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When I visited the small bay of Xel-Ha in the late '70s, it was astoundingly picturesque, the palm trees framing a calm body of water streaked with magenta, azure, and lime green. Today, it’s a water park, drawing crowds from Cancun.
In the 80s, Dudley Nieto began making a name for himself with a beautiful little restaurant in Oak Park called El Rebozo. Nieto’s creations became the inspiration for the book he co-wrote with culinary historian Bruce Kraig, The Cuisines of Hidden Mexico, and early on he seemed destined for great things--some of which he went on to achieve at places like Adobo Grill and Zapatista.
Late last month, Nieto launched Xel-Ha, the second of two new restaurants focusing on the food of the Yucatan (the other being Xni-Pec). So far, though, the results are as disappointing as that water park. A ceviche was nearly inedible: the fish mushy, the flavors watery and bland. The classic cochinita pibil--slow-roasted, marinated pork--was dry and lifeless, and carried the chill of the quickly reheated. The panuchos (pictured) were one of the few bright spots, full of the requisite pickled onions, bean-filled sopes, and duck meat shredded on top. But in what alternative universe is it acceptable to serve store-bought tortillas at a high-end place charging more than $20 for an entrée?
Nieto has a deserved name in Chicago, but Xel-Ha has yet to live up to it.