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Texican’s Tex-Mex classics put Taco Bell to shame

Former Dodo chef Kim Dalton redeems the much-maligned border cuisine.

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The 1966 paella western The Texican starred Audie Murphy as a former Texas lawman on the lam in Mexico who rides back across the border to avenge his newspaperman brother's death at the hands of the town's crooked political boss, Luke Starr, played by a well-lubricated Broderick Crawford. Murphy's character, Jess Garlin, who up until then was living easy with his Mexican girlfriend, is a good stand-in for the weird border cuisine that developed over the centuries among Tejanos, pre-Republican Texans of Spanish or Mexican descent. For one thing, he's pretty cheesy. And not very spicy.

Tex-Mex has given us chili con carne, chili con queso, chimichangas, hard-shell tacos, Frito pie, and ground beef-stuffed enchiladas smothered in red salsa and melted yellow cheese. It's also given us Chi-Chi's, Old El Paso dinner kits, and Taco Bell, corporate behemoths that have incorrectly defined Mexican cuisine for untold numbers of the guileless, all over the world. Tex-Mex, like Hollywood's history of cultural miscasting, has taken some unfortunate turns over the years.

Texican is also the name of a new counter-service Tex-Mex restaurant on the near north side, a small spot located in a canyon of soulless new high-rise residential developments along Larrabee Street—part of what people used to call Cabrini-Green. Times have changed, but either way, psychically speaking you couldn't be farther from Mexico than if you were in the Queen Elizabeth Islands. I recently argued that with the return of chef Diana Dávila at Mi Tocaya, Logan Square has become ground zero for progressive Mexican food in Chicago. Here, in the shadow of Groupon HQ, not so much.

Instead chef Kim Dalton, formerly of Ukrainian Village's late, lamented Dodo, is offering a focused menu of iconic Tex-Mex dishes that appeal most in their assured simplicity, and their ability to satisfy the primal craving for chicken enchiladas layered with melted cheddar, sauteed red peppers, and sour cream, all drizzled with crema and enfattened with avocado. That's the King Ranch Casserole, a kind of Tex-Mex lasagna, that under the appropriate conditions can induce the kind of coma that is the only effective treatment for certain high-grade hangovers.

You can find a few of those treatments on the brief breakfast-and-lunch menu. Take it to go or stay at one of the handful of tables where you'll very likely hear David Byrne and George Jones before Selena or Los Palominos. There's Topo Chico in the display case along with Mexican Coke and La Colombe coffee on ice, as well as a stretch of Texas sheet cake black as an oil spill.

Those enchiladas will probably be of service. Two flour tortillas shelter a molten Wisconsin cheddar core, blanketed in crimson coloradito sauce mingling topside with the external cheese flow. And there's similar salvation in a coercively ample mound of chili mac: springy pasta elbows enrobed in cheese and Texas chili.

Tex-Mex has its rules, and how Dalton approaches them shows that she's no pedant. To many dogmatic Texans, adding beans to chili is a sin akin to putting ketchup on a Chicago hot dog. In this regard Dalton is an apostate, offering her bowl (or cup) of red with chopped top sirloin, with or without pintos. Cumin, the defining spice of this particular species, announces its presence in Dalton's chili, and a bowl sets off at least one alarm: the thick beefy, tomato-based brew lavished with sour cream and cheese will flood your gray matter with glutamates.

If the richness of it all gets too exhausting, a pair of punchy sides are on hand as eye-openers: a bowl of esquites proves to be the spiciest thing on the menu, while a pink-tinged lime slaw is precisely the sort of drain cleaner your pipes deserve during this sort of workout.

Tacos are an essential element of this Tex-Mex survey, with a pair of sauteed shrimp iterants providing some of the menu's few lighter bites. But it's the pork guisado tacos that put Texican in the game. Yeah, yeah, they're on mass-produced flour tortillas—that's the side of the border you're on now. But for that, the brick-red pork, slow simmered in tomatillo salsa, showered with cilantro, queso fresco, and pickled red onion, can stand up to the best of them. Dalton pokes the silly Austin-versus-San Antonio breakfast taco hornet's nest by coming down on the state capital's side, offering hers "Austin-style" (a distinction without a difference), one with scrambled eggs, potato, and chorizo, and another a texturally compelling migas taco with scrambled eggs, peppers, onions, cheddar, and crunchy strips of fried tortilla.

There's a fairly tight border between breakfast and lunch at Texican. You likely can't get those breakfast tacos after 11 AM. Same goes for the chorizo breakfast sandwich lightly tinged cilantro-green on ciabbatta with scrambled eggs and Wisconsin brick cheese (approximating traditional asadero), and the rajas quiche, a slice of egg pie with roasted poblano strips.

The only outlier on Dalton's menu is an alluring french toast bread pudding: light, compressed croissant with lemon curd drizzled in blueberry compote—a wistful reminder of long-gone Dodo brunches.

Dalton doesn't expect to bust open borders with Texican. But aside from the chains there's currently no dedicated independent Tex-Mex restaurant in Chicago. So in that regard she's a lot like Jess Garlin at the end of The Texican, the scrappy outlaw plugging big, bad Luke Starr full of holes.   v

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