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More Upscale Mex

Eleven contenders in Chicago's burgeoning upscale Mexican scene.

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Chilam Balam

3023 N. Broadway | 773-296-6901

$$

MEXICAN, SMALL PLATES | DINNER: SUNDAY-MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED TUESDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO | cash only

Twenty-three-year-old Chuy Valencia is only the latest—and possibly the youngest—graduate of the School of Bayless to come out of the Frontera/Topolobampo kitchens and stake his own claim. After a pit stop as chef de cuisine at Adobo Grill, in late August he opened Chilam Balam, a cramped but not claustrophobic subterranean spot offering a small-plates menu along with a list of monthly seasonal specials—mostly more antojitos plus a few larger plates. It was a dish from this changing list that would crush my heart: a plate of roasted scallops in sweet corn chilatole, garnished with the year's last cherry tomatoes and wax beans. It disappeared the day after I ate it, as did a salad of the freshest, most vibrant tomatoes of the summer and a mulatto chile-and-chocolate mole, so multidimensional that I barely noticed the slices of lamb leg it was meant to accent. Happily, not all the good stuff is so ephemeral. The braised mushroom-and-cheese empanadas remain, pockets so light and flaky I'm at a loss to explain how they can contain the earthy fungus, braised with pipian verde and epazote. Even something as mundane as a grilled hanger steak transcends itself, plated on a lava field of guajillo sauce. Solid but not quite so mind-blowing efforts include a cross-stacked plate of pasilla-glazed pork ribs accented with radish and queso fresco and a chocolate mousse with a tangy goat cheese core. But I'm scratching my head over the dessert empanadas stuffed with peanut butter and figs, as tough and leaden as the savory ones were miraculous. Still, in a fall restaurant season crowded with upscale-Mexican, small-plate, and farm-to-table menus, Valencia's managed to distinguish himself combining all three. —Mike Sula

Cosina Grill

1706 W. Foster | 773-271-7103

$$$

MEXICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL MIDNIGHT | BYO

Some savor authenticity; for others, it's all about the flavor. Neither, unfortunately, will be found at Cosina Grill, an Andersonville restaurant inexplicably jammed on a weekday night. Guacamole was so stunningly tasteless it could have been mistaken for green mashed potatoes or mayonnaise. The touted Dona Esperanza mole, ladled on a spongy chicken breast, tasted of burnt tar, with none of the sauce's traditional complexity; we couldn't stomach more than a bite or two. The tortilla soup, our server told us, was too spicy for many guests, but we found it had no heat at all. The enchiladas? Also nada. Grilled tilapia was edible because it was just decent fish, not messed with, and so relatively benign though bland. Our hostess, who like everyone here was friendly and outgoing, told us the tortillas were made in-house, but they had the flavor and mouthfeel of mass-produced varieties. Leaving Cosina, I wanted to grab newcomers on their way in and shriek, "For god sakes, flee!" —David Hammond

Cuatro

2030 S. Wabash | 312-842-8856

$$$

LATIN AMERICAN, MEXICAN, BAR/LOUNGE | DINNER: TUESDAY-SATURDAY | SUNDAY BRUNCH | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: THURSDAY-SATURDAY TILL 2

Sophisticated nuevo Latino comfort food in a sophisticated space. Appetizers looked so tempting it was hard to make our choices, but the vegetarian ceviche was a good pick: crunchy hearts of palm, mushrooms, asparagus, avocado, and pico de gallo in a bright-tasting citrus dressing. Flautas de barbacoa, corn cigars stuffed with savory slow-roasted beef and served with a red salsa, were also tasty. But the standout of the evening had to be the moqueca do mar, a seafood stew with saffron-perfumed tomato-coconut milk sauce served with a little dish of rice and a few tostones. Other main dishes include beer-braised beef short ribs and a bone-in double pork chop, one gigantic hunk o' meat. But we still couldn't say no to the Oaxacan chocolate mousse cake with house-made sweet corn ice cream. —Kate Schmidt

Dorado Restaurant

2301 W. Foster | 773-561-3780

$$

MEXICAN, GLOBAL/FUSION/ECLECTIC | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO

At this Ravenswood restaurant, chef Luis Perez applies French bistro cooking techniques to the Mexican food his mother cooked when he was growing up. His brief menu offers unique takes on Mexican favorites like roast pork (his version is a thick tenderloin, rosy and tender and served with a guajillo cream sauce) and delicious combinations like a crunchy almond-crusted trout laced with coconut cream sauce and caramelized plantains, a lovely contrast of earthy and sweet. For dessert there's one of the richest flans around and a moist, light tres leches cake. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Fonda del Mar

3749 W. Fullerton | 773-489-3748

$$$

MEXICAN, SEAFOOD | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | sunday BRUNCH

To kick things off at this restaurant from veterans of Mia Francesca, tacos estilo ensenada (fish tacos) are tasty, with a clump of whitefish dressed with avocado and cabbage, and the shrimp ceviche is a knockout. Soups are spiced with a light hand: seven seas soup is a chile-kissed tomato broth with just a few select slices of seafood; chileatole del mar brims with seafood, peppers, and corn in a tomatillo-based broth seasoned with epazote. A tilapia fillet is served with a rich poblano cream sauce; shrimp get the mojo de ajo treatment; lamb chops in a mole negro are expertly grilled. Of special note on my last visit was a roasted pork loin served in a fruity mole manchamanteles. For our salad we shared a small plate of julienned jicama and cucumber accented with orange segments and drizzled with hot sauce and vinaigrette. —David Hammond

Maya del Sol

144 S. Oak Park, Oak Park | 708-358-9800

$$

MEXICAN, LATIN AMERICAN | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

Frontera alum Ruben Beltran serves pan-Latin offerings in a space balancing a laid-back low-lit dining room and a more extroverted bar space festooned with flat-screen TVs. Like his mentor, Beltran employs fresh, high-quality ingredients in dishes finely shaded with south-of the-border spicing. Flavors in a tuna ceviche, one of three, popped cleanly and were satisfyingly simple. Our salmon was moist, almost sashimi-like at the center, and seasoned with restraint to let its naturally beautiful taste come to the surface. Nachos are quirkily but successfully crowned with pot roast braised in honey and cider vinegar. Moist and savory cochinita pibil, the Yucatecan dish of achiote-marinated pork, is perked up by the traditional accompaniments: red pickled onion, house-made habanero salsa, and handmade tortillas. There's live music every Friday. —David Hammond

Mixteco Grill

1601 W. Montrose | 773-868-1601

$$$

MEXICAN | DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | SATURDAY & SUNDAY BRUNCH | closed Monday | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

Based on the name and the looks of the place, you might take Mixteco Grill for a nicer-than-normal diner, acceptable if unambitious. Don't be fooled: this is a restaurant set on greatness. One bite into the fish tacos and my dining companion pronounced them her favorite ever. The pollito envinado, a little wood-grilled chicken served with red wine-guajillo sauce, gave me new hope for restaurant chicken, too often drab and tasteless, like tofu with legs. Cochinita pibil, the Yucatecan classic, is slow cooked with achiote and other relatively mild spices, then perked up with pickled onions and incendiary habanero salsa. Delicate handmade tortillas add to every dish. The permanent BYO policy seals the deal. —David Hammond

Los Moles

3140 N. Lincoln | 773-935-9620

$$

MEXICAN/SOUTHWESTERN | lunch: Sunday-monday, wednesday-friday; DINNER: SUNDAY-MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | saturday & sunday brunch | closed tuesday | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

Vagabond chef Geno Bahena, one of Rick Bayless's most renowned (and elusive) disciples, returns to ply mole in this modest Lakeview spot. The menu isn't radically different from what we've seen before: lots of moles in pretty presentations, notably the conceptual mar cielo y tierra, sea (shrimp), sky (quail), and land (lamb), each bedded on distinctly flavored, wonderfully complex green, white, and red sauces meant to symbolize the Mexican flag, or a sliced duck breast cooked to exacting specifications in a mild pumpkin-seed mole. Appetizers were particularly good: a murky sopa azteca, redolent of the pasilla chile swimming with chewy strips of tortilla and chicken; a pair of tlacoyos, masa ovoids stuffed with earthy mushrooms and topped with chorizo; and a ceviche whose fresh marlin held up well among olives, tomato, avocado, and chile. Desserts were likewise well done, particularly house-made strawberry ice cream atop a chewy, rustic coconut pie or a light white dulce de leche cake special. In a city increasingly cluttered by average-to-disappointing Mexican fine dining, Bahena—despite his past unpredictability—is still one the city's most talented chefs in this arena. I hope this time he hangs up his saddlebags and stays put. —Mike Sula

Rustico Grill

2515 N. California | 773-235-0002

$$$

MEXICAN | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SATURDAY & SUNDAY brunch | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

Riding the success of Lakeview's Mixteco Grill, chef Raul Arreola has moved on, installing Rustico Grill in the oddly designed void left when the Logan Square comfort-food joint Rustik tanked. It's an uncomfortable space, with flagstone walls, a strange atrium behind the bar, and many dissatisfying sight lines. Maybe Arreola (another Frontera vet) is uninspired by the new surroundings, since he duplicates a great number of dishes from Mixteco and adds only a few twists to others. Signatures such as the creamy uchepos gratinados (tamales with poblano sauce) are here, as is the wonderfully dark and complex lamb in mole negro and plenty more. But what's wrong with more of a good thing? Plus, among the handful of brand-new dishes I tried were two of the best I've eaten all year. Leaves practically started to fall in the dining room when grilled slices of tender, juicy chicken breast arrived fanned across a plate of warm-spiced pumpkin mole with a spaghetti-squash-stuffed baby pumpkin on the side. And a chile relleno en escabeche—filled with potato, chorizo, and poblanos and served with pickled vegetables—was a dark, smoky-sweet flavor bomb that blew every other dish off the table. Then again, the arroz a la tumbada, a mushy, odoriferous seafood paella with a sharp chile bite, was summarily rejected by everyone who tasted it. And a crabmeat salad had a fresh-from-the-can flavor that obviated its interesting potato, carrot, and queso fresco components, leading me to wonder whether sea creatures should simply be avoided here. There is one important difference from Mixteco: Rustico has a liquor license, which allows for a handful of wines, 11 Mexican beers, 17 tequilas, and a short cocktail list. —Mike Sula

Salpicon

1252 N. Wells | 312-988-7811

$$$

MEXICAN | DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | SUNDAY BRUNCH | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

In 1995 Priscila Satkoff was one of the first Topolobampo/Frontera graduates to strike out on her own, and the continued success of Salpicon is as much a credit to her skills as it is to the enduring power of Rick Bayless's tireless advocacy for authentic Mexican cuisine among the gringos. Though she didn't actually cook for Bayless—she was his assistant—the Mexico City native's early training at the side of her mother and grandmother helped propel her tiny Old Town spot to an upscale destination rivaling her old boss's. It continues to bustle, well served by smart waitstaff unafraid to tell you what they think of your order and a sommelier who knows his Super Tuscans just as well as his tequilas. On my last visit we ordered almost entirely from the week's specials and were stupefied by a duck confit dressed with cracklings and a sauce of pomegranate, orange, and chiles; a big, beautiful sloppy lamb shank in mole rojo with a side of bacony chiles and beans; and a mango-pear tart, all showing Satkoff's knack for balancing the sweet, fruity, earthy, smoky, savory, and picante. —Mike Sula

Sol de Mexico

3018 N. Cicero | 773-282-4119

$$

MEXICAN, small plates | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY-MONDAY, WEDNESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED TUESDAY

The sign in the window of this storefront on Cicero near Belmont advertises "tortillas hecho a mano," handmade tortillas, but inside you'll find much more than that. Chef-owner Carlos Tello is a specialist in moles, and Geno Bahena's mother consulted on the menu. On my first visit I savored four: a dark, chocolaty negro, a just slightly hot rojo, the fruit-based manchamanteles, and a mild mole verde made with pumpkin seeds. Tello knows his way around a spice rack—all deliver a quick burn with subtle lightness, the mole verde in particular sparkling with clean flavors. Sopecitos, small masa cups stuffed with moist chicken in mole roja, were magnificently simple; the hard-to-find tamales de elote—served unfilled or "blind"—were remarkably sweet, squiggled with crema and salsa verde and dotted with queso fresco. Like the tortillas, they're handmade. —David Hammond

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