After yoga I slip into this lethargic trance during which almost nothing can unnerve me. So when Vicky Ortega, the gracious hostess at Chapulin, broke the news about the pending liquor license, I didn't flinch. A beer might have edged me into a relaxation coma. Once I sampled the work of chefs and co-owners Don Hill and Dudley Nieto, however, I was shocked back into consciousness. This is the real thing: subtle, delightful Mexican cuisine.-Leah Eskin
PICADITAS SURTIDAS Little cornmeal boats often set sail under the generic name "sopes," consigned to mundane quick-snack duty. These reflagged picaditas are sheer delight; each flaky raft delivers an introduction to one of Chapulin's signature sauces. The tomatillo is fresh and bright, chipotle smoky dark, cascabel a wondrous mystery as thick and alluring as a Raymond Chandler plot.
QUESADILLAS DE CUITLACOCHE Curious corn mushrooms--black, slippery, and sweet--snuggle into a sticky satisfying asadero cheese melt.
CHAPULINES I wasn't up to munching toasted bugs. Probably never will be--even if grasshoppers are supposed to symbolize good fortune.
SOPA TARASCA Tortilla soup dressed to kill. Beans and tomatoes thicken the chicken stock into a velvety base, the perfect foil for the crunchy tortilla strips, sharp lime, sweet avocado, and indulgent cream strutting across the top.
PATO EN MOLF NEGRO A masterpiece. Perfectly gritted duck breast, miraculously free of fatty chewiness, warmed under a blanket of the richest, darkest mote negro, resonant with deep chocolate arid Smoky chilhuacle chords. You probably will be too engrossed to notice, but the accompanying rice is charmingly decorated with cactus cutouts, and the tortillas--homemade and tucked into one of those adorable tortilla-cozies--are the genuine article. They're flaky, intensely corn-flavored, and free of that strange soapiness that seems to distinguish tortillas stateside.
PECHUGA AZTECA Tender chicken folded over more of those little mushrooms (I preferred them paired with tortillas) is a delicious pretext for the real attraction: a subtle, smoky mole rojo.
SALMON FEN MOLE VERDE Salmon, still retaining its jellied pink center, wrapped up in hoja santa--a big leaf somewhere in the sage/anise/parsley neck of the woods--with a dusty edge. Not my favorite herb, but interesting. Accompanied by a pleasingly nutty pumpkinseed mote, not to mention glossy black beans reduced to a, heavenly puree.
Chapulin, at 1962 N. Halsted serves dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5 to 10:30, Friday and Saturday 5 to 11:30, and Sundays 5 to 10. The restaurant is closed Mondays. Phone 665 8677.