How many Mexican moms go to the trouble of making smoked chicken stock for fideos secos? Toasted pasta simmered in chile-spiked tomato sauce, the dish is the SpaghettiOs of Latin America, a beloved childhood favorite that's rarely more complicated than that.
But Diana Dávila smokes her stock. She also sweats pasilla chiles, peppercorns, cumin, chicken livers and gizzards, oregano, and bay leaves before adding some burnt tortilla for good measure. When it's strained and added to the noodles you can barely see the bottom of the bowl, and then it's garnished with epazote, scallions, and chintextle, a Oaxacan salsa composed of wild greens, dried corn silk, cricket powder, pasilla and mulatto chiles, sesame seeds, bay and avocado leaves, roasted garlic oil, and more epazote. "I almost feel like a witch when I make this," she says."
Her kids love it, and this was easily the favorite dish at my table on visits to Dávila's new restaurant, Mi Tocaya, in Logan Square, a neighborhood that with the earlier openings of Dos Urban Cantina and Quiote has become a hotbed for progressive Mexican food.
The fideos didn't speak to us because we had mothers that made it when we were children, or even because we have pre-Hispanic roots that it was nourishing. We all liked it because for some reason, it reminded us of Cincinnati chili (which is even stranger because the dish contains no cinnamon, the defining spice of CC). Dávila remarks that instead her fideos eat more like ramen. And that's true too—though not an austere, traditional bowl but one of the big, bold, palate-flooding, cheffy soups we've seen in the last few years of the ramen wars.
Dávila's food is big and bold, and there's always a lot going on in it—it's always in your face. And you'll want to put it in your face. The question is: Are you strong enough to stand up to it? An unfortunately vocal minority who visited Dávila's last posting—Andersonville's ill-fated Cantina 1910—wasn't prepared for her particular vision of Mexican food.
But here in this snug corner spot on Logan Boulevard she's in a better place, and guests are piling their tables with a quartet of tacos: sweet butternut squash with cooling corn crema, smoked and shredded beer-can chicken with a tequila-simmered prickly pear salsa borracha, gnarly nibs of al pastor, and the triple-threat campechano—al pastor, chorizo, and carne asada.
These are among Dávila's most conventional dishes at Mi Tocaya. And because she's a chef who never wants to ape another, much less repeat herself, even her most classically familiar plates are complicated.
The guacamole, smashed with raw garlic, salt, lime, and garlic oil, is sprinkled with a nutty-tasting black ash culled from the incinerated remains of the kitchen's chile seedings. A ceviche is made from finely diced Sonoran shrimp brined in their own shell stock, then soaked in lime juice. It's dressed to order with a vinaigrette of herb oil, juiced serrano and lime, leche de tigre, radishes, and scallions. A dish servers are pitching as "Mexican tartare" is tenderized and minced raw outer skirt steak seasoned with coriander, cumin, black peppercorn, chile, lime juice, and Maggi seasoning (the ace in the hole for a michelada). Fish such as (so far) tuna, bass, and fluke aren't commonly served with mole, but here their delicate flesh comes draped with a springlike mole verde incorporating a riot of greens, seeds, spices, fruits, and vegetables: blistered romaine, spinach, watercress, mint, fennel, cilantro, epazote, parsley, hoja santa, sesame seeds, pepitas, cinnamon, allspice, tomatillos, and poblanos. Sweetbreads, sliced cutlet style, are fried and served with a salsa Veracruzana just as a whole red snapper would be, the crispy batter melding with olives, orange, and tomato.
But Dávila isn't overreaching for originality. Many of her dishes are born out of personal memory and family history. Her uncle's lengua con salsa de cacahuate is rendered as chunks of pillow-soft tongue (minus the papillae) and seared half radishes drizzled with thick ropes of smooth, creamy arbol-spiked peanut salsa. The restaurant's logo is the cactus, chosen in part for the ubiquity of nopales in the Mexican diet, and here Dávila presents them in a thick, chunky guisado with the surprising addition of some lightly fried cheese curds and a garnish of the most potently herbal papalo I've ever whiffed. The best part of the queso fundido is a thin, isolated layer of melted, charred chihuahua and butterkase cheeses topped by roasted poblanos and crisped longaniza sausage.
Dávila couldn't abide the subpar commercial domestic cheeses available for the signature dish of San Luis Potosí, her family's hometown, so she concocted a blend of queso cincho and soured queso fresco to give her tiny, ravioli-like enchiladas potosinas the proper tang.
The only real concern I have about Dávila's return to the scene is that if you order as broadly as I do, the intense and complex seasonings, particularly with regard to salt, can exhaust the palate. That's something a handful of draft cocktails—say, the hibiscus-infused mezcal, gin, and chartreuse Chicana, or the elderflower margarita, or even a foamy house-made nitro horchata—can help address. And as complicated as the front of the meal can be, at dessert it's fairly simple, the offerings limited to an outsourced tres leches cake and a cool, creamy flan de queso drizzled with sorghum and sprinkled with cheese.
Diana Dávila is one of the most confident chefs I've ever met. If there's anything she's ever wanted, it's to be her own chef and to speak originally—about herself and her experience—through food. At Mi Tocaya, more than ever, she's absorbed her own culinary history and identity. She cooks from memory, channeling the food of uncles, aunts, childhood snacks, and iconic dishes that speak to the soul of cities, states, and Mexico itself. v