for a torta. Try them all.
To really delve into Mexican cuisine, though, you need to try it at home. Great Mexican dishes are cooked low and slow, for very long periods of time, but they’re really not that difficult, requiring little in the way of knife skills or experience—just research and loving care.
The trouble for most people is locating specialty ingredients, but of course, here on the South Side of Chicago, that’s no trouble for us. Pete’s Fresh Market, on 47th Street and Kedzie, can supply everything from habañero peppers to whole dried tamarindo, at very cheap prices. It’s actually my favorite all-around grocery store anywhere, ever. Even the Vidalia onions (38 cents a pound, last time I was there) are neatly stacked in perfectly geometrical pyramids, and the meat counter is one of the last proper retail butcher shops in town. The chickens and pork loin are delicious and cheap, as are the pre-mixed, pre-marinated bags of chicken fajita meat and carne al pastor.
Also, try the Jarritos-brand tamarindo soda and the “Mexi-coke”—glass bottles of Coca-Cola imported from Mexico, where they still make it with real sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. Not only does this mean less weird chemical crap building up in your colon, but it also won’t give you that coated, crunchy-teeth feeling that the American stuff does.
This week’s recipes: sopa de ajo followed by chuletas a la Mexicana ($6/person)
Sopa de Ajo
This delicious soup, which is quite similar to French onion in conception and appearance, yields a complex flavor in very little time. It is ubiquitous in Spanish and Spanish-influenced cuisine.
1 cup olive oil
2 bulbs of garlic (approx. 24 cloves)
6 cups good chicken stock
2 medium-ripe tomatoes
1 handful cilantro
1 cup diced quesadilla cheese
1/2 loaf crusty bread, cut into cubes
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Finely chop all the garlic. Cook it slowly in the olive oil until translucent but not brown (veer on the side of caution), approximately 30 to 45 minutes. Strain the garlic, reserving the oil. Drizzle the oil over the bread cubes lightly, salt lightly, and put in the oven until golden brown —about seven minutes. If there’s extra oil, it makes a great salad dressing, or fry an omelet in it for breakfast the next day. Meanwhile, add the garlic to the stock and let simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Dice the avocados, the tomatoes, and the cheese. Finely chop the cilantro. Beat the eggs lightly and stir them into the very hot soup (bubbling). The egg will mix with the broth to thicken it. Pour the hot soup into bowls; add a handful of the tomatoes, avocados, cheese, and croutons; garnish with cilantro.
Chuletas a la Mexicana
This braised dish is my attempted imitation of the dish of the same name served at Nuevo León. Try them both, and let me know what you think!
3 Vidalia onions, chopped
2 pounds tomatoes, sliced
6 habanero peppers, quartered
6 jalapeño peppers, sliced
6 Serrano peppers, quartered lengthwise
6 pork chops, seasoned
2 cups chicken or beef stock
1/4 cup sriracha pepper sauce
2 ounces agave tequila, or scotch in a pinch
2 cups pico de gallo
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Brown the pork chops in a little oil in a large, lidded cast iron pan. Remove the meat, and fry the pepper seeds and other vegetables in the fat and oil that remain for about 30 minutes, until they’ve reduced to about four cups in volume. Remove half of the mixture, add the peppers and the pork chops, and then replace the half you removed on top of the meat. Add the stock, pepper sauce, and tequila. Bring to a simmer, tightly cover, and bake for 1 hour 15 minutes. Put a dollop of the pico de gallo on each chop; serve with yellow rice, black beans, and sour cream.
This week’s $10-or-less wine: Sangre de Toro, Torres (Catalunya)