Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier once wrote that there were three world cuisines: French, Chinese and Mexican. To some extent the high end Mexican cuisine, not the antojitos that are considered strictly working-class fare, begs, borrows and steals a number of its techniques from classical French cooking. Mexican Dictator Porfirio Díaz Mori was an unrepentant Francophile and imported French chefs to cook for him while he lived in the presidential palace for over 30 years. There only complaint about Don Porfirio was that he doused traditional French dishes, like blanquette de veau, with smoked jalapeños called chipotle. Along these same lines, we had dinner at three Mexican and Mexican-inspired restaurants that are worth mentioning.
The first was named “Masa Azul”, which refers to the “blue corn dough” that tortillas are made from. The Aztec nobles reserved blue corn for themselves and it is still considered as much more flavorful than white or yellow corn. The restaurant is also fairly small. It is located within walking distance to Logan Square. The restaurant’s center focus is its extensive collection of tequila, mescal and sotol. For those who don’t know the difference: mescal is made by distilling the juice from any kind of agave plant and has the worm in the bottle; tequila is a liqueur made by distilling the juice from the blue agave plant only; and, sotol is made from the desert spoon flower. And, for the record, mescal tends to be the stronger. The food takes from Mexican spice and takes it to places it hasn´t been before: chilis with seafood, beef and duck. Both my wife and I enjoyed the duck tamale with chipotle crème and the fried artichoke hearts in a blue-corn tortilla nest with ancho chili aioli. For dinner, I went conservative and had a steak and my wife went for the mesquite duck breast with pineapple chutney.
Several years ago, one of the nicest places on Randolph Street was a pan-Asian restaurant named “Red Light.” Executive chef Jackie Chan put together a menu that brought out the subtle flavors of ginger, lemon grass, and curries. The place was a smashing success. On any weekend night, the bar was packed with Chicago’s yuppies and suit clad office workers. The business, however, suddenly went sideways and the place folded, along with its sister restaurant Opera. Rumor has it that the partners became so successful that they began to squabble and atmosphere sent its employees heading for the hills. One of the refugees opened a little Latin-inspired restaurant called El Fogón on West Grand. It is what I would call upscale Mexican eclectic. The menu specializes in pork medallions in a thick sauce, fava beans, sun-dried tomato pesto, and fresh ingredients. The décor, service and flavors are well worth the price. It is hard to tell if this place will survive. It is off the beaten path and foodies will have to know where it is.
Cantina Laredo, like the border-town it is named for, is best passed through as quickly as possible. The concept of the restaurant is actually well conceived. The location is close to the Magnificent Mile, on State Street, between Illinois and Grand. If you think that this place is a tourist trap, you guessed right. The decoration is fabulous: pergo flooring, tequila bar at the center of the restaurant, sparkling new. The investment had to reach a half-a-million dollars. It´s a shame they didn’t put much thinking into the menu. My wife and I ordered fish tacos, and when we did, we thought of the fish tacos we feasted on when we were broke, recently married and walking the beaches in Zihuatanejo. Those tacos were fabulous, made with fresh marlin, spices and fried to a crisp. The slop we were served at Cantina Laredo had been cooked hours before we arrived and was sitting in a steam table until we ordered. On the positive side, the waitresses make fresh guacamole at the table and the margaritas, according to my wife, were really good. But that was about it. Scratch this one off the list! If you are in the Magnificent Mile area and want to eat Mexican fare, try the Mercadito. It is well worth the price.
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=963