Chicago's Mexican Restaurant Renaissance
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With pioneers like Rick Bayless in our corner, Chicago has long been at the forefront when it comes to world-class Mexican cuisine in the U.S. In the past few years, however, the city’s Mexican dining scene has really hit hyper drive, beckoning a bold new era that not only saw the emergence of a new generation of talented chefs, but cemented Chicago as the Mexican food capital of the U.S.
When Bayless launched Frontera Grill decades ago, Chicago was barely scratching the surface of its powerhouse restaurant potential. The city was a far cry from the dining caliber it has today, especially in regards to its multifaceted and thriving Mexican restaurants. At the time, pre-Frontera, the authentic eateries were largely confined to neighborhoods like Pilsen, Little Village and Archer Heights, all of which carry the torch of generations-old taquerias and tortillerias to this day. But the emergence of Frontera marked a turning point. It exhibited a newfound fascination with the history, regionality and techniques of Mexican cooking, elevating it to a new pedestal and spotlighting it as a cuisine just as versatile, vibrant and potentially prestigious as French, Italian and Japanese.
Nowadays, with Chicago boasting the largest population of Mexican residents in the U.S. outside of Southern California, the city has been primed for a restaurant renaissance. Indeed, on the heels of wildly popular (albeit not very authentic and occasionally quite white-washed) Mexican spots like Big Star, Antique Taco, Federales and Broken English, Chicago has recently been enriched with a surge of promising new Mexican restaurants on par with the best in the country.
The first of this new era was Dos Urban Cantina. The Logan Square restaurant is the handiwork of Brian Enyart and his pastry chef wife Jennifer Jones-Enyart, both vets of the Bayless restaurant empire. Together, they moved back to Chicago after time spent in Louisville to open their own restaurant — one that seamlessly toes the line between casual, comfortable and high-end, at least in terms of craft and presentation. The two work wonders together in the kitchen, showcasing seasonal, local ingredients alongside lustrous Mexican flavors and techniques. Well beyond your more commonplace plates, dishes range from roasted vegetables in a complex green peanut mole and octopus al pastor to a gorgeous raw scallop agua chile that looks like a Pollock painting. Brunch, cocktails and desserts are equally notable, especially the piloncillo sugar pie, coconut tres leches and tamarind-studded sticky date pudding by Jones-Enyart.
Elsewhere in Logan Square, Dan Salls put down roots with his critically acclaimed, crowd-pleasing Quiote. After roving around Chicago in his Salsa Truck for years, the chef/owner is utilizing a permanent space for a vastly expanded culinary repertoire. In addition to some of his beloved tacos, you can expect to find exploratory flavors like bone marrow with salsa macha, picadillo tamal Oaxaqueno, crab tostadas and mushrooms al pastor. As if all that wasn’t enough, Salls also opened a mezcal-focused bar in the basement called Todos Santos. Helmed by Jay Schroeder, another alum of the Bayless restaurant family tree, the dimly lit, desert-esque nook features bracing libations that delve deep into the wide world of agave. This includes intricate creations like the Life During Wartime, a mezcal and Scotch combo with apricot liqueur, pasilla chile, rooibois, bitter orange and smoked pepita salt.
Just a couple blocks north, officially solidifying Logan Square as Chicago’s de facto neighborhood for neoteric Mexican dining, Mi Tocaya Antojeria emerged as one of the standout openings of 2017. The small, homey restaurant is a true passion project for chef/owner Diana Davila, who features shareable plates inspired by her heritage. These run the gamut from the familiar (shrimp ceviche, steak burritos, chorizo tacos) to the uncommon (peanut butter and beef tongue, spaghetti with crab and egg, charred butternut squash tacos). Altogether, the experience works as a thoroughly transportive, immersive foray into the varied, flavorful world of regional Mexican cookery. It’s an added bonus that the quaint restaurant just so happens to also be the quintessential neighborhood spot, presenting Davila’s take on tradition in an entirely accessible format.
Meanwhile, as chefs throughout the city continue to put their stamp on Mexican cuisine, the local godfather of it all continues his reign. Bayless not only won the coveted Outstanding Restaurant of the Year award at the James Beard Foundation Awards in 2017 for Topolobampo, but he doubled down with two massive, game-changing Mexican restaurants in the West Loop. Situated side-by-side and both enormous two-story ventures, the complimentary outlets allow Bayless to venture even further into new territories of Mexican dining and drinking. This includes Cruz Blanca, a nano-brewery featuring Mexican-inspired beers and a casual taqueria with housemade tortillas and char-grilled vegetables and meats. Right next door is the more upscale Leña Brava, a stunner of a space with emphasis on Mexican seafood and mezcal.
As chefs both established and up-and-coming continue to explore new territory in new parts of the city, Chicago’s Mexican food scene is only poised to get better in the years to come.