Beef jerky soup—way better than it looks and sounds



Caldillo de carne seca
For all the wealth and variety of regional Mexican food in Chicago there are relatively few restaurants specializing in the cuisine of the northern state of Durango. One notable example is the Northlake rosticeria Pollo Vagabundo, with its extensive salsa bar and giant, made-to-order flour tortillas. A lesser-known but still worthy example is Blue Island's Taqueria Durango. And a little bit closer to home there's a standard being set at Gage Park's La Placita de Durango.

The colorful, bustling spot opened about five years ago in smaller, less spiffy digs, a bit further west on Kedzie. There they put out ice cream and a focused variety of delicious and uncommon northern specialties, many bound in blistered, house-made harina tortillas and gorditas. Flour, rather than masa, is the primary medium for bread in the norteño style, and the difference between factory-made flour tortillas and fresh, made-to-order ones is like the difference between Wonder Bread and a baguette from Floriole. At LPdD you'd find gorditas stuffed with roasted green poblanos and creamy fresh cheeses like requeson and cuajada, or small burritos bulging with carne deshebrada (shredded beef and potatoes).

Pressed pork skin quesadilla

It was a small space, often packed, but while the newer one, which opened earlier this year, is bigger, it's snug enough that a line still forms out the door on Sunday morning. The menu has expanded too. You can still get your gorditas and burritos, but they have quesadillas now, like the one pictured above, filled with chicharron prensado, shaved from loaves of pressed pork skin, and reconstituted in a creamy, fatty sauce with a hint of something like mustard. You can order full, meaty platillos too, and breakfasts like machacado con huevo, eggs scrambled with shredded dried beef, onions, tomatoes and jalapenos. There are tacos and freshly squeezed juices, licuados, and aguas de frescas, and on the weekend menudo is big.

But recently Friend of the Food Chain Rob Lopata spotted something very unusual: caldillo de carne seca. It's a soup made with the same dried beef as the machacado, shredded and crispy, with potatoes, onions, and roasted cactus. They all swim in a murky green broth swirling with fat. It's plenty salty, and rather unlovely, but it's delicious, with a great depth and body, and a slight funk lent by the cured meat. I wasn't able to find out much about it, but Rick Bayless informed me that's it's "classic and common" in Monterey in the state of Nuevo Leon, and that it's also popular throughout the central and eastern north. He said because carne seca is expensive, restaurants add the meat in sealed weighted portions. Things are a bit more generous here. At La Placita de Durango a big bowl swimming with the stuff will run you a very reasonable $9.50.

La Placita de Durango, 2423 W. 51st, 773-434-3711

La Placita de Durango

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