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The Cooking Life

Eye Caramba!



Eyeball tacos built Viliulfo Andablo's new Berwyn restaurant, El Chimbombo. Those are tacos de ojos, warm tortillas wrapped around chopped and seasoned orbs plucked from steamed lamb heads. For five hard years, Andablo has hawked them at a buck and a quarter from a stand in the new Maxwell Street market, along with tacos de trompas, lengua, cachetes, and sesos--lips, tongue, cheeks, and brains.

Traditional Mexican barbacoa, or barbecue--where the meat is wrapped in leaves, set over a vegetable-filled pot, and slow cooked in a sealed underground pit--varies regionally and makes use of all sorts of animals. In Mexico "poor people try to find a way to not spend too much money," says Andablo. "So they put the heads because it's real cheap and real tasty and they find a way to make more for the customers."

When he was four years old Andablo's family left their tiny mountain village in the central state of Queretaro for Mexico City, where a few years later he spent school vacations working at a taco stand. He liked to cook and often tried to duplicate classic Mexican cuisine at home, but for a while his life took a different track. As a teen he discovered he had a talent for racewalking, and by the age of 15 he was traveling the world with the national team. At one point he was ranked third in the country. He was on his way to the 1988 summer Olympics when he lost his spot on the team. The coaches never told him why.

Disillusioned, he left Mexico for Chicago, determined to make something of himself. He worked for a time in his brother's restaurant, Pare y Coma, and then as an elotero in Pilsen. After a year and a half he went home for a visit, met his wife, and stayed for seven years, training the national women's racewalking team and selling cars on the side.

"But I just see in Mexico you don't have a future," he says. In 1996 he brought his family back. He worked in his sister's Cicero restaurant, El Mason, for a while and saved money.

To his discriminating taste, the food in his sister's place, as in most U.S. Mexican restaurants, just wasn't authentic. "They think it's Mexican food," he says. "It's not real Mexican. I try to cook the old way, the original way." He began scheming to open his own place. "When I was an athlete, I was going for the gold medal, right?" he explains. "There's no gold medal when you're working for someone else's business." He quit his sister's restaurant and became a guerrilla elotero in Cicero, selling out of a van, keeping an eye out for the police.

After a year he opened his taco stand in the market. It's still open every Sunday from 8 AM to about 3 PM. At first Andablo tried to make barbacoa with cow heads, but something about American beef didn't taste right. "Here something happens with the meat," he says. "The animal grows up fast. In Mexico it's still more natural." So he switched to more expensive lamb.

If the forecast calls for a warm Sunday, Andablo steams three or four lamb heads, collecting the tasty broth that cooks down in the pot. He pulls the meat off the skull and separates it, reserving some for surtida--everything mixed together--and seasons it with an adobo made from guajillo chilies.

On a typical morning at the market he can stretch eight eyeballs out to about 30 tacos. Like sesos, they don't have a strong taste. It's the texture that takes some getting used to. The inevitable comparison to scrambled eggs might help a beginner get them down (or inspire a switch to cereal and toast in the morning). Tacos de cachetes are a better seller. Andablo orders boxes of cheeks, enough to make 150 tacos a day. They have a more familiar, savory flavor, like a tender pot roast. Tacos al pastor and carne asada are still the most popular, and on a good day Andablo might sell 1,400 tacos at the market.

Two years ago he'd set aside enough money to buy a large storefront on Cermak. To save on decorating, he bought a truck, drove it to Mexico, and filled it with a few tons of artisanal tiles and fixtures. Problems with his electrical contractor held up the opening of El Chimbombo until this past October. By then he'd depleted his savings and was forced to open with what he calls a "provisional menu."

Already it ventures far from the standard anglicized taqueria formula, though with the threat of mad cows roaming the land it's getting a little tamer. Until recently Andablo's sesos came from cows, but with the government ban on beef brains, they're off the menu. He serves barbacoa in the new place, but no eyeballs. Anyone intent on getting a piece of such a prize should order the conglomerated cabeza tacos. Less intimidating tacos can be had, but none should be consumed without a bowl of the consomme de carnero, which distills the richest essence of the barbacoa.

The quesadillas, gorditas, huaraches, and sopes are handmade and can be stuffed with the usual fillings as well as less appreciated ones like pork rinds, zucchini blossoms, mushrooms, and huitlacoche, the earthy and delicious black corn smut. Andablo says his tortas are of a style served only in Mexico City.

Most of the menu focuses on meats from the grill. For now the mixed grills and poblano specials--various chopped meats and peppers blanketed with Chihuahua cheese--are the heaviest and most elaborate plates. They're the most expensive too, topping out at $7.75.

Andablo's enterprising nature won't let him leave it at that. Rabbit, Cornish hen, seafood, and breakfast will show up in a couple months, and "we're gonna have different enchiladas--the real ones," he says. "If you go to one, two, three, four, five Mexican restaurants, you find the same thing. I'm gonna make something different, something traditional, something real."

El Chimbombo is at 6725 Cermak, Berwyn, 708-484-9420.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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