Fourth in a series devoted to Chicago restaurants offering regional Mexican dishes
Veracruz, a long, thin strip on the Caribbean coast, is the home of the musical form son jarocho, the best-known example of which is undoubtedly "La Bamba." At El Tajin, high above sacred ground where Totonac peoples once engaged in sacrificial soccer matches, you can still watch voladores ("flyers") dressed in ceremonial garb and ritualistically whirling on poles. The seafood-based cuisine reflects the influence of the Totonac and the Spanish (no surprise there), but also incorporates West African ingredients thanks to the slaves who arrived with Cortez from Cuba.
Huachinango a la Veracruzana
The Spanish brought several ingredients essential to huachinango a la Veracruzana (Veracruz-style red snapper), perhaps the most popular Mexican fish preparation. Traditionally the snapper is simmered whole in a complex tomato puree with olives, capers, and garlic. In Chicago, however, the fish is often deep-fried, a technique rare in old-school Mexican cooking but faster and easier. A survey of places that offer the dish turns up a number of variations on the classic sauce. At Hacienda Tecalitlan (820 N. Ashland, 312-243-1166) and Real de Catorce (1134 W. 18th, 312-421-9502) the deep-fried fish is served with red and yellow sweet peppers; at Pancho Pistolas (700 W. 31st, 312-225-8808) it comes with sliced avocado instead of olives, an inexplicable substitution. At El Barco (1035 N. Ashland, 773-486-6850) the whole fried fish comes mounted upright, which looks pretty cool but is hardly authentic to Veracruz, and the accompanying tomatoes, olives, and onions get shoved off to the side. If you have 45 minutes, though, they'll steam the fish and serve it in a sauce closer to the real thing--you might just find it worth the wait. One of the more traditional versions of the dish I found was at Taqueria Amigo Chino (5601 W. Irving Park, 773-685-4374): steamed whole snapper over a platter of olives and vegetables (including obviously frozen peas and carrots) drizzled with a tomato-based salsa.
Caldo de Mariscos, Pico de Gallo Jarocho, and Pollo Encacahuatado
Coastal Veracruz is home to a number of fish soups. Playa Azul (1514 W. 18th, 312-421-2552) serves a tasty caldo siete mares, "seven seas soup," as well as several other dishes labeled "Veracruzana" or "jarocho" (both mean "from Veracruz"), for instance, pico de gallo jarocho, a melange of shrimp, octopus, and whitefish with tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and chopped jalapenos. Los Nopales (4544 N. Western, 773-334-3149) dishes up a memorable caldo de mariscos (at $19.95 the most expensive item on the menu) that's packed with shrimp, scallops, calamari, mussels, and little else. But seafood soups sometimes feature starches such as yuca, plantain, or sweet potato, all examples of the West African influence on Veracruzan cuisine. The peanut, another African native, finds its way into pollo encacahuatado, chicken in peanut sauce, a Veracruzan favorite not commonly found on Chicago menus. Rick Bayless, forever the champion of lesser-known regional dishes, does offer chicken in a peanut-filled green mole at Frontera Grill (445 N. Clark, 312-661-1434).
The ancient Totonac peoples cultivated vanilla, and its use is still common in Veracruz, one of the world's richest sources of this orchid bean. At Fonda del Mar (3749 W. Fullerton, 773-489-3748), where the menu features a range of regional specialties, you'll find an exceptional camarones xanath, shrimp in sweet vanilla sauce. Vanilla is also a key ingredient in horchata, the sweet, creamy rice-bodied drink that so well complements piquant Mexcian food. Horchata is widely available; among other places you can find it at Rique's Regional Mexican Food (5004 N. Sheridan, 773-728-6200), another source for specialties from many Mexican states.
Flan frequently contains a hefty dollop of vanilla, and while rubbery forms of the custard are available all over town, you can sample a remarkably airy and soft flan "cake" at Gelatinas Cris (4725 S. Cicero, 773-582-8162), a little shop that specializes in gelatin desserts. One of the best flans I've had was at Rudy's Taste Cafe (1024 N. Ashland, 773-292-3666), which also serves the Chicago version of huachinango a la Veracruzana--deep-fried, sauce on the side.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Elizabeth M. Tamny.