Before I started working for newspapers, I thought that being a food critic conferred upon one a certain kind of power: the ability to strike fear into the hearts of restaurant employees and send them scurrying to do one's bidding, like in the scene in Ratatouille when Anton Ego finally comes to the restaurant, or the part in Ruth Reichl's critic-in-disguise memoir Garlic and Sapphires when she finally gets so disgusted with a restaurant's snooty service and terrible food that she pulls off her wig and unleashes her famous long, dark mane —and mythic New York Times-enhanced superpowers.
Reviewing restaurants is not like that, I am sorry to report. (At least not if you're me. I asked my editor if it was different for Mike Sula. She told me no.) And maybe it's for the best. A review of anything is supposed to describe a representative experience, which a conspicuous critic's is not—unless the restaurant staff habitually fawns over patrons and brings them special dishes created in their honor or expensive glasses of wine and then, at the end, presents them with a bill on which everything is comped.
But still, I thought about Anton Ego and Ruth Reichl the night a few weeks ago when I went to Bar Takito, David Dworshak's West Loop spin-off of Takito Kitchen.
When Takito Kitchen opened in early 2013, Sula wrote in his review that he suspected the taqueria model might limit Dworshak's talents as a chef. It turns out he was right. While Dworshak's tacos are delicious, served warm with an appealing variety of textures and beautifully arranged so that there's a blend of flavors—sweet and spicy and salty—in every bite, they're almost a letdown compared to the rest of the menu at Bar Takito.
At the new restaurant he's allowed himself room to expand—and simultaneously return to his roots at Carnivale. The menu wanders more widely around Mexico—mixiotes from Mexico City, barbacoa from the Caribbean coast, and caldo de mariscos, a seafood soup from Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico—and then leaves altogether, venturing down to South America. There are arepas from Colombia, ceviches from Peru, seafood grilled a la plancha from Argentina, and, at the bar, caiparinhas from Brazil.
But Dworshak and Adam Weber, who devised the cocktails, add their own twists. The polenta, for instance, is creamy, with sweet bits of corn and salty cheese, but Dworshak's also mixed in surprising bits of mildly pungent kimchi. The wild salmon ceviche, a mix of sour and spicy in a way that tingles rather than burns, comes with long, curly, lightly salted plantain chips, which you can use to scoop up the broth. And the aforementioned caiparinha is made with brown sugar instead of white and rum infused with a subtle flavor of pistachio, which adds some complexity that keeps the sweetness from being overwhelming.
Maybe the most surprising dish is the popcorn-butterscotch mousse, the more popular of the two desserts, one of the staff members informed us, and also the superior. Somehow Dworshak has managed to infuse the mousse with the flavor of buttery kettle corn, which is mildly unsettling at first since you associate that particular combination of sweet and salty with something crunchy, not smooth. However, the more you eat, the better it tastes, especially with the sour-sweet passion-fruit syrup puddled underneath. (As for the mocha tres leches cake, my dining companion took a bite, registered the overwhelming flavor of nutmeg, and asked, "Are they trying to get us high?")
At Bar Takito, you're supposed to order many plates at once to share with the rest of the table. At least, I think that's how it's meant to work. But here's the problem: despite the attentiveness of the waitstaff, the dishes emerge from the kitchen with excruciating slowness. It doesn't matter whether it's dinnertime and the dining room is full, or if it's lunchtime and it's empty. A plate is brought to you. You devour everything on it because it is delicious and also because the portion is small. Then you wait as long as 15 minutes for the next one.
You are hungry. Since, despite the name, this is not a taqueria, there is no customary offering of chips and salsa. Conversation flags. You gaze enviously at nearby tables and longingly at anyone who emerges from the back of the house carrying something. Is this for you? It is esquites (corn salad), the waiter announces proudly. It looks and smells delicious. But, you tell the waiter, you did not order esquites. You ordered octopus a la plancha. The bowl of esquites is duly removed. You wait some more. (On a subsequent visit, you will discover that the esquites are indeed delicious, like an especially tasty elote cut from the cob, with extra depth of flavor from brown butter, and you will regret not having asked the waiter to leave them.) The lamb barbacoa, which you did order, arrives. But what of the octopus? The waiter, always eager to help, whisks the lamb off the table, back to the kitchen. All things must come in their proper order. It's enough to make you wish for the terrible fabled power of the critic, just to get some damned food on the table.
The octopus, when it finally does arrive, though, is worth waiting for. Served in olive oil mixed with garlic and chiles, the tentacles are crisp and caramelized outside, firm without being rubbery inside. It comes with smooth, tender, lemony potatoes that soak up the extra olive oil. The only bad thing about it is that it leaves you yearning desperately for more, since the portion's only about ten bites, potatoes included.
The lamb barbacoa is worth the wait too. It's served pulled from the bone, tender and sweet, not gamy, enhanced by pistachios and balanced by black garlic, basil, and queso fresco, and also by the accompanying pickled vegetables and tangy, malty beer tortillas.
And therein lies the paradox of Bar Takito. The food is wonderful. The service is friendly and accommodating, more than willing to apologize for screw-ups (and comp wayward dishes). It's a pleasant place to have a meal. But unless you have the power to get the kitchen to expedite your order, it's not a place to go when you're hungry.