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March 11, 2008

The Weary Epicurean—March 11, 2008

I write a lot about “authenticity” in this column, and you know, that gets a little strained at times. I mean, I know a fair bit about Polish food, for instance, but I neither speak Polish, nor have I ever visited Poland, nor am I ethnically Polish. Even to write my last week’s article about coffee, I had to get one of my roommates, himself a true coffee geek, to bring me up to speed.

But perhaps that’s part of what makes my pieces interesting: I have just the sort of mixed-up culinary heritage that most of my readers do. Very few of you, I suspect, grew up in mono-cultural, extended families with fixed culinary traditions. We’re mostly mixed bags, food-wise, these days. The best we can really hope for, in terms of food legacies, is an aged relative or two to teach us a few holiday dishes to bust out once or twice a year.

So it is with some reservation that I broach the subject of Mexican food in Chicago, a topic about which I possess neither the knowledge nor the heritage to speak with any authority. But the thing is that I have always loved Mexican food, and I’ve had some of the best I’ve ever eaten here in Chicago. Whether it’s been “authentic” I just couldn’t say—but it’s certainly been delicious.

The reigning heavyweight of Chicago Mexican food, and perhaps of Mexican food in this country, is without doubt Chicago’s own Rick Bayless. Certainly, it’s a fact that no more comprehensive (or compulsive) cookbook of Mexican cooking has been written than his Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, and 20 years after its opening, people still fly in from out of town just to eat at the Frontera Grill. Last year, it even won the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Restaurant award, perhaps the highest honor in the American food industry.

From Bayless’s recipes, it is clear that his methods stress rigorous attention to detail. Every single recipe—and there are hundreds—is introduced with a backstory, drawing from Bayless’s many years of experience traveling through Mexico and serving Mexican food in his kitchens. Designed on the classic scale of the great French culinary guides, Mexican Kitchen is really a cooking textbook, progressing from simple, building-block recipes like tomato-chipotle sauce and guajillo sauce, to the real classics of Mexican cuisine, like Oaxacan black mole with braised chicken.

You have to wonder, though, with such an encyclopedic tome, whether it can really capture the frugal grace that characterizes so much of Mexican cuisine. Or, as my roommate put it more bluntly the other night, “When he has a recipe called ‘Rustic Jícama Appetizer with Red Chile and Lime,’ I mean, that’s a bit much. I’m pretty sure that in Mexico, they generally just put a little salt on their jícama, and, you know, eat it.” Not that Mexican food is “fast.” I don’t think it should be fast or slow, but with all of this attention to detail, isn’t something characteristically natural being lost? It’s nice that Mexican cuisine is getting the respect it deserves, but to be respectful, does the treatment have to be so, well, pretentious?

Consider establishments such as the Pasadita restaurants, at 1132, 1140, and 1141 North Ashland Avenue. These three restaurants, owned by the same family for 32 years, serve about nine dishes total, with either limonada, horchata, or Jarritos Mexican soda to drink. There is only one type of salsa served table-side and no soups or salads—not even rice and beans—at one of the three locations. Tacos cost two dollars or less, and your food is ready in a few minutes—certainly not long enough to steep in a complicated marinade with toasted poblano chile seeds.

Is this restaurant any less delicious? I think not. Sure, you can still see the taste buds on the cow’s tongue in your lengua taco, but it’s fresh and delicious. The tacos, in particular, have that perfect flat-bread texture that very few taquerías get just exactly right. The cooks at work, rapidly flaying sirloin tip and scooping up horchata in styrofoam cups with their bare hands, do not display the discipline that I’m sure you’d find in Bayless’s kitchen, but they produce delicious food quickly for hundreds of people.

Maybe there’s a middle ground. Some friends of mine took me to a very nice—if yuppy—restaurant at 814 West Randolph Street called De Cero that for me was the best of both worlds. The ambience is comfortable enough, and the menu broad enough, to allow you to really consider the food without flying willy-nilly into the complexity that is perhaps best left to the French. Of course, it’s worth it to take a flyer at the culinary heights of high Mexican, if you have three weeks to spare for Bayless’s master course. But if you just want to sample, casually, a more subtle introduction to better Mexican eating, I think a place like De Cero’s is a decent place to start.