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David Lissner
for restaurants

Mexican influence rising, one restaurant at a time

It’s a banner week for Chicago Mexican food lovers!

Dining Chicago: Chilam Balam

Chef Chuy Valencia and Soraya Rendon opened Chilam Balam Cocina Mexicana, named for the historic Mayan chronicles, on Friday in Lakeview. The 45-seat BYOB serves a mix of small plates and seasonal Mexican entrees, such as roasted leg of lamb in a sauce of mulato chilies, bitter chocolate and sesame seeds, and grilled, herb-marinated game hen with charred tomato salsa, blackened knob onions and pot beans.

The 23-year-old chef, a Sonoma, Calif., native, has clocked time with Rick Bayless at River North’s Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, as well as at the Adobo Grill restaurants.

Dining Chicago: Rustico Grill

Rustico Grill opens tomorrow in the Logan Square location formerly Rustik, a partnership between Rustik owner Jeff Wescott and Chef Raul Arreola, proprietor of Mixteco Grill in Lakeview. His new menu will mirror Mixteco’s moles, wood-grilled specialties like a pork chop in ancho-chili and mango mole and other upscale Mexican fare. An extensive tequila list features, as well.

Arreola, another Bayless disciple, spent a dozen years at Frontera and Topolobampo, before opening his first restaurant.

Dining Chicago: Xoco

Next, Bayless himself opens the early awaited Xoco on Tuesday, Sept. 8, in River North. Named for the Mexican slang for “little sister,” the 40-seat, counter-service cafe will serve breakfast and Bayless’ revved-up, contemporary take on Mexican street food and snacks: tortas filled with wood-roasted cochinita pibil (pork) and barbacoa (lamb) braised overnight in banana leaves, hearty soups, fresh churros and hot chocolate made from Mexican cacao beans ground on the premises. Mexican and local beers and wines will also be available.


Rick Bayless

Rick Bayless

I’m reminded that many wonderful Chicago chefs have worked for “Top Chef Masters” champ Bayless, been inspired, and then gone on to be in charge of their own kitchens — among them Priscila Satkoff of ¡Salpicon! in Old Town, Geno Bahena of Los Moles in Lakeview and Bahena’s mom, Clementina Flores of Sol de Mexico in Belmont-Cragin, who was the Bayless family’s nanny before becoming a chef. Many more are working their way up, cooking on the line in all kinds of restaurants throughout the Chicago. In 22 years, a great many cooks have come and gone, enriching our city’s culinary mix.

You may have seen the spiteful little rant in the wake of Bayless’ triumph on “Top Chef Masters,” when the Tribune Chicago Now blogger Teresa Puente complained about the press attention: “Why is Rick Bayless the expert on Mexican cuisine when he isn’t even Mexican?” she asked. “But how would the French feel if their premier chef celebrated by the media in France wasn’t French at all?”

Leaving aside whether Puente’s comments, and Trib critic Phil Vettel’s retort accusing her of racism were, as some speculate, either a publicity stunt for Chicago Now or an old-school vs. new media feud, Puente’s argument misses the point. Bayless is celebrated for Mexican cooking in America, in the same way that Julia Child, even dead, is celebrated for French cuisine in America. (Are living chefs chagrinned over this favoritism to the deceased? Should Francophiles be feting the ghost of Escoffier, instead?)

America. An old-fashioned phrase comes to mind: The melting pot. How much poorer Chicago’s stew would be if it weren’t for Rick Bayless and the kitchens he’s created and inspired, increasing the breadth and depth of our city’s knowledge of Mexican cuisine.

And now there are three more.