Jokingly I suggest to Ricardo Caballero that his Mexican cooking is so distinctive because he spent so many years working at French restaurants.
He is not amused. "I come from 400 years of great cooking. Our culture is very high--it is not all tacos and burritos. We've got very fine restaurants."
Caballero does acknowledge that, though his family had restaurants back in Monterrey, he learned most about cookery by watching the chefs at the dozens of great restaurants where he worked as a waiter and captain.
Listening to him recount his remarkable string of restaurant gigs is like hearing an oral history of the city's fine-dining scene during the last third of the century. He crossed the border in 1964 at age 15, landing a busboy job at the Como Inn. Three years later he made waiter at Eli's, the still-great steakhouse. Then it was on to Jacques, the elegant operation at 900 N. Michigan run by Ray Castro, then the city's potentate of high cuisine. Caballero continued on to the rest of the Castro group: Cafe de Paris, Mon Petit, the Sea Gull--all viewed as top-of-the-line eateries until the 70s, when Jovan Trboyevic revolutionized the Chicago dining scene with his nouvelle cuisine at Jovan and later Le Perroquet. Caballero moved onward and upward to those haute citadels as well, with stops at Doro's, the city's first really fancy Italian spot, and the great old bistros La Cheminee on Dearborn and L'Escargot on Halsted. Also to Arnie's and to Morton's steakhouse--even to La Mer, the exquisite French seafood spot run by Morton with Jean Banchet, perhaps the finest chef ever to work in the Chicago area.
Caballero's round, mustachioed face beams as he recites the long list. "I always told my relatives back home, 'You can always find a job in Chicago!'"
Some of the people he worked with went on to their own fine-dining ventures: Paco Sanchez, a waiter at La Cheminee, opened the city's first elegant Spanish restaurant, the recently shuttered La Paella. "Carlos Nieto was my busboy at L'Escargot," Caballero says--long before Nieto founded the four-star Carlos in Highland Park.
Caballero's ambitions were slightly less grandiose: he wanted a Mexican restaurant where he could remain true to his ethnic roots while exercising his own culinary creativity. He opened his first version of Las Cazuelas at 4904 N. Pulaski in 1989, then moved two years ago into a building he renovated himself at the corner of Elston and Lawrence. The 100-seat restaurant is tastefully decorated with paintings, tiles, metalwork, and a gigantic, ornate birdcage (without birds). Most of the walls have full-length windows, creating an especially airy feel, though there's not much to see.
There are two menus: the standard card featuring all the usual suspects--fajitas, guacamole, tamales, chicken mole, chiles rellenos, and so forth--and one with the day's long list of specials. To create that menu, Caballero scours the markets early every morning, checking what's good and fresh, and puts it all into his mental culinary computer.
One morning some fresh lobster inspires a stunning appetizer of lobster enchiladas topped with a compote of mango and other tropical fruits ($6.75). Fresh asparagus is turned into a rich, unique quesadilla ($4.75). On another day the special quesadilla involves portobello mushrooms ($4.50). Caballero turns large sea scallops into a winning dish by dusting them with a Mexican spice combination, searing them until a light crust forms, and serving them in a shallow pool of lightly textured tomato-chipotle pepper sauce: flavorful without excess heat ($15.95). Tender rib-eye steak gets a hearty ranchero sauce ($14.50). On one of my visits he had picked up Chilean sea bass, which was grilled to a light char and splashed with garlic-cilantro pesto, one of Caballero's really fascinating inventions ($15.50). His guiding principle when out shopping and dreaming up ideas is, "If I don't like it, I don't make it!"
Even standard dishes are especially well rendered, distinguished by Caballero's choice of seasonings. The complimentary salsa is spicy but complex, not overwhelming, in its heat--possibly the best I've tasted in town. The guacamole ($5.25) has a lovely, slightly chunky texture, fully seasoned but mild; if you like it hotter, a splash of the salsa does the trick. Queso fundido ($4.75), the molten chihuahua cheese fondue, is laden with crumbled chorizo and hit with a scattering of cilantro leaves for one of the best renderings of this lushly rich dish in recent memory. Caballero's standard mole is based on a recipe from Oaxaca, birthplace of the seven great moles of Mexican cookery. It is dark and glistening, with great depth of flavor, excellent on the chicken ($9.95) and even better on the pork ($10.75). One surprising item on the standard appetizer menu will keep me coming back: grilled sweetbreads, which are finely chopped and served in pico de gallo, a blend of onion, tomato, and pepper. Wrapped in a tortilla, this dish is pure bliss ($5.50).
At fancier and costlier places in town, the internationalization of certain Mexican dishes decimates their essential ethnic character. What makes this restaurant's fare so appealing is that it is clearly and recognizably Mexican, genuinely enhanced by Caballero's innovations.
Oh, yes: the margaritas are fabulous. They're traditional--no slush--and are by themselves worth the trip.
Las Cazuelas, 4821 N. Elston, is open Tuesday through Friday for lunch and dinner, Saturday and Sunday for dinner only, and closed Monday. Call 773-777-5304. --Don Rose
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ricardo Caballero by Robert Drea.