One of our favorite places in Brazil was the 24-hour bakery, ubiquitous in São Paulo. This tends to be somewhat more of a rarity in the US since I guess Americans do not have urgent sweet-tooth cravings, instead opting for late-night diner food. But seriously, who doesn’t want a good cookie after a night out? In fact, I had never seen a 24-hour bakery in Chicago until we happened upon Markellos Bakery in Albany Park (3520 W Lawrence Ave, Chicago, IL 60625). We stopped there on a whim after a concert got out after midnight, and we were still hungry! Markellos is situated unceremoniously in a strip mall next to a laundromat. The owner of Markellos was Greek-born Markellos Res (who recently passed away), though despite this, the majority of the pastries are Latin. There is a large variety of pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) from sugar cookies, to croissants, to rolls, to conchas to our favorite puerquitos. If you are in the mood for something savory, rumor is that they have Guatemalan tamales on the weekend. And the price is right, for $5 you can get a ton of sweets. Remember to bring cash!
Tag Archives: Mexico
One of the best things in Chicago is getting to enjoy the regional Mexican cuisine around every corner! Our favorite regional Mexican food is Oaxacan, so we are always on the lookout for new places featuring this region’s cuisine. Fortunately, in 2016, a new Oaxacan place opened quietly in Uptown, Kie-Gol-Lanee (5004 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago, IL 60640). Located near the Argyle red line stop, which is usually known for its Vietnamese pho options, Kie-Gol-Lanee has risen quickly to stand out as one of the premiere Oaxacan restaurants in Chicago. According to a Fooditor interview with the proprietors, the name of the restaurant is a phonetic spelling of Oaxacan village where they were born, Santa Maria Quiegolani, which is in turn a Spanish version of the Zapotec language words for “old stones” or “place by the river.”
We visited Oaxaca a few years ago, and our favorite thing there were the ubiquitous mole sauces, which come in 7 main varieties but have countless variations within each. Kie-Gol-Lanee heavily features its moles and other Oaxacan specialties on the menu. Though there are tacos and guacamole, more unique Oaxacan dishes make up much of the offerings. The appetizers start out strong: they even have the polarizing chapulines (fried grasshoppers – $8) as an appetizer. Personally, we love chapulines, and thought their rendition was great – they are a perfect salty, crunchy meal starter. Other unique appetizer included mushrooms in plantain leaves ($9). Salads with nopal (cactus) and beet sounded tempting ($9) as did the Oaxaca-style tamales (steamed in a plantain leaf instead of the more common corn husks – $5).
We were the most intrigued by the main courses, which included a variety of meats and seafood, many featuring moles. Highlights included gallinitas al horno ($20) Cornish game hen with black mole sauce and sesame seeds, and the camarones a la diabla ($20), shrimp with guajillo and chipotle pepper sauce. We ordered the arrachera a la parilla ($21) – grilled skirt streak with grilled onions and jalapenos, topped with a huitlacoche mole, and the chicken enchiladas topped with red mole ($16). The steak was cooked perfectly, and we were pleasantly surprised by the huitlacoche mole, which we had never tried before. Not a typical mole, this variety contained one of our favorite esoteric foods, huilacoche, a mushroom that grows on corn, which has a deep, earthy flavor and makes a delectable black sauce. The red mole on the enchiladas was incredibly rich and complex, elevating an otherwise simple dish. The moles here were the real deal, and you can tell that each was made from scratch from a huge variety of spices, vegetables and peppers.
We also sampled some of the agua fresca drinks- the jamaica (hibiscus) and horchata ($3), though in retrospect we should have tried the more unique offering, chilacayote (made with squash). However, we did get our squash fix with dessert – candied chilacayote squash with cinnamon ($8). For those scrunching up their nose at the thought of candied squash for dessert, this tasted like a cross between sweet potato and melon and was really pleasant! We highly enjoyed Kie-Gol-Lanee and it transported us right back to Oaxaca. Though priced slightly higher than a typical Mexican restaurant in Chicago, Kie-Gol-Lanee is worth every penny. The service is friendly, and the authentic Oaxacan food is something that you cannot find at many other places in the city.
One of the main things we miss since we move away from Chicago was its proliferation of amazing Mexican pandarias and their huge assortment of pan dulce – Mexican sweet breads and cookies. When we went to LA we knew we would be able to get our fix. One of our friends tipped us off to a place in particular – La Monarca, which is an upscale pan dulce (traditional Mexican sweet breads and pastries) shop with espresso drinks and light bites. La Monarca is a small but flourishing chain of cafes with about a dozen locations in the LA Metro area – think Mexican-tinged Starbucks, but with better everything. We visited the Santa Monica location (1300 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90403). The cafe was bright and airy, and was filled with a combination of people on their laptops, students and patrons grabbing a quick coffee and pastry before work.
Once you enter, on the left is the traditional case of pan dulce – you grab a tray and a set of tongs and load up the tray with whatever you want. Of course there are conchas, orejas (palmiers) and puerquitos, but also a few more unusual options like cuernitos (croissants) filled with dulce de leche, chocolate, cream cheese or guava and dulce de leche bread pudding. You can also go a bit more savory with bollilo bread rolls, baguettes or cornbread. We selected a mini cinnamon sugar concha, a puerquito and a a dulce de leche croissant, which had been particularly recommended to us. Of course we had our eye on the drink menu, which boasted single-origin Oaxacan coffee alongside cafe de olla (hot or cold coffee brewed with brown sugar and cinnamon), Mexican hot chocolate and champurrado (a sweetened chocolate elote drink). We get champurrado whenever we can find it, so we were extremely excited!
The refrigerated case is also full of other tempting looking cakes including tres leches, flan, dulce de leche and tiramisu. For heartier appetites they have salads, quiches, molletes (open faced sandwiches), and breakfast tacos, all with a Mexican twist including options with chorizo, huevos rancheros, chicken mole and salsa verde. We snagged an extra yogurt parfait for some protein. Everything at La Monarca was delicious (if a little pricey), and we enjoyed their modern twist on the traditional Mexican panaderia. We could definitely see ourselves becoming regulars if we lived closer!
When we told our friends we were going to Los Angeles and asked around for recommendations, one restaurant that kept coming up was Guelaguetza (3014 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90006). Located on the edge of Koreatown in central LA, Guelaguetza is a long-running restaurant, founded by the Lopez family in 1994. Guelaguetza was named after the Oaxacan festival of the same name, and the cuisine of Oaxaca is on display. The moles at Guelaguetza, in particular, have gained a following over the years (you may even notice that their website is ilovemole.com), and in 2015 they even won a James Beard award. The restaurant’s unmissable orange exterior is decorated with murals on the outside and though its boxy exterior masks it – the inside of the restaurant is gigantic, with several large rooms, and it even houses a stage (with live music on most nights).
The menu at Guelaguetza is extensive, though the Oaxacan specialties seemed the most intriguing: as a mark of a real Oaxacan restaurant, you can get evem an order of chapulines (fried grasshoppers – $14.50) one of M’s favorites. Guelaguetza is also known for their tlayudas ($14.50) – large tortillas covered in re-fried beans and a variety of other toppings like mole, mushrooms, cactus, cheese and/or chorizo. Other Oaxacan dishes included goat barbacoa tacos ($14.50), Oaxacan-style tamales wrapped in banana leaves ($12.50) and a variety of preparations of tasajo (thin grilled sliced beef) and pork cecina (smoked and dried). While perusing the menu we decided to sample some drinks we had never seen before: horchata with prickly pear and agua de chilacayote. We had certainly have had horchata before (Mexican rice water with cinnamon) but the bright pink prickly pear added another element. The other drink tasted almost like a pumpkin spice late – chilacayote is actually squash – but this surprising drink was both refreshing and very sweet, thanks to the addition of the piloncillo sugar.
One thing we absolutely had to order was the mole – however we were a little overwhelmed at the options. We counted no less than 6 moles! When we sat down to the table, the first thing we were offered was a plate of chips with coloradito mole, giving us an idea of what was in store. The rusty red coloradito mole was rich, complex, salty, savory and sweet all at once (the secret ingredient to coloradito is plantain). We saw the The “Festival of Moles” sampler which served two ($29), and we figured that was our best way to sample the mole universe. The sampler included portions of four moles: Mole Negro, Mole Rojo, Mole Coloradito, Mole Estofado. Each little pot of mole was topped off with shredded chicken, was served with rice and (extra-large) handmade tortilla was there to sop up the sauce. The mole negro (aka mole Oaxaqueño), is the most complex mole, the darkest in color, and spiced with a hint of chocolate. This one was L’s favorite. The mole rojo, a slightly spicier, peppery sauce was M’s favorite, and far surpassed any version he had ever had in the states. The mole coloradito that we had sampled as an appetizer was just as delicious in entree portion. The most unusual mole was the briny estofado, which is made from olives. The salty, puckery taste was one we had never tried before – not even in Mexico.
We used every last bit of rice and the giant homemade tortilla to sop up the mole sauce – this was definitely some of the best mole we have ever had – both inside of Oaxaca and out. For dessert there was of course flan, but we were happy to also see nicuatole ($8.50) – a flan-esque pudding made with corn. We last tried nicuatole at our cooking class in Oaxaca – and it is great! There is also a little shop in the front of the restaurant that sells Mexican jewelry, bags, molinillos, and most importantly, jars of official Guelaguetza mole and chocolate to take home. Sadly, we couldn’t bring the jars of mole home in our carry-ons, but we certainly will be ordering some soon. We were really impressed by the food at Guelaguetza, especially the mole, which will be really hard to beat!
Happy first day of Hanukkah – now it’s time for the treats! We wrote a little bit about the classic Sephardic Jewish dessert fritters, Buñuelos, in the past. However, we underestimated just how popular these little fried dough treats from Spain were. Though they are symbolic Hanukkah dish, and the frying of the dough represents the oil that burned for 8 nights, Buñuelos are also enjoyed as a Christmas treat. Buñuelos, (aka Bimuelos, Burmuelos, among other names) were initially created by Spanish moriscos centuries ago, but have since spread in popularity across Latin America.
Just how many Buñuelos varieties are there out there? It’s hard to say, but here we have tried to compile just a few variations on the humble Buñuelo:
- Sephardic Buñuelos with honey – a classic Jewish recipe
- Colombian Buñuelos, Venezuelan Buñuelos, and Nicaraguan Buñuelos – These are made from yuca flour and filled with cheese
- Mexican Buñuelos – These tend to have more of a flattened shape and are sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon
- Cuban Buñuelos – Perhaps the most different, these are anise-flavored and are shaped into a figure eight
Sometimes, we go to a place so often, we just start to assume we have written about it on ETW. This tends to happen with our most favorite restaurants, many of which do not end up getting a review until years after we first go there (thinking of you Greenbush Bar). In that vein, we are finally getting around to reviewing our favorite taqueria in Pilsen. We have eaten our way around Pilsen, and our favorite go-to place is still Taqueria El Mezquite (1756 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608).
El Mezquite is a classic mom and pop place, with simple red booths and an expansive menu of Mexican favorites. Our classic order at El Mezquite is tacos. The tacos are a reasonable $2.25 and come on delicious corn tortillas with the classic onion and cilantro. The taco menu is huge and you can get chorizo, carne asada, chicken and all the typical varieties. But what also sets Mezquite apart is that you can get harder-to-find fillings like nopal (cactus), tripe, and specific types and cuts of beef like lomo encebolloado (ribeye with onions), suadero (flank steak) and cecina (dried beef). They also excel at our favorite taco variety: pork al pastor. Even though they don’t have a trompo for Al Pastor, these are some of Matt’s favorites – the flavor is good, with a nice char.
Though the tacos are our starting point, we have also eaten through a bit more of El Mezquite’s menu, and have liked everything we’ve tried so far. Other favorites include the huaraches $7.95 (thick corn tortillas with a variety of toppings – we like the squash blossoms), and the chicken mole enchiladas ($7.25). On the weekends they also have the traditional stews like menudo (beef stomach stew) and pozole (pork and hominy stew) – which you can get by the plate or even by the gallon. We also recently tried their hearty migas soup, a pork bone soup with bread and epazote native to the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City, something we have not seen on any other Chicago menus.
However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg – you can also get freshly squeezed juices (like the vampiro, with oranges, beet and carrot), milkshakes, great horchata and tepache. If you have your own favorites we haven’t mentioned, it is definitely worth checking out Mezquite’s full menu of burritos, tortas, and dinner specials. Everything we have ever tried at El Mezquite has been good, and the prices are so reasonable. If you are in the hood and looking for a good place for tacos (and some Mexico City specialties) definitely make your way to El Mezquite.
By now, it is pretty much common knowledge by now that Rick Bayless has something of a Mexican food empire in Chicago. In 2016, that empire grew by two more – Leña Brava (900 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL) and Cruz Blanca. These two restaurants are more modern, updated spots in the always-buzzing Randolph Street corridor in the West Loop. Cruz Blanca’s is a brewery with a taco bar, and Leña Brava is all about the wood-fire grilled seafood, Baja California-style. When choosing between the two we knew we had to go with the wood fire! In any case, they are basically connected, so you don’t necessarily have to choose -if you want to grab an after-dinner drink at one or the other.
The interior of Leña Brava is sleek and stylish, and seems to draw a similar crowd, fitting with the location. The massive wood-fire grill is one of the features of the restaurant, and it is in full view of diners on the first floor. Not everything is wood-fired, though. The menu is divided into both hot and cold items – in sections called “ice” and “fire.” The cold menu is composed of oysters, ceviches, seafood cocktails, aguachiles (similar to a ceviche, but with a super-spicy broth) and laminados (raw sashimi-style fish – above). On the hot side of the menu, you can get grilled fish, pork belly, scallops or even roast chicken for two. We decided to sample items from both the hot and cold sides.
From the cold side we knew we had to start with a ceviche – there were 3 versions ($15-16) – classic Lena with albacore, lime and ginger; spicy Verde with yellowtail and green chiles; and the Asian-inspired Maki with nori, sushi rice and avocado. We tried the verde version, we were also intrigued by the laminado, so we picked the Hiramasa, with yellowtail, chamoy and papaya ($15). From the hot side we tried the scallops in salsa macha, these were oven-grilled with pasilla-almond salsa and mashed plantains ($25). Finally, we couldn’t resist the wood oven-roasted black cod with “al pastor”-style marinade and a sweet pineapple salsa ($27), inspired by our favorite tacos al pastor with a bright-red chile and achiote marinade. The fish in each of the dishes was extremely fresh. The raw preparations highlighted the unique flavor combinations of sweet, sour, spicy and acidic really well, and we especially loved the unique flavor combinations of the laminado. We were also impressed by the surprisingly delicate “salsa macha” and we just may have to steal the idea of an almond-based salsa for ourselves. Both of the hot seafood dishes were cooked perfectly, and we felt that the wood fire definitely imparted a little extra flavor to the sear.
We also appreciated the variety of unique desserts (prickly pear ice cream with grilled pineapple, for example) and the selection of teas from the Rare Tea Cellar (we sampled the hibiscus mango). On the beverage side, there are also a large amount of specialty cocktails, rarely-seen Mexican wines and over 100 Mezcals, one of the biggest lists anywhere. We finished our meal with creamy horchata custard topped with puffed hibiscus-scented rice and blueberry preserves – a flavor combo we never knew we needed in our lives. We really enjoyed our meal at Leña Brava – everything was fresh and the flavor combinations were memorably innovative. Leña Brava felt very different from the more buttoned-up Topolombampo and the more casual Frontera Grill, and was definitely modern and accessible. We can’t wait to go back and try more off of the menu. Maybe next time we will get a grill-side seat!
Our international bakery tour continues today with some special treats for Dia de los Muertos! One of the major things we miss in Chicago is the proliferation of Mexican bakeries. There are at least a few in every neighborhood, but the largest concentration is in Pilsen and Little Village, and we have spent a lot of time exploring the best bakeries. One of the longest-running bakeries in Pilsen – open since 1973 – is Panadaria Nuevo Leon (1634 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608), and it is one of our favorites.Nuevo Leon is absolutely full of wooden and glass pastry cases, and you pick up a set of tongs and a metal tray to make your own selections. There are a huge variety of pan dulce: emblematic conchas, cuernos de mantequilla (butter horns), empanadas, guava pastries, puerquitos (seen below), and a huge selection of assorted cookies (our favorites are the smiley faces and the watermelon shapes). The prices are not as cheap as some other Mexican bakeries in the area, but are still really reasonable. One of the other unique features is that there is a wide selection of made-in-house flavored tortillas (mole, chipotle, avocado, etc.). Plus, they mark vegan items (and there are quite a few).We love that Nuevo Leon stocks up on the special holiday treats. For Day of the Dead, Nuevo Leon is our go-to for tasty anise-flavored Pan de Muerto in both small and large sizes, with both the traditional round shape with bones (above) and others shaped like miniature people. You can see below that they also set up an ofrenda above the baking racks for Day of the Dead. However, this is not the only time of year to visit the bakery for something special. Around Christmastime their buñuelos (thin, fried dough with cinnamon and sugar) are a must! We can’t wait to go back for the next round.
When we used to live on the north side of Chicago we tried ton of a taquerias up and down North Clark street in Rogers Park (you can read about some on our Taco Crawl post). We did find a favorite though: the bombastically-named El Rey Del Taco – King of the Taco (7138 N Clark St). We were first intrigued by two unique non-food-related facts – that it is open 24 hours and has a parking lot – both major bonuses and rarities. The menu at El Rey Del Taco, like other places in the area, is overwhelmingly huge, and you can get seafood platters, soups, burritos, huaraches, tortas and the like, but what we always come here for are the tacos, which never disappoint. The tacos come in at a very reasonable $2.25 apiece, and if you dine in, are served on a real plate with lime wedges, grilled green onions and blackened hot peppers. The little corn tortillas for the tacos are good, and the tacos are dressed simply with cilantro and onion (how it should be!).
We have tried the tilapia, al pastor, steak and chorizo tacos, and while they are all good, our two favorite varieties are the al pastor and the steak. The al pastor is well-charred and spiced, and comes with slices of seared pineapple, which is a must for the whole al pastor experience. Though this is not our favorite al pastor in the city, it is a great option on the north side. So do they have a trompo? Well, sometimes. We have indeed seen the trompo in action on a few occasions (see below), but have gone back other times to see no trompo in sight.
These is something at El Rey del Taco for everyone, at all times of the day, including an extensive breakfast menu. If you want to pop in after work, it is also a perfect place for happy hour, with margaritas, beer and horchata on offer (and don’t miss flan for dessert). We have even had meetings here, and they are nice about letting you linger for as longs as you want. We have seen some complaints about their delivery, but we have only ever eaten in, and have never waited too long (though you get free chips and salsa while you wait), and received friendly service. Now that we don’t live there anymore, you can take over and make El Rey del Taco your new north side taco haunt!
When we went to Oaxaca in 2014, we were obsessed with all of the signature moles (7 distinct genres of mole are found in Oaxaca) available. Now, there are plenty of places to find dishes with Mexican moles in Chicago – and we have sampled quite a few – but none really wowed us. However, we heard a lot of buzz around the moles at Ixcateco Grill (3402 W. Montrose Ave., Chicago, IL 60625), helmed by Anselmo Ramirez, a chef that had previously worked in Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill kitchen and is called a “Rembrandt of Mole.” After hearing that, we knew we had to try this place! Ixcateco is located on an unassuming corner in Albany Park, and is BYOB. The restaurant is relatively small, brightly colored, and with a casual and welcoming vibe.
Our weekly Pastry Post-Doc is coming a day early this year for Cinco de Mayo, a holiday celebrating Mexico’s victory over France in the 1862 Battle of Puebla. We are celebrating the holiday with a rare treat that is unique to Puebla: Molletes Dulces / Molletes Poblanos. Molletes in Mexico are usually a savory dish eaten as a snack or at breakfast, but in Puebla they are sweet, hence being called Molletes Dulces! Molletes in Puebla are are a sweet round bread (similar to a concha) filled with custard, often coconut-flavored, and covered in a pumpkin seed (pepita) icing. Contributing to their relatively unknown status, Molletes Poblanos are only found for a short period of time, from Father’s Day in June until August 12, the day of St. Clare of Assisi (Spanish link). If you are in Puebla, you can find them at bakeries on “Sweet Street” – Calle de los Dulces! If you don’t happen to be in Puebla this summer (we wish we were!) check out this Spanish-language video from Pulso to see Molletes for yourself.
The story of Modica chocolate is one of our favorites, and we are looking forward to bringing it to you in advance of of the most visible Mexican holiday in the US, Cinco de Mayo. So we know that chocolate is a new-world creation, and was popular among Aztecs (where it was known as Xocoàtl) for centuries. So now that chocolate has spread the whole world over, where can you still find the most traditional Aztec recipes? Sicily! No, I am not joking. It turns out that Sicily, conquered many times over, was under Spanish rule while the Spanish were also colonizing the new world, and these colonizers brought back the Aztec recipes for chocolate to Sicily. These traditional recipes are still made in certain parts of Sicily today with nothing but cacao, sugar and (maybe) spices.
The process of making the chocolate by grinding it on a metate (as it was originally in Mexico) imparts a pleasantly gritty, natural texture to the chocolate, which is delicious and completely unique. A historical and picturesque Sicilian town in the province of Ragusa, Modica, is known for its expertise in all things chocolate, and is home to several longstanding chocolate shops producing chocolate the traditional Aztec way, which has become known in Italy as “Modica Chocolate.”On our trip to Sicily, we took a visit to Modica to see this piece of chocolate history for ourselves, and stopped at the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto (Corso Umberto I, 159, 97015 Modica RG, Italy), one of the more famous chocolatiers, in operation since 1880. This shop in particular is known for their wide variety of Modica chocolates made on the premises. The chocolate bars here come in almost every cacao percentage, plus unique flavors like lime, marjoram, almond and orange peel. Fortunately they let you sample, so we were happy to taste a bunch of varieties before we arrive on our two favorite picks: sea salt and hot chili.While you can find good traditional Mexican chocolate in Oaxaca and other places in Mexico itself, what Sicily has to offer is on par with these treats. And truth to be told – we could see that this chocolate and that found in Oaxaca were cousins, maybe even siblings. If you are unable to visit Modica itself, you can get the Modica-made Sabadi chocolate bars at Eataly. P.S. If you visit the Bonajuto shop they also have the best cannoli ever!
Every time we are back in Chicago we are in the mood for tacos! We take music classes on Armitage, so when we are in the area we usually stop at El Azteca aka Taqueria Azteca Poncitlan (4158 W Armitage Ave.) for some tacos. A caveat: there are about 4 different signs indicating different names for this place some say Taqueria Poncitlan, others say El Azteca. Our hunch is El Azteca moved into the space formerly occupied by Poncitlan (the sign says it has been there since 1987), and didn’t change the main sign… but who knows! You’ll know when you are there. The inside is cute, if a little cheesy – with brightly painted carved tables and chairs and carved wall art.
Valentine’s Day is right around the corner – which means that all things chocolate are now “seasonal.” Whether or not you are into Valentine’s Day, you are probably a fan of chocolate – we certainly are. Really good chocolate is a pleasure year round, and we were fascinated by this video from Eater’s How to Make Everything series about how chocolate is made at a Mexican chocolate farm, starting from growing the cacao pod, through drying, fermenting and roasting the beans. Honestly, it is much more of an involved process than we expected, which makes us appreciate our precious chocolate bars even more!
The main thing we miss about moving away from Chicago is proliferation of taquerias there – you could pretty much throw a stone and hit a taqueria on every corner. Sadly, we had pretty much given up on the taqueria-style Mexican food in the area, but we found a shining beacon of hope in the unlikeliest of places – Akron. It’s true – La Loma Taqueria (459 Darrow Rd, Akron, OH 44305) in Akron makes some of the best al pastor this side of Clark street. La Loma is located in a nondescript strip mall on the outskirts of Akron, a pretty unlikely location for crazy delicious and authentic tacos.
What led us to La Loma were reports of a trompo in this location – the gyro-esque spit that is required to make a proper al pastor taco. Surely enough, when we entered the taqueria we were greeted by the fully loaded trompo! In terms of tacos La Loma delivers on value and variety. At a very reasonable $1.50 each, it is feasible to try all of the meat options: carne asada, barbacoa, chorizo, chicken or tongue. We tried both al pastor and chorizo, our go-to taqueria order. Other options available with the same meats include burritos, tortas on homemade telera bread, quesadilla, flautas, sopes and tamales.
The tacos were the real deal – served on small, fresh corn tortillas, they were topped with the requisite onion and cilantro. Plus, there was a healthy slice of fresh pineapple – the holy grail of al pastor tacos – which is sometimes left off at other taquerias. The pork was spicy and the outside was well-charred, like we prefer. As a plus, there is even an impeccably clean store attached to the taqueria selling a variety of Mexican and other Latin American foods and sundries. We snagged some dried guajillo peppers and Mexican cinnamon sticks, staples we needed for recipe production. La Loma’s one flaw is that it is located a bit of a drive from where we live. However, we know we will be back when the inevitable, insatiable taco craving hits.
The Mexican ice cream shop – neveria – has become a staple of the Chicago food landscape. It was not until we moved from Chicago that we knew how good we had it in terms of icy treats. Though the Neverias in Chicago sell traditional treats like paletas, they are also home to some more exotic specials. Take the mangonada – an icy concoction made with fresh mango pieces, mango ice cream, chamoy (pickled plum sauce), a tamarind spice stick and Tajin (salt/lime/chile pepper) sprinkled over the top. This hodgepodge of flavors seems like it shouldn’t work, but it really does, and capitalizes on an amazing spicy-sweet combo, which is very popular in Mexican candies. Mangonadas remind us of summertime, so we could really go for one now in the dead of winter. If you leave near a Mexican grocery store, you can probably pick up most of ingredients you need to assemble your own, or they are available online at Mex Grocer.
Big Star (1531 N. Damen Chicago, IL ) is the type of place that gets a lot of hype, but unlike most places with this much buzz, the food is good too! We have been to Big Star several times now, and it really is a fun place to hang out with friends, grab some tacos and drinks, and just kick back. Though you can sit inside, the main draw at Big Star in warm weather is the sunny patio, which often leads to several-hour waits. We first managed to get into Big Star late on a summer Wednesday, and though we were skeptical at first, we really enjoyed the tacos. Be sure to bring your cash though, since they do not accept credit cards.
We don’t have any Mexican bakeries near us anymore, unfortunately, so we have to turn to making our own treats for Dia de los Muertos. Key among these is the sweet Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead), with its signature crossed bone pattern and flavors of anise and orange blossom water. Today is All Souls’ Day so there is still time to enjoy this bread – but really – why not make it all year long? Bon Appetit has a new recipe for Pan de Muerto that begs that exact question (plus an instructional video on how to shape the bread). It’s not too late, why not give it a try?
When I was researching recipes for Dia de Los Muertos cookies, I came across some perplexing information about a popular holiday cookie – the pabassina. These raisin and almond cookies are originally Sardinian, and are indeed eaten on All Saints’ Day, but somehow have hopped across the Atlantic to become popular in Mexican Dia de Los Muertos celebrations as well. Since they are eaten on the same holiday, and Mexico does indeed have an Italian population, I guess the connection is not so mysterious, but I can’t find anything about their specific history. Apparently, I am not the only one who noticed this odd lack of historical context. Regardless, they seem pretty tasty. Here is a recipe for pabassinas from an Italian website, and another from Saveur. Do you have any ideas about the unexpected migratory path of the Pabassina?
You see Mexican food carts selling fruit throughout Chicago, usually serving clear plastic cups with fruit chunks and a topping of chili pepper or chamoy sauce. However, late one night a few weeks ago, we came across a fruit cart on North Clark and Morse in Rogers Park, that had a longer line then we had ever seen. We were instantly intrigued – what could they be doing so differently?
Fantastik (intersection of N. Clark and Morse, hours variable), as we found out this fruit stand was called, specializes in fruit gazpacho (sometimes spelled gaspacho), a specialty of the town of Morelia in the Southwestern Mexican state of Michoacán. We had never heard of such a dish, so we knew we had to try it. Morelia-style fruit gazpacho traditionally consists of mango, jicama and pineapple. However, at Fantastik you can also get a “surtido gazpacho” which included a wider variety of fruits including papaya, kiwi and strawberry. If you are in the mood for something simpler they also offer cut fruit cócteles, which are cocktails in the fruit cup sense and not the alcoholic one.
The stall is run by the Mejia family – and they have everything down to a science. Another thing that really impressed us was the complete precision of the dice on the fruit, and the sheer amount of fruit that was crammed into each plastic takeaway cup. The gazpacho is finished off with a topping of orange juice, fresh-squeezed lime juice, sea salt, chili pepper, onion, cilantro and even queso fresco. It is $7 for a small and $9 for a large container, which are both plenty enough to share. The gazpacho was sweet, salty and spicy, and was deliciously refreshing and surprisingly filling. We were completely blown away by the gazpacho and we returned twice in one week for a fix. We recommend you do the same.