The specter of defunct cream-puff stand Beard Papa's still haunts the corridors of Block 37. Despite newer tenants like the AMC Dine-in Theatres, the Disney Store, Zara, the Foodseum, Magnolia Bakery, Akira, and Anthropologie, the shopping-mall portion of the historically accursed development somehow still feels like it hasn't shaken off all of the echoing, empty gloom of the past.
That's why the building's third floor is, in some ways, a perfect place for Latinicity, the pan-Hispanic food hall developed by chef Richard Sandoval (who has a hand in some 39 restaurants worldwide) in partnership with homeboy Jose Garces (Mercat a la Planxa, Rural Society). During its opening weekend in early November it had to temporarily shut down after getting swamped by more than 10,000 visitors. That kind of traffic can't be bad business for Steve Madden and Sephora.
While the immediate and obvious comparison is to Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group's Eataly (which faced a similar crisis of inventory after its debut), Latinicity is both less and more in positive ways. By the time I got there, over four visits during the height of preholiday mania, the Christkindlmarket across Dearborn Street was hosting its typical glogg-drunk mob scene. But Latinicity, with its ten food counters, full-service tapas restaurant, retail market, large wrap-around bar, and spacious eating area, was blissfully tranquilo.
Each time I was free to stroll the food court, listening to my gut's desires and swiping a card whenever I was lured by one of the ten stations, my tab tallied at the exit. Tacos? Tortas? Ceviche? Churrasco? There is an abundance of offerings, and a relaxed, unintimidating presentation. Even Latinicity's retail portion is compact and carefully curated. Unlike at Eataly, you won't be burdened by the enormity of your choices—here in Brazilian chocolate, Spanish canned fish, Argentine wine, celebrity cookbooks, and branded swag. In fact this is the only aspect of Latinicity that's lacking. With all of South and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula to pluck stock from, it's somewhat surprising there isn't more to shop for.
But there are still plenty of decisions to make. How about a torta? Among the four on offer—including crispy pork belly and sweet potato, Cuban-style ham and Swiss, and carne asada and Oaxacan cheese—the Milanesa ($9), with its compact construction of crispy chicken, black bean, chipotle aioli, Oaxacan cheese, avocado, tomato, and pickled chiles, is a solid representation of the form, its slightly too soft telera roll contrasting with the fried chicken's crunch.
And that's just about true of most of the food at Latinicity. At first it seems disconcerting to watch a counter worker slop together the myriad ingredients of the ceviche mixto ($10) with all the grace of a toddler. But once one starts digging into the mahimahi, precooked shrimp and octopus, and cooling, fatty avocado sloppily bathed in sharp, acidic lime sauce, you can't get enough tostadas to scoop it all up. Same goes for a fat Chori-frita burger ($9) that, depending on your timing, results in a chorizo-beef patty that's been resting on the griddle prior to your arrival. But the textural harmony of the porky beef with melting manchego, thick bacon mojo, crunchy potato sticks, and soft, warm brioche renders the slightly overcooked interior only a mild nuisance. By the same token a gloriously sloppy Sonoran-style hot dog ($6)—a near knockwurst-size weenie wrapped in crispy bacon and topped with coleslaw and black-bean puree—is worth all the chile mayo you'll need to wipe off your gob.
While tacos might be grill-kissed carne asada or al pastor or stewy chicken tinga, ($3-$4), they're uniformly piled high on unremarkable corn tortillas and drenched in an assortment of salsas. They may be the weak link in this slapdash mode of prep, but across the mercado at the Peruvian Chaufa Wok, the arroz aeropuerto ($14) is a frighteningly delicious soy-splashed, carb-loaded mess of crispy fried noodles and rice, chicken, beef, fish, and shrimp—a pile of food you'll need to start shoveling down before a stronger, more cunning predator pounces on it.
None of this is to suggest you can't find grace and beauty on your tray. The Brazilian-style Saladero Grill offers perhaps the best steak value in town: eight ounces of tender, beefy skirt steak drizzled with vibrant emerald chimichurri sauce ($11). Add a juicy grilled chorizo ($4) or crumbled chorizo swimming in melted cheese ($4) and you have an enviable mini asado mixto. While the aforementioned ceviche bar may seem imprecise, its adjunct sushi operation produces tightly rolled, surprisingly understated maki, including a volcano roll of compact crabmeat topped with lightly seared salmon and a dab of chipotle aioli ($9).
Meanwhile at the mariscos station, delicately fried items like creamy salt-cod croquettes ($8) contrast with well-shucked if characterless Atlantic whitecap oysters ($15 per half dozen). Finally, among four sopas, the thick tortilla soup ($6), infused with raisiny pasilla chile and loaded with avocado and shredded chicken, might be Latinicity's most sophisticated spoonful.
Pata Negra, the food hall's full-service restaurant, which sits in the center of the space, holds up against any Spanish tapas operation in the city. Brochettes of candied bacon-wrapped dates are held in check by crumbles of punchy Cabrales cheese ($11). Tight, gamy meatballs ($11) sizzle in a pepper-tomato sauce that surrounds a gooey poached egg. Superfresh shrimp ($10) practically leap from a hot garlic-butter bath. A four-ounce Iberico secreto steak ($25), sliced thin on the bias, is an indulgence of pure porky goodness that only the rare breed can offer. There's nothing better with which to wash everything down than a bottle of Asturian Trabanco cider ($36).
The other main focal point of Latinicity is a large wraparound bar that stocks a commendable list of Spanish, Portuguese, and South American wines, plus a deep rum and tequila list (regrettably not yet printed). From here retrieve cocktails like a respectable rum old-fashioned ($12), made with five-year-old El Dorado, or a smoky-spicy Silencio Por Favor ($13), made with mescal and sweetened with maraschino and green chartreuse, and repair to the spacious dining area.
Latinicity's greatest value may be to the perpetually underserved lunch crowd in the Loop, which despite all its progress continues to disappoint this captive audience. Under the rough edges there's a lot of generally solid pan-Latin food that could keep these poor folk happy indefinitely. v