The list of chefs who've cooked under the Bayless banner and then gone out to spread the gospel of Rick is long: Kahan. Satkoff. Arreola. Valencia. Bahena. Pine. Enyart. I'm sure I've forgotten plenty, but there's no arguing that this diaspora has affected the evolution of Mexican food in the United States in much the same way that Charlie Trotter's many minions have influenced fine dining everywhere. Anselmo Ramirez, a native of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero and a longtime cook at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, is the latest to strike out on his own, bringing a somewhat dated but very much needed breath of fresh cilantro to Albany Park.
Lately a number of cheffy midscale restaurants have opened there, joining the neighborhood's abundance of taquerias, tamaleros, and South American chicken spinners. And now there's Ramirez's Ixcateco Grill, installed in a storefront that once housed the perpetually deserted Pollo Volador. A space that was dreary and institutionally lit has been warmed significantly by bright two-tone color schemes and vivid folkloric paintings by general manager Antone Jacobs, another Frontera vet. Also prowling the grounds is retired Topolobampo maitre d' Lester Butcher, an elegantly dressed silver fox who lends the proceedings a dignity that the earnest but occasionally diffident servers have yet to achieve.
Ramirez, who got his start at Frontera as a dishwasher and later spent time at Prairie Grass, presents a concise menu of four appetizers and five entrees, with the usual pledges of using seasonal, local, and organic products when possible. His style of plating, particularly with regard to the entrees, is very much rooted in the mid-90s Frontera school: a piece of protein, a portion of starch, and a pool of rich, deeply pigmented mole or brightly acidic sauce ample enough for a happy while to be spent dredging it up with the thin, blistered tortillas freshly griddled—in this case by the chef's own mother.
It's difficult not to root for the success of this ambitious family operation (two of Ramirez's daughters are putting in time in the front of the house too), and if there's going to be a linchpin for that outcome it's not going to be the conservative approach Ramirez is taking, but rather that rainbow of moles and sauces, beginning with the chunky sweet-and-sour tomatillo salsa that arrives with your basket of tortilla chips. By contrast, the accompanying yellow habanero salsa is piercingly hot—together they create a nice balance of pleasure and pain.
Ramirez's claim to fame is his stygian mole, with subtle chile heat and bitter chocolate notes, the ideal accompaniment for relatively neutral-flavored garlic mashed potatoes and sliced chicken breast. There's nothing wrong with that breast--it's moist and adequately cooked--but I think in general people can agree it's the most boring part of the chicken. Put out a couple thighs or legs and you'd have something.
The menu promises that a tatume squash stuffed with vegetables and draped with melted Chihuahua cheese will come with yellow mole, though on one visit it appeared and tasted more like a classic brick-red coloradito mole, spiced with anchos and redolent of clove and cinnamon. Thinly sliced adobo-marinated pork loin, grilled over wood and served with an intimidating mound of mashed sweet potatoes, luxuriates in an inky tomatillo-pasilla chile sauce spiked with mescal. The grill also imparts good smoke to shell-on shrimp, plated with rice and oyster mushrooms and a creamy tomato sauce that's herbaceous with epazote. Grilled skirt steak, also marinated in adobo, receives the most minimal treatment: a side of black beans and a crushed-tomato salsa.
This abbreviated selection of entrees can be preceded by a guacamole (textbook but for the inclusion of sliced green apple); a firm, fresh tilapia ceviche; a green salad with mango, crushed cashews, and a gingery agave dressing; or picaditas, a pair of thick masa boats piled with chicken carnitas, creamy avocado sauce, pickled cactus, and crumbled fresh cheese, a likable bite one of my eating partners described as "something you'd serve at a bar mitzvah when you want to be edgy."
Dessert is less appealing: a trio of ice creams--strawberry, coconut, and chocolate by way of Abuelita-brand cocoa—have a glossy, artificial texture that diminishes their individual flavors.
And that's pretty much it. You can cover the menu in just a few outings, so it's fortunate that Ramirez promises to change it up regularly. As it stands, the chef has zeroed in on the perfect location for his fledgling restaurant, BYOB for now and a tremendous value as such. It may not be the future of modern Mexican food, but for Albany Park it's a welcome present. vThis story was corrected to reflect that Ramirez's daughters are working in the front of the house.