Vlad the Impaler no longer presides over the dining room at 3661 N. Elston. I know this because I’ve seen the photos—not because I’m ready to sit down inside Mis Moles. That’s the new restaurant from Chicago’s most tenacious chef, Geno Bahena, who opened its dining room to the public on Friday—the day the mayor said it was OK to serve food indoors at 25 percent capacity, 50 guests max.
But Bahena, the chef behind a wave of Mexican fine-dining restaurants throughout the aughts, was working on taking over the former Little Bucharest Bistro six months before COVID-19 started sucking the blood of the hospitality industry. He’s been through it all since he left Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in 1999 and opened Ixcapuzalco in Logan Square, followed by Chilpancingo, Geno’s Bar & Grill, and Mi Sueno Su Realidad—all the while consulting on the openings of a whopping 23 others. The man survived his share of restaurant meltdowns, not the least of which were 9/11 and the Great Recession. If anyone is going to work through an unabating pandemic, it’s him.
Bahena has taken his leaves of absence though, most recently over the last four years working a corporate gig for the Wegmans supermarket chain, notably at its erstwhile in-store Blue Dalia Restaurant & Tequila Bar in Natick, Massachusetts.
As he tells it, the main reason for his return was his mom, Clementina Flores, who was threatening to leave her Cragin restaurant Sol de Mexico and go back home to Guerrero as long as Geno wasn’t going to be in town.
So Bahena made a deal with Little Bucharest’s Branko Podrumedzic, the tuica-shot-slinging showman whose resilience matches the chef’s, and probably also the bloodthirsty Transylvanian count whose stained-glass rendering overlooked his dining room.
Podrumedzic, ostensibly retired after 50 years, stashed Vlad by his basement door for his daughter, but he hasn’t gone anywhere. Last week on a beautiful late afternoon he was working the sun-dappled Irving Park patio, chatting up tables at senior hour, unnervingly maskless. (“I know. I know,” he told me later. “I’m doing it now. Geno is the man. I’m just helping out.”)
That happened at a time I figured was the safest to revisit Bahena’s signature moles. It’s been about four months since I sat down at any restaurant, but I’m terribly conflicted about the reopening of them. Just as at the beginning of the pandemic, restaurant workers are among the most threatened workers—both economically and physically. They are working under peril. Tip them like a boss.
Besides that, I dread getting into the business of scrutinizing restaurant safety protocol. Apart from the servers (one of whom kept his nostrils uncovered), I was the only one even intermittently wearing a mask on the patio, which is why the KN95 I staged plateside at the ready for each time anyone approached was blotched with manchamanteles. That’s the “tablecloth stainer,” one of the seven classic Mexican moles that Bahena learned from his mother and grandmother, and made his mark with over the last 21 years. It was rich, warm, and red as blood; sweet with pineapple and plantain; smoldering with ancho and pasilla;and pooled around a fan of sliced duck breast and a pyramid of rice; a classic Bahena plating style that hasn’t changed in decades.
The chef also helped establish housemade tortillas as a standard in Chicago’s upscale Mexican restaurants, rather than a novelty. Those are great too, warm and soft from the comal, the embodiment of corn in an edible utensil, and really the only thing you need to appreciate with these complex master sauces, or rather, “concoctions,” as the Nahuatl translates. With occasional assistance from Clementina, Bahena is featuring one laboriously multilayered mole each day the doors are open—amarillo, chichilo, rojo, verde, and negro—along with a busy fixed menu of apps and entrees that’ll be familiar if you’ve visited practically any of his restaurants over the years.
But it was the mole that drew me out of my hole. It was as good as ever, and as good a reason as any to visit a Bahena spot during a world crisis. If you’re comfortable with that. Bahena says he’s instituted all the recommended safety protocols for the dining room, including distanced tables, relentless wipe downs, and a QR code so you can read the menu on your filthy phone.
But if you’re like me, and you felt more relaxed in the days when the scariest thing in Chicago restaurants was the threat of the undead in the dining room, there’s still carryout. vEds. note: A previous version of this story mistakenly placed Mis Moles in Avondale. It is in Irving Park. See, we really do read the comments.