There is a beautiful framed sepia-toned photograph hanging in each of the restrooms at Dove's Luncheonette, the new Mexican diner from One Off Hospitality. They feature the interior and exterior, respectively, of a very busy Moon's Sandwich Shop, the 81-year-old Lawndale institution that is as pure an expression of a classic American neighborhood diner as anyone could hope for.
Whether Paul Kahan and company aspire to truly reach the depth of soul of a place like Moon's, or merely to imitate it, it's a lofty standard. We've seen dinerlike pretensions in recent years, with projects such as Brendan Sodikoff's Au Cheval and Stephanie Izard's Little Goat. But for all their charms, these are ersatz diners that don't even keep diner hours, approximations with very good, indulgent, cheffy food.
Dove's, with its 8 AM opening (now 9 AM for the winter), stainless-steel counters and communal tables, wood paneling, and jukebox that spins 60s and 70s Chicago soul and blues 45s, comes quite a bit closer. With One Off's immensely popular Big Star just next door, and with the Violet Hour across the street, the group is beginning to dominate Wicker Park in much the same way it rules the West Loop with Blackbird, Avec, the Publican, and Publican Quality Meats. The food, by chef de cuisine Dennis Bernard, up from the Publican, is an expansion on Big Star's worthy tacos and antojitos: Mexican food with norteño and Tex-Mex leanings—big, cheesy, saucy, and on occasion gloriously sloppy.
The sole taco on the menu, built on a thick flour tortilla (the way it's done in the north), features slabs of lean smoked brisket piled with pico de gallo, lightly drizzled with a chile vinaigrette, and topped with a few gnarled chicharrones. It's a supersize offering that dwarfs its brethren next door. Unless you roll it burrito style, you can no more eat it with your hands than you can Big Star's vaunted Sonoran dog.
No one's ever supposed to eat a torta ahogada by hand, though Dove's is a lot neater than the typical drowned-in-chile-de-arbol-salsa variety. This one is dry on top, sitting neatly in a pool of sesame-sprinkled sauce with a pile of pickled onions to the side. You're free to knife and fork your way to the melted Muenster and smoked ham filling, which bears a faintly pleasing funk, as if it had some age to it. The chicken-fried chicken, however—a terrific southern/Mexican mashup—is positively smothered and covered in a creamy chile verde gravy and strewn with fresh green peas, green beans, and roasted poblano strips. The boneless chicken pieces are fried hard and more than capable of standing up to this treatment.
I don't approach a Mexican dish with more trepidation than I do chile rellenos, which are usually leaden things, filled with heavy gobs of cheese, their batter sloughing off like dead skin. At Dove's they're fried in a very light, crackly, tempura-style batter with admirable adhesion and filled with a light, fluffy ricotta-like farmer's cheese. Resting on a layer of orange serrano salsa and showered in cotija cheese, pickled pasilla peppers, and strips of chayote squash, they almost recall delicate, oversize fried squash blossoms.
All of these larger plates are remarkable and worthy of your digestive real estate, but two among them are absolutely essential eating. Enchiladas, served in a cast-iron pan, are rolled around shredded chicken thigh meat, saturated in a thick guajillo and ancho salsa, blanketed in gooey Oaxacan cheese and crumbled queso fresco, and crowned with pickled onions and chiles. The posole rojo, served in a deep bowl that almost makes the soup look insignificant, has a dark brick-red broth sitting placidly at the bottom and only a small island of braised pork shoulder disturbing its surface. But its rich, full-bodied, intensely porky depths are swarming with hominy and luscious meat that falls apart at the touch. You're meant to garnish this textural masterpiece with shredded cabbage, sliced radish, cilantro, tostadas, and freshly squeezed lime.
Dove's offers a pair of ceviches. A tomato-shrimp cocktail in a tall old-fashioned milk-shake glass is crowded with crustaceans and avocado in a tomatoey brew (with none of the familiar sweet ketchup-y notes) and topped with crabmeat. And pristine diced cobia is mixed with crunchy jicama, red onions, chiles, and mint, all tossed with a light finish of creamy guacamole sprinkled with frazzled strands of fried yucca.
These are all ample plates, but that's no excuse to skip the vegetables and sides. Shishito peppers and crunchy smashed and fried potatoes are bonded by a creamy aioli and coated by a blizzard of queso fresco. Roasted romanesco cauliflower takes on similar richness with a nutty green pumpkin-seed sauce. Deep-purple beets are roasted and served cold, dressed in sesame seeds, pickled raisins, and a just-perceptible hint of chocolatey mole negro. Tight sections of mineral-rich PQM blood sausage luxuriate in alabaster crema and chile-infused oil, and meaty chili con carne thickens progressively with melting cheese.
Each and every one of these dishes can be improved by a dose of the toasty, garlicky, lavalike house-made chile sauce, which is enriched with nuts and ought to be bottled and sold at the door.
Desserts, apart from a few varieties of house-made ice cream, are by Hoosier Mama—outstanding pies including a fudgy Mexican chocolate, a horchata-themed pie as subtly cinnamon spiced as the drink, and a tart and creamy Atlantic pie, the lemon analogue to key lime. There are small but likable collections of beer, wine, and fruity cocktails, but the beverage treasure at Dove's is the extensive and varied list of mescal and tequila that includes Big Star's vanilla-nosed, bourbon-barrel-aged proprietary Fidencio reposado, and Mezcal Vago Elote, which carries a whiff of roasted corn.
I have a minor quibble about the design. The padded stools, bolted to the floor at intervals that afford plenty of elbow room, come at a slight cost in intimacy. The food at Dove's isn't necessarily meant to share, but you'll be thinking of reaching across the gulf to your neighbors' plates just the same.
Staffed by a crew indoctrinated in precision and attentiveness typical of the One Off army, Dove's is a singular diner, like those other nuevo diners in terms of quality yet very much its own creature. It may not fill the vast void that the Busy Bee left in Wicker Park in the late 90s, but the food and vibe should have enough soul to power it for as long as Moon's has been around.