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Takito Kitchen steers the taqueria into new territory

An ex-Carnivale chef's adventurous take on tacos and other Mexican bites

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The first question that pops into anyone's head when confronted with Takito Kitchen should be "Does Wicker Park need more gringo tacos?" Sure, Big Star's patio overflows anytime the mercury rises above 60, but isn't that what Antique Taco is supposed to take care of? OK, Antique Taco has a Mexican in charge of taco construction, but its atmosphere is as white as a cracker factory.

Takito Kitchen falls into this expanding category of bougie, boutique taquerias. There are no posters of shirtless Aztec warriors with busty princesses at their feet. No sombreros on the sign. No Los Tigres del Norte on the juke. But there is a small collection of antique radios, a sculpture of a squirrel butt on the bathroom door, and Carnivale expat David Dworshak in the open kitchen, slinging some dainty and very pretty tacos.

Dworshak is an eight-year veteran of the pan-Latin behemoth, and he spent two of those years as its executive chef. Like his old boss Mark Mendez, who's since opened Vera, he's downscaled from that massive operation to a small, highly focused, and personal endeavor that puts the chef right in the dining room.

I ate nearly every item on his easily navigable menu and I didn't have a single throwaway bite, beginning with a trio of brightly flavored salsas served not with tortilla chips but with light, brittle rice crackers and something called "masa crackers." These thin, irregularly broken sheets of savory cookie are almost tender, but still hold up to the thick salsas. The vibrant green pistachio-tomatillo salsa is deepened by roasted garlic, onion, and serrano chile; the heat of the arbol chile-based salsa is countered by cucumber, basil, and mint; and the tangy, royal-purple hibiscus variant is loaded with an unthreatening amount of ghost chile pepper.

Dworshak offers as precursors to the tacos a selection of seven shareable plates, and in some cases they steal the show from the main event. There's an outstanding Yucatan-style chile soup, made murky with a green spice blend and thickened with meaty shredded chicken. There's a supersmooth guacamole tarted up with pickled garlic. And there's a bowl of rich, fatty polenta sprinkled with pickled chiles, bacon, and dehydrated corn that lends a much-needed crunch to the otherwise gruel-like bowl. It's also a lesson in how to use local produce out of season (I'm talking to you, Howells & Hood).

For all the hearty pleasures of these dishes, Dworshak can plate some very delicate and sublime ones as well, such as a bass ceviche garnished with pickled carrots, avocado, fermented black garlic, and some of the season's first ramps. You'll see this same precision in the half-dozen tacos on the menu. They come three to an order, their filling meticulously arranged on small, thin, house-made tortillas—say, a braised and shredded chicken tinga adorned with grated cotija cheese and sunflower seeds, or a juicy two-bite beef barbacoa garnished with precisely cut chayote batons.

With these tacos, as with the polenta, Dworshak goes off script, subtly weaving in the influences of other parts of the planet. Crispy redfish is cradled in a purple-tinted hibiscus tortilla and seasoned with toasted coconut and coconut custard, which gives it an unmistakable southeast Asian character. The pork belly is dressed with mozzarella and served on a black sesame-studded tortilla. The best taco in the joint, the "lamb chorizo," is a single sizzling link that's like nothing so much as a North African merguez sausage, draped with a charred and melted slab of Scandinavian (via Wisconsin) Brun-uusto cheese and sprinkled with crushed peanut.

At $10-$11 per order these tacos might induce sticker shock—but they are wonderful. They leave one with the sense that Takito's model is too limiting for Dworshak's talents. A simple side of roasted cauliflower, layered with slices of pickled squash and fresh mozzarella, is an immensely surprising and fresh take on the overexposed vegetable. The two desserts offered are pretty special, too; each comes in a rocks glass, one loaded with thick chocolate ganache and brandied cherries, the other with a relatively light dulce de leche-flavored rice pudding drizzled with blood orange syrup and topped with sunflower seeds.

There's another important component to this compact, tightly run operation: the tequila- and mezcal-based cocktails, constructed in a small exposed bar area next to the kitchen and flush with the front dining room. These, like Dworshak's food, are bright but rarely too sweet—particularly a chile-spiked margarita and a boozy chartreuse-and-sherry-laced cocktail built on an aged but filtered tequila. Apart from those there are nearly 40 agave-based spirits to sip and, less impressively, seven Mexican macrobrews

With all this, Takito Kitchen has managed to raise the stakes for nuevo taquerias in a neighborhood that's beginning to crowd with them. But while Dworshak has succeeded in taking the taco a little bit further than it's gone before, the rest of his food should attract eaters from across the city.

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