Category Archives: Chicago

Pilsen y su Calle 18: Una Puerta Dimensional a México en Chicago

Si estás en Chicago y te da un ataque de nostalgia, o si estás de visita y quieres descubrir un lugar diferente dentro de la ciudad, a sólo 5 kilómetros al sureste del “Loop” se encuentra  el barrio de Pilsen. Fundado por colonizadores de Europa del este a fines del siglo XIX, Pilsen fue nombrado en honor a la cuarta ciudad más grande de Checoslovaquia. No fue sino a principios de 1960 que la comunidad hispana empezó a hacer de Pilsen su casa. Ya para los 70, Pilsen era, como les hoy, una colonia muy diversa y predominanemente hispana.

Virtualmente un museo al aire libre, quien visita Pilsen podrá descubrir una serie de murales que sirven como vehículo para el discurso social. Exilio, lucha e identidad son los mensajes predominantes de esta expresión de arte urbano. Si prefieres un museo intramuros, no te pierdas el Museo de Arte Mexicano.  La entrada es gratuita.

La calle 18 es una puerta dimensional a una serie de negocios que van desde restaurantes, panaderías, dulcerías, hasta peluquerías. ¿Quieres pan como ese que probaste en las ferias de Acambaro? Aquí lo encuentras. Estos personajes llegaron como recetas en los morrales de artesanos michoacanos y aquí se hicieron pan.

Y si en tu paseo te da hambre, acuérdate de visitar Carnitas Uruapan, donde encontrarás desed chicharrón, hasta quesadillas de sesos y ensalada de nopales. Pasa a saludar al Güero Carbajal y díle que te recomendó tu amiga Brenda Storch de La Vitamina T.

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Carnitas Uruapan – The Best of Michoacán in Pilsen

Inocencio and Marcos Carbajal personally host patrons at Carnitas Uruapan.
Pride and Joy: Inocencio and Marcos Carbajal personally host patrons at their famous Pilsen restaurant Carnitas Uruapan.

Inocencio Carbajal becomes emotional as he shares a very personal story. In the late 70s, as a recent transplant from Uruapan, Michoacán, he had to make the decision to let go of his most precious possession- a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe. “I asked Her to bless my choice,” says Inocencio, his eyes tearing up. “We bought our first piece of equipment with that money.”

Fast-forward four decades later, and Inocencio’s hardship has paid off.  As we arrived at the Pilsen eatery, a long line of patrons had already assembled.  Marcos Carbajal, Inocencio’s son, kindly invited us to tour the kitchen while we found a spot to talk.

The state of Michoacán in southwestern Mexico, is famous for its carnitas, one of Mexico’s favorite folk dishes. Usually cooked in large copper containers brought in from a specific neighboring town,  it is not uncommon to also find this treat being prepared in large stainless steel pots. “In many villages, eating carnitas is a Sunday morning ritual,” said Marcos, who periodically visits family in Uruapan, his father’s birthplace. “People know to arrive early, as usually only one pig is prepared, and they usually gather to eat after church. Many of our customers still follow this custom, but we cook a fresh batch every two hours.”

Although he kept in his heart the desire to go back to Michoacán at some point, Inocencio’s family and his growing business kept him in Pilsen. “All of a sudden, Marcos was ready to go to college, and I was happy that he had the opportunity,” said Inocencio.  For Marcos,  the word “pigskin” is not merely a seasonal one. With a degree in Economics from the University of Michigan, and thinking of helping his dad, Marcos left his corporate job to work in the restaurant full time, while also pursuing a Master’s Degree in Entrepreneurship from Northwestern University.

Although Inocencio has not returned to Uruapan, he has brought Uruapan to Chicago with him. The path he chose was not easy but, he says smiling, “I would do it all over again”.

His eatery’s menu is perfectly simple, with many well-achieved crowd pleasers. From mouthwatering pork carnitas, to menudo, chicharrón en salsa de tomate ( chicharrón in tomato sauce, of which I took a big container home), cacti salad and even quesadillas de sesos (brain-stuffed quesadillas), this place is the real deal. In fact, the cueritos I tried here are the best I have ever had in both, texture and flavor.

Carnitas Uruapan did not disappoint. My stomach was full and happy, and after talking to Inocencio and Marcos, my heart was too.

¡Viva México!

Carnitas Uruapan

1725 W 18th St  Chicago, IL 60608

(312) 226-2654

Ger a free carnitas taco with your to go order and and free order of chicharrón if you check-in on Facebook.

 

Chef Paco´s New Rebozo – Oh My God!

Cochinita pibil tacos await you at New Rebozo in Chicago's Gold Coast.
Cochinita pibil tacos await you at New Rebozo in Chicago’s Gold Coast.

If you visit New Rebozo, chances are that aside from a remarkable meal, you will be delighted by owner Chef Paco’s warm and exuberant personality.  After more than 20 years of success at his Oak Park location, where Chef Paco (A.K.A. Francisco López) is already a fixture, this Mexico City native decided to bring his creativity and passion for authentic Mexican food to Chicago’s Gold Coast.

Holy mole! Chef Paco delights his guests with his complex, yet surprisingly down-to-earth mole Poblano, at New Rebozo.

Chef Paco equates food to the dynamics of everyday life: “Life can be sweet and sour… even salty, add love to it and you will strike a balance.”  His philosophy spills into every corner of his restaurant. There is definitely love in New Rebozo, named after a shawl Mexican women wear. From the cozy fireplace to the thoughtfully picked art, the dining room and patio embrace you like welcoming Mexican embassies. Do not expect to find cultural clichés here.  New Rebozo is the real deal both in form and content. “My work is about making people happy,” said Paco. “That’s my ultimate goal.”

Full of flavor, depth and whimsy, it is so fitting that mole is one of Chef Paco´s specialties. Very few words say fiesta and Mexico as loud and clear as mole does, particularly in the countryside, where this traditional dish is served during important celebrations such as weddings and christenings. Chef Paco´s mole Poblano is so good, I have no doubt that my Pueblan grandma, who was often charged with making the mole for her village’s fiestas patronales*,  would have approved.

Watermelon mojitos: Oh my God!
Watermelon mojitos: Oh my God!

If you visit New Rebozo,  do not miss the cochinita pibil tacos, a delicacy straight from Yucatán. There is a piece of Mexican heaven in every perfectly flavorful bite and they are surprisingly not greasy. The watermelon mojitos are also quite memorable- one sip of those glorious cocktails had my entire table exclaiming in unison: “Oh my God!”

*In Mexico, fiestas patronales are a village’s most important celebration, and are typically dedicated to the patron saint the village is named after.

New Rebozo Chicago

46 E. Superior

Chicago, IL 60611

(312) 202-9141

Open Mon-Sun 12-10 pm

New Rebozo Chicago on Urbanspoon

My Search for the Holy Grail – The Best Taco al Pastor in Chicago

A few weeks ago, I set out to find the best taco al pastor (‘shepherd-style’ taco) in Chicago. This down-to-earth, charismatic delicacy is a dietary staple of  defeños*, and despite the fact that in Mexico City taco stands abound, any local will tell you that not all tacos al pastor are made equal.  Finding the perfect taquería is almost a rite of passage, one that speaks to the way we connect with our city and beyond- a Mexican’s relationship with their pastor is emotional… personal, mystical.

The Genesis

Finding good tacos (let alone authentic ones) north-of-the-border is not so easy. Our taco al pastor story in April made me aware of the fact that I am not alone in this realization. I asked La Vitamina T readers and friends to submit their favorite al pastor destinations in Chicago. A few Facebook posts and tweets later, I had a list of 18 different establishments  endorsed by locals, among them, several Mexican transplants. Similar to how my friend Dave from New Jersey can recognize a good Philly cheesesteak, I figured recommendations from Mexicans added instant credibility to the suggestions.

This is how my search began.

Below is the final list of nominees. I visited every  establishment on this list without letting the owners or staff know my intention, as I  thought this might  influence the quality of the service:

  1. Atotonilco (I tried the tacos in both locations, Joliet and Chicago)
  2. Big Star
  3. De Cero
  4. El Pastor
  5. El Tío Luis
  6. El Solazo
  7. Indio
  8. La Ciudad
  9. Lagartija
  10. Los Comales
  11. Los Gallos
  12. L´Patrón
  13. Mercadito (tacos al pastor are only a seasonal item, so we did not get to try them)
  14. Rubi’s Market on Maxwell
  15. Taco joint
  16. Taquería Juanito
  17. Tierra Caliente
  18. Zacatacos  (Berwyn location)

Several Pepto Bismol doses and 3 extra pounds later, my wandering through the streets of Chicago and its suburbs came to an end. Dozens of tacos have been sampled and scorecards have been tallied!

 Each taco has been carefully evaluated based on criteria that we believe brings to life un taco al pastor “hecho como Dios manda.” (according to God’s orders)**

 I am now ready to “go tell it on the mountain”!

* Defeño is a Citizen of Mexico City (D.F.)

** Mexicans say something is made como Dios manda (according to God’s orders) when something is accurately accomplished.

The Exodus

If you, like me, have lived in Mexico for the great majority of your life, you will be perplexed to hear what has been smuggled into menus, and sold and passed up across the country for the real deal: some of the most popular and readily available counterfeit versions are stuffed with ground beef and covered with cheese or something resembling cheese; others are called tacos al pastor, and are served with sliced lettuce and tomatoes. Heresy!  In certain places, you might be given a choice of hardshell or softshell taco. During my search I found that even some of the taquerías in predominantly Mexican neighborhoods have lost their way- in their attempt to  to cater to a non Mexican palate, they have begun serving some of these apocryphal versions.

This leads me to provide the following word of caution: If you are visiting Mexico and you are looking for a hardshell taco, you will give yourself away as a tourist. We simply don’t have them. We have tostadas, which have a crunchy surface similar to a totopo, which is considered a completely different plate.

In the northern part of the country, flour tortillas were made popular by the Jewish settlers in the area. Still, you will find that most tacos in Mexico are made with corn tortillas.

Leviticus 

Treating oneself to tacos al pastor is an experience that entails a known ritual. Taquerías usually go from the very informal ´hole-in-the-wall’ joint, to fancier establishments featuring a more elaborate set up. The dynamics are the same across the board, and patrons know what to expect:  quick service, dinner and a show. Taqueros (half cooks, half ninjas) conjure up juicy tacos with meat and pineapple they shave off from a giant spinning skewer, to then catch the pieces in a tortilla with quick, precise movements. They do this gracefully, while keeping tallies, processing new orders, and sometimes, giving change and even interacting with the crowd.

Tacos al pastor must meet the following criteria:

1. Must be roasted vertically in a spit called trompo (top), which is clearly visible.

2. Should be made with pork meat, seasoned with a variety of chilis and achiote, which gives them their color.

3. These tacos are served in small tortillas (about 4 1/2 inches in diameter).

4. Tacos al pastor must include a chunk of grilled pineapple, chopped cilantro, raw onion and limes.

5. Salsas are very important in taquerías, and often times they become and element of differentiation.

6. Lime should be abundant and readily available.

Methodology

Each taco was evaluated using a scale of 1- 5 points for a total of 30 points in six different categories:

  • Meat quality
  • Meat flavor
  • Tortilla size and quality
  • Portion size
  • Accuracy/freshness of ingredients
  • Quality of salsa

Points were assigned using the following scale to score each taco:

1= Disappointing

2= Meh…

3= Ok

4= Really good, but not extraordinary or the real deal

5= Perfect. ¡Órale! Am I in Mexico?

Revelation

I have eaten the fruits of ¨the promised land” and I cannot honestly say that my search led me to tacos al pastor exactly like the ones I would find in Mexico City, but I uncovered some really good ones that will definitely hit the spot.  Overall, I was surprised to find that the meat in the eateries we visited was generally saucier than it is in Mexico. Also, portions are usually much more generous and, for some reason, when it comes to tacos al pastor, those with pineapple are very hard to find.
Many taquerías only take cash, so make sure you stop at an ATM ahead of your visit!

And the Winner is..!

 

De Cero – 28/30 Points

De Cero (The Loop)

Taco al pastor at De Cero,   814 West randolph St., Chicago
Find juicy, spicy tacos al pastor at De Cero, 814 West Randolph St., Chicago

Meat Quality: 5  Meat was absolutely fantastic.  We did not see the trompo, but we asked and confirmed it is indeed there.

Meat Flavor: 4    Flavor is really nice, but the meat has a bit of a kick to it.

Tortilla Size and Quality: 5  Tortillas were fantastic. Perfect size!

Portion Size: 5   Perfect ratio. This bundle of joy offers the perfect burst of flavors in each bite.

Accuracy/Freshness of the Ingredients 5 Really fresh ingredients, a check for cilantro, onion, pineapple (although cubed) and lime! The ratios were so good in each bite, I did not let the cubes deter me.

Salsas 4:  I got red salsa with my order which was really, really  good. 

Note: We attempted to get tacos al pastor at De Cero in three different instances. We were persistent and were able to understand why these tacos fly away. Every bite is perfect. The tacos are a bit spicy (and pricey), so make sure you order an horchata to wash them down and know that the meal will be well worth your money. Luckily, this taquería accepts credit cards, so the amount of cash you brought with you won’t  limit the amount of tacos you enjoy.  I am really intrigued by their tamales verdes. I can´t wait to go back!

First Runner Up

Big Star – 27/30 Points

Big Star (Wicker Park)

Taco al pastor at Big Star, 1531 N Damen Ave, Chicago
Tacos al pastor at Big Star, 1531 N Damen Ave, Chicago

 

Meat Quality: 4  Really good and not too fatty.  Meat was a bit chunky, which is why we did not rate it a 5.

Meat Flavor: 4    Flavor was really nice, maybe a bit sweet, but really good. Saucy, not dry as it should be.

Tortilla Size and Quality: 5 Perfect size. Tortillas were great.

Portion Size: 5 Perfect portion

Accuracy/Freshness of the Ingredients 5 Really fresh ingredients. I loved to see pineapple on them, which is not easy to find, so I did not allow the cubes to worry me.

Salsas 4 Salsa is good and they have chiles toreados (grilled jalapeños), as well as pickled peppers and carrots. But, you will have to order them separately, as they do not come with your order.

Note:

We waited for about 3 hours to get a table at this famous eatery, which was even more difficult considering the aroma around the restaurant teases you with a preview of what is to come. There is a walk-up window with considerably faster service.  The bar is quite a bit noisy, so if this is where you want to hang out, you will have to be prepared to forego conversation and focus on your food, which is well worth it.  Bring cash with you.  They only take cash! Service from the greeters might be a bit rough, but will improve once you sit down.

Second Runner Up 25/30 Points  (Tie)

Taquería San Juanito (Albany Park)

Taco al pastor at Taquería San Juanito 4714 N Kedzie Ave,  Chicago
Taco al pastor at Taquería San Juanito 4714 N Kedzie Ave, Chicago

San Juanito was the only place where the meat was not saucy. I found their meat flavorful, but the taco had no pineapple, which lowered-down their score. Green salsa was particularly memorable.

Zacatacos (Berwyn)

Taco al pastor at Zacataco in Berwyn.
Taco al pastor at Zacatacos 6224 Cermak Rd., Berwyn

Zacatacos in Berwyn features the most tender meat you can possibly imagine. The tacos are a bit bulky and a come in a bigger tortilla, but are still really good. Salsas are amazing.

Of Note:

Bien Trucha (Geneva)

I really liked the concept of Bien Trucha, a modern-looking Mexican restaurant that reminded me of the vibe of restaurants in Mexico City. Food, not kitsch is the focus here, and the execution of the tacos spoke to quality. Also, Bien Trucha was the only establishment that got the pineapple right, as they had just a chunk of it  vs. the cubes I found in other restaurants.  I don’t remember getting any salsa with my tacos and had to ask for lime, but if you have had enough of taco talk, try their guacamole of the day or their Pulparindo cocktail! The photo below is not the best because I did not have very good lighting inside the restaurant.

Tacos al pastor at Bien Trucha 410 W State St, Geneva
Tacos al pastor at Bien Trucha 410 W State St, Geneva

Del Seoul (Lincoln Park)

This was not a taco al pastor and definitely not on the list, but in all fairness, some of the ones I tried were not really tacos al pastor either. This grilled  pork taco, a gift from the streets of LA (where fusion happens everyday) was so incredibly delicious, I thought it deserved to be added. The name of this Lincoln Park gem is code for those who know how to read it: Spanish speakers, will  phonetically  understand “Del Seoul” as “del sol”, or “of the sun”.  Mexican cuisine allegorically represents the sun in a meal with a tortilla.
Brilliant branding, brilliant food!
FInd this taco with tangy grilled pork, onion, cilantro, slaw and sesame seeds at Del Seoul  2568 North Clark Street Chicago
Find this taco with tangy grilled pork, onion, cilantro, slaw and sesame seeds at Del Seoul 2568 North Clark Street
Chicago
De Cero is our reigning champion, but if you think there is a 30/30 taco out there, let us know. In the mean time,  ¡a taquear!

 

Seeking El Mejor Taco al Pastor in Chicago. The Nominees Are…!

Photo courtesy of: El Califa. Mexico City, Mexico
Photo courtesy of: El Califa. Mexico City, Mexico

Our story on tacos al pastor was very well received, thank you for reading and for all of your comments!  Messages poured in asking for recommendations in Chicago. Since we don’t have a favorite taco al pastor purveyor in the city yet, we decided to go in search of the best taco al pastor! We have asked our friends to submit their favorites. We will evaluate the tacos for the next few weeks considering a variety of criteria- from meat quality to freshness of the tortillas and salsa, we will share it with you all! Our readers submitted the eateries below. Stay tuned for our verdict.

  1. Atotonilco
  2. Big Star
  3. De Cero
  4. El Pastor
  5. El Tío Luis
  6. El Solazo
  7. Indio
  8. La Ciudad
  9. Lagartija
  10. Los Comales
  11. Los Gallos
  12. L´Patrón
  13. Mercadito
  14. Rubi’s Market on Maxwell
  15. Taco joint
  16. Taquería Juanito
  17. Tierra Caliente
  18. Zacataco

Atole de Guayaba

Atole de guayaba en La Dulce Vida Foto: Brenda Storch
Atole de guayaba en La Dulce Vida Foto: Brenda Storch

Jorge Galván, uno de los dueños de La Dulce Vida Nevería, nos compartió esta receta para hacer atole de guayaba, uno de los favoritos de los clientes de este establecimiento. Jorge dice que además de los ingredientes, esta receta necesita paciencia, ya que hay que mover constantemente para que el atole no se corte.

Rinde aproximadamente 2 litros

Ingredientes:

  • 1 vara de canela
  • 2 cucharadas de piloncillo
  • 200 gramos de guayaba
  • 1/2 taza de azúcar refinada
  • 5 tazas de leche
  • 2  1/2 tazas de agua
  • 2  1/2  cucharadas de masa preparada (Maseca)
  • Paciencia y determinación para mover constantemente el atole hasta que espese

Procedimiento:

  1. Pon el agua a hervir. Una vez que esté hirviendo, incorpora la canela y el piloncillo.
  2. Echa las guayabas en el agua hirviendo. Ya que abran, sácalas del agua junto con la canela.
  3. Incorpora la leche y déjala hervir.
  4. Agrega la masa a la leche hirviendo
  5. Muele las guayabas y agrégalas junto el azúcar moviendo constantemente durante 30 minutos a fuego lento hasta que espese

La Dulce Vida Nevería

2015 W. Rice St.

Melrose Park, IL 60160

La Dulce Vida: En La Esquina de México y Chicago

Barra de jugos y licuados en La Dulce Vida Nevería en Melrose ParkFoto: Brenda Storch
Barra de jugos y licuados en La Dulce Vida Nevería en Melrose Park
Foto: Brenda Storch

Find a related article in English here.

“Los clientes que nos visitan generalmente salen con más de una compra” nos dice Gregorio Hernández, uno de los dos jóvenes emprendedores detrás de La Dulce Vida en Melrose Park. Basta echarle una vista al menú para entender por qué. El concepto parte de la idea de una nevería, e incorpora en un acogedor espacio, algo para todos los gustos: desde los chicharrones y otros antojitos típicos de los carritos ambulantes (mismos que son parte de la infancia y según yo, del sistema inmunológico de todo mexicano), hasta nieves caseras, jugos naturales, licuados, atole e incluso tamales oaxaqueños (hechos por cierto con la receta de doña Clemencia). Con esta gama de opciones, es común que el que visita La Dulce Vida, venga con el propósito de procurarse un antojo y salga con otros cuantos.

Además de los sabores típicos del terruño, como  las paletas de tamarindo que tanto extraño, o el atole de galleta hecho con galletas ¨María¨, La Dulce Vida ofrece divertidas e innovadoras interpretaciones de las golosinas que hacen que mi corazón lata en español. Jorge Galván, otro de los dueños, nos explicó: “Nos dedicamos constantemente a generar nuevas ideas”. Empresario de día y artesano de noche, las ideas de Jorge no únicamente son geniales, sino también deliciosas cuando cobran vida. Una probadita del singular helado de ¨Gansito” fue suficiente para decidir llevarme al México de mi niñez a casa en un bote de a litro.

¿No te puedes decidir si quieres un pastelito o un helado? No te preocupes, el helado de "Gansito" es la respuesta. Foto: Brenda Storch
¿Pastelito o helado?  No te preocupes, el helado de “Gansito” es la respuesta.  Foto: Brenda Storch
Tamales oaxaqueños Foto: Brenda Storch
Tamales oaxaqueños en La Dulce Vida Nevería
Foto: Brenda Storch

Fui a la Dulce Vida a comprar mis tamales para el Día de la Candelaria, pero como Gregorio lo predijo, además de salir con mi dotación, también regresé a casa con paletas, chicharrones y otras delicias, incluyendo esta receta para hacer atole de guayaba. El servicio es excelente y los dueños, que son una institución en Melrose Park,  se mantienen conectados con su clientela a través de sus cuentas de Facebook y Twitter. Durante mi estancia, me sorprendió ver que Gregorio y Jorge saludaron a muchos de sus clientes por su nombre.

La Dulce Vida es un rinconcito en la esquina entre México y Chicago, y como toda buena idea, es universal. La tienda abre de lunes a domingo desde las 6:00 de la mañana.

Gregorio Hernández, Alejandra Rueda y Jorge Galván de La Dulce Vida Nevería
Gregorio Hernández, Alejandra Rueda y Jorge Galván de La Dulce Vida Nevería Foto: Brenda Storch

La Dulce Vida Nevería

2015 W. Rice St.

Melrose Park, IL 60160

La Dulce Vida Neveria on Urbanspoon

Have Dinner in the Caribbean and Bake your Own Souvenir

Conch Fritters at Bahama Breeze

One of my dearest friends loves palm trees and the beach. When my work relocated me to Memphis, she and I would often escape to her favorite local “island retreat”. I moved to Santa Barbara 12 years ago, and a few years later, to Chicago. The memory of this neighborhood tropical getaway got lost in the shuffle until, by chance, it found me.

A few weeks ago, a group of local friends and I embarked on our own brief “staycation”. This time, we had been invited to try some of Bahama Breeze´s legendary island cocktails.  I am rarely up for re-exploring a chain restaurant, but the idea sounded like fun, so I accepted. I am so glad I did!

As soon as we arrived, we were directed to the eatery’s deck. The weather was perfect, and the live music along with a fanned breeze, immediately whisked us away from our corporate mindsets. Our business casual attire suddenly seemed to clash with our surroundings.

Next time we will wear our guayaberas.

As our friends gathered, the food also began to arrive. Plate by plate we were treated to Caribbean-inspired dishes that included staples such as plantains and pork.

Everything was delicious. The conch fritters and the coconut shrimp were particularly memorable, though. I was snapping pictures as fast as I could, but the food kept disappearing!

The coconut shrimp disappeared before my eyes. I was barely able to snap this picture.

The crowd’s favorite drink was the Painkiller, a delicious mix of rum, cream of coconut, orange juice  and a touch of nutmeg. The name definitely resonated with this group of overworked professionals, so I ordered a round for the entire group.

These amazing Painkillers, made me feel that I was on vacation.
¡Salud!

I went back on Saturday, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that service on a busy weekend was just as remarkable as the attention we experienced on a Wednesday night.

I had the grilled tilapia with lemon and butter, which was perfect, and just because I already know what the locals do, I got a Painkiller to blend in. I had little room for dessert, but I got this Key lime pie recipe for you as a souvenir.

Grab a few friends and check out your neighborhood Bahama Breeze. Your own escape to the islands might be closer than you think!

Bahama Breeze on Urbanspoon

¡Chicharrón con Ch de Chicago!

Find this chicharrón with hot sauce, and other Mexican treats including nieves, guanabana popsicles, and even the regional jicaletas (a snack made with jicama and chile) at La Dulce Vida Nevería in Melrose Park. Flour chicharrones (an alternative to the pork version) as well as fruit with lime, salt and different chiles, are a staple of any Mexican childhood.  Typically sold from street carts, likely with no health clearance, I am convinced this is how kids in Mexico build their immune system.

For those who, like me, are far away from home, La Dulce Vida offers a perfect antidote to homesickness with its large and carefully curated collection of Mexican goodies (from chocolate Abuelita to nieves and even esquites and tamales).  For those who, like my husband, have developed a taste for guanabana popsicles,  this place is a perfect  spot to get your Mexico fix with your evening snack.

I am so excited to have found this place. Who knew that Chicago was so close to Mexico?

La Dulce Vida is open Monday to Sunday from 6:00 am  to 10:00 pm 2015 W. Rice St. Melrose Park, IL 60160

La Dulce Vida Neveria on Urbanspoon

Taste Cuba through the Food of a Local

There is nothing like touring a country with a local to get to experience the real thing, and in my view, the same applies to food.  In Cuba, patrons of paladares (improvised restaurants in people’s houses) can enjoy an even more intimate experience feeling almost as a family guest. Did you watch Fresa y Chocolate? The movie featured La Guarida, one of Cuba’s most famous paladares. These establishments became legal and openly popular in the 90s.

My granddad lived in Batista’s Cuba, where he developed a taste for the local fare, among other things. Now retired and living in Miami, Cuban food is a must when we get together. We have made as many memories around tacos and comida de fonda, as those we  have made around plates full of rice and beans.

I was incredibly excited when I heard Paladar was coming to Chicago. The name, for one, gave it instant credibility. Plus, the menu offered family recipes and regional cuisine. I decided to give it a try as soon as I could. I did not make a reservation, and stopped by on a Saturday evening. We were warmly greeted as soon as we arrived.

I wanted to depart from the staples, and instead of ropa vieja, I ordered the red fried snapper, as it reminded me of the mojarras with garlic we eat in Mexico. Our waitress was so nice that she brought additional sauces. Try the avocado sauce. It  is amazing and will have you saying wepa! at the first bite! It was so good, I ended up putting it on my rice.  The food was perfectly cooked, delicious and generous, and the mojitos, are simply out of this world. The menu offers a variety of flavors. I had a cucumber mojito and a guava mojito.

The restaurant is cozy, casual and curiously decorated. It has pictures on display and china plates, a nod to the Cuban tradition in which hosts give a piece of the china set they receive as a wedding gift to their special guests. What’s more, the gracious owner, José Gonzáles, makes multiple rounds to engage with his patrons. The service is so personal and warm, you may as well be in his dining room.

I am never one to skip dessert, but in this particular instance, not even the prospect of flan could pull me away from my plateI simply couldn’t put my fork down.

Paladar  is open Monday-Sunday 11am – 12am. Find it in Chicago’s Logan Square area, 2115 N. Milwaukee Ave.

The proof is the flan I did not have. Not even the prospect of dessert could pull me away from my entrée.

Paladar Restaurant and Rum Bar on Urbanspoon

When Life Imitates Art – A dish inspired by Roy Lichtenstein

If you are in the Chicago area or plan to visit soon, The Roy Lichtenstein exhibition at the Art Institute in Chicago is definitely worth your time. When I first heard about it, a few of the artist’s cartoon-inspired pieces immediately came to mind.

For those of us who love Lichtenstein’s ability to speak to us with a surprisingly fun clarity (brush strokes representing grand gestures), as well as his knack for making art of the quotidian, the depth and breadth of the exhibit is a real treat. With more than 160 works, this is the artist´s largest exhibition to date.

For those who are not familiar with Lichtenstein’s work, the introduction to the artist is fun and easily relatable.

The exhibition thoughtfully spills into the food  served at  Terzo Piano, one of the eateries at the Museum, and a must-stop for lunch during your visit. I was happily surprised to find a dish inspired by the artist, which I decided to order. The meal hinted at the work of Lichtenstein in a delicious plate complete with the artist’s signature yellows and reds, lines and dots.

Let the magic of Lichtenstein make a true work of art out of an ordinary weekend . If you cannot make it before the exhibition ends on September 3, you can still stop by the restaurant for lunch. If weather allows it, consider sitting at the terrace. The views of Millenium Park are extraordinary.

If you have the opportunity to check it out:

Terzo Piano is open for lunch daily  11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. and open for dinner on Thursdays 5-8 p.m. You do not need to pay admission to the museum to enter. Reservations: 312.443.8650

Tip: If you are a Bank of America® customer you can visit this museum and exhibition for free the first weekend of each month through the company’s Museums on Us Program®Just show your credit or debit Bank of America card at the ticket counter.

Terzo Piano on Urbanspoon

Drink Your Veggies, Eat your Coffee

This coffee is actually a delicious dessert that should be eaten, not drank.

Julio Cortázar is one of my favorite writers. I particularly enjoy the way in which he is able to unravel the story he made you believe he had woven, and then, in one or two sentences, he turns it around to put an entirely new book in your hands.

At the end of the meal, I was presented with an edible menu. This is the menu that I enjoyed. Literally.

This came to mind when I visited Moto this weekend. If you have never experienced molecular gastronomy, a style that got notoriety in the land of Dalí, no less, I highly recommend it.

In the heart of Chicago’s meat-packing district, Moto Restaurant, seems understated. It should, as the food at this cozy, chic-yet-unpretentious establishment, is an incredibly stimulating multisensory event for both mind and palate.

From  an edible zen garden, to a dessert that looks like egg drop soup complete with an egg yolk that is actually mango, the 15-course meal is an adventure that comes with specially-designed utensils that hold aromatic herbs, and a leather glove smoked with vanilla beans to accompany a treat called “smell the glove”.  The aromas, while not in the food, are designed to enhance the flavor of the dish on the plate.

If you plan on going, forget everything you know about food. Really. Moto is like a short story by Cortázar; a  place where you know you will be surprised- you will get to drink your veggies and eat  your coffee.

Moto Restaurant, 945 W. Fulton Market,  Chicago, IL 312.491.0058

Moto on Urbanspoon

The Best of Two Worlds: Mariano’s Fresh Market

Have you ever wished you could get the Whole Foods experience minus the price tag? After picking up your fresh-from-the-oven pizza, have you like me, ever experienced a little pang of angst knowing that instead of a Diet Coke you will have to get a bottle of green tea to wash it down?

Sure, no one disputes the benefits of antioxidants, but if you have dreamed about a perfect balance, a hybrid offering the best of both of worlds-  specialty foods, extraordinary in-store dining and your favorite brands under one single roof, your dream is a reality. It is called Mariano’s Fresh Market.

I have shopped and dined quite a few times at two of the five Mariano’s Fresh Market stores in the Chicagoland area, the Arlington Heights and the Lakeshore East locations. Whenever I visit, I feel like pinching myself  to make sure I am awake.  See for yourself. Aside from choices, you will consistently find live music at the register and an impeccable service. The depth and breadth of assortment covers anything from groceries to deli, bakery and flowers.  If you like food, Mariano’s Fresh Market makes it difficult to believe that you have not entered an altered state of consciousness.

What’s even dreamier, prices are very reasonable.

Aside from visiting the store to do your shopping, if you have the good fortune to be a local and want to run in for a quick bite,  you will find quite an array of options – sushi, guacamole and a variety of salsas (my favorite is the pineapple salsa), as well as seasonal dishes. Today, for example, a good selection of fish choices was available for those observing lent.  There is also a great variety of drinks and dessert, freshly-squeezed juice, Italian prosecco, beignets and even gelati.

I found my bakery and deli foods and even my favorite Mexican staples at Mariano’s Fresh Market.

Mariano’s has a nice casual indoor dining area that is equally suitable for families with small children, hungry teenagers or busy time-crunched professionals. In its downtown location, the store also has a patio with umbrellas.

The quality of the food is superb. I had the best rice pilaf I’ve had in years, baked chicken, grilled vegetables and for dessert, hazelnut gelato.

And yes, I had a Diet Coke.

Mariano's on Urbanspoon

El Mercadito

Find creative interpretations of tacos, guacamole and great drinks at Mercadito Chicago, 108 West Kedzie St.

My neighborhood’s mercadito appeared every Saturday, quietly unrolling an elaborate tapestry of tents at dawn. Overnight, with the mystery of an ancestral spell, our street became the usual host of a festival of flavors, scents and sounds that enchanted the whole block.

Like everywhere else in Mexico, at el mercadito, magic intersected with practicality in the most fascinating of ways- turn one corner, and find  a merolico offering a variety of remedies to mend anything from broken hearts to calluses. Turn another one, and find furniture, jewelry, imported toys, flowers, shoes or someone ready to change your curtain fixtures.

Mercado. Querétaro de Arteaga, México.
Photo credits: Alicia Ramírez Presburger

I remember farmers offering the fruits of their crops with the pride of someone who has managed to talk the earth into creating edible jewelry, and parents always making the point to stop with their kids to either try an orange, a mango or to happily claim their free tostadas con crema at the dairy counter. Inventories were easily altered and could accommodate almost any request:

¨Señito, next week would you like me to bring your chicken alive or dead?¨ 

Food was always local, always seasonal and I am pretty sure, always organic. I am not quite certain anybody realized what a treat that was.

We were just used to it.

One of my favorite Saturday rituals was visiting el mercadito to get sopes, tlacoyos or quesadillas made from fresh nixtamal. These delicious dishes were conjured by skilled marchantitas, sorcerers of their comal. Cheese, green or red salsa, beans and freshly made tortillas delighted the hosts, who managed to rotate and sit by the dozens under a tiny canopy. Cactus, zucchini blossoms, potatoes with poblano peppers and cream as well as a variety of meat dishes, were just a few delicacies that anyone could choose from to stuff their quesadillas. Señoras in charge of this stand would charm masa into capricious forms, while adding numbers and crossing conversations by yelling the total of patrons’ bills. They never seemed to have a written tally, but knew with incredible precision who had eaten what, and how much the total amounted to.

I am not sure if this vignette has been genetically impressed upon me like a Diego Rivera mural or perhaps it is that mercado tarps are the fabric of my childhood memories. Whatever it is, I can’t help to smile when I think of Saturdays, and the magic they bring.

Mercadito Chicago on Urbanspoon

¡Échele Mariachi!


Gaetano´s in Forest Park is one of 600 restaurants in the world to have been acknowledged with the “Ospitalita Italiana” award for having an “Authentic” Italian restaurant.  Consider México Vivo for your own serenata, call  (312) 510-6011.

I really miss serenatas. I especially miss how my friends celebrated their mothers on Mother’s Day. They would pitch in to pay a mariachi to accompany them while they criss-crossed our neighborhood singing. The young troubadours would flag down a mariachi band nearby, and would then go door to door singing for each other’s moms. I miss hearing birthday serenatas, engagement ones, or those that happened just because. The Doppler effect of a mariachi in the distance is a cultural vignette that I am sure I share only with a lucky few.

Although mariachi is often portrayed as “comical” in many movies, in reality, mariachi music is an important part of our celebrations. From festive to solemn and romantic, these bands are a staple of events of any size. Pretty much any mariachi band holds a repertoire that touches on anything and everything that is sacred to us, except for fútbol. Playlists are learned as part of an unspoken social etiquette of sorts. Mariachi trumpets, regardless of the quality of their sound, have the uncanny ability to make me cry.

Knowing this, and wanting to distract me from my doomed battle against gravitational pull, my wonderful, wonderful husband hired a mariachi for my birthday. OK, he asked me to hire one, and to negotiate with them in Spanish for a really good rate. I know it sounds funny, but mariachi bands or at the very least tríos románticos are quite ubiquitous in Mexico. You just call them or flag them down. I didn´t realize what a luxury that was until I tried to find one in Chicago that did not require a notice way in advance and a formal contract.

I finally landed one. How to go wrong with a mariachi named “México Vivo”?  We agreed that we would meet at my favorite place. Wait. My husband reminded me that we had to make sure the venue I had chosen was OK with the idea. My favorite restaurant, Gaetano’s in Forest Park, is a culinary heaven that sits only 60. There were 12 elements in the band alone. Plus, If the name has not given it away, Gaetano’s is an Italian restaurant. It would have been difficult to make an argument for the band being representative of Italian folklore.

Enrico called Chef Gaetano DIBenedetto, the talented and gracious owner of this gem to share with him our plan. Gaetano welcomed us mariachi and all. The food was magnificent, as usual. And the mariachi did not disappoint!

Gaetano's & Ristorantino Mediterraneo on Urbanspoon