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Two Takes on Yucatecan Cuisine

Beyond the Burrito

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Xni-Pec Restaurant

5135 W. 25th, Cicero

708-652-8680

Xel-Ha

710 N. Wells

312-274-9500

Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the Chicago area got a rare Yucatecan restaurant when Xni-Pec (pronounced "shnee peck") opened in Cicero last May. "We didn't want to do any advertising until we were ready," explains owner Antonio Contreras. His mother runs the kitchen, and his grandmother has come up from Yucatan several times to help with the recipes.

Then in January, Dudley Nieto (Chapulin, Adobo Grill) opened an upscale Yucatecan restaurant on the north side: Xel-Ha (pronounced "shell ha"). When I first visited last month it still hadn't had its grand opening. Says Nieto, "It takes time to train our staff to make these traditional recipes."

I've been to both restaurants several times over the past two months, and each has seemed better each visit.

Unlike the foods of many other Mexican regions, Yucatecan cuisine isn't inherently spicy, so you can savor the flavors without heat or amp it as you please with xni-pec and other incendiary salsas. Xni-pec means "dog nose," and you'll understand how it got its name when you try it and your snout gets all hot and wet.

Cochinita pibil is a typical Yucatecan dish: pork spread with a paste of ground annatto seeds, lime, and vinegar, wrapped in banana leaves and baked in a pit. This pre-Columbian preparation is served with bright pink pickled red onion, which supplies a welcome acidic note to the silky pork. Huevos Motulenos--the finest rendition of this dish I've had outside the dusty town of Motul--are eggs on a tostada, sprinkled with ham, cheese, peas, and salsa and paired with black beans and a little mound of rice, with a disk of plantain. For dessert there's calabaza y comote, a sugary blend of a pumpkinlike squash and a sweet-potato-like tuber, candied and served with a slice of orange, another example of a basic but delicious preparation of common ingredients. Beverages include a light, refreshing melon water--cantaloupe juice and water--or, more exotic, xtabentun, a flowery honey liqueur flavored with anise.

One day we were served red tortillas, and when we asked why they were dyed, our server had a simple answer: "Because it's fun."

Meanwhile, on the north side, Xel-Ha is one of Chicago's most elegant Mexican dining spaces, with linen tablecloths, a fireplace, a stylish back room, and a mammoth mahogany bar staffed by a knowledgeable bartender and stocked with premium tequilas. Chef Nieto is justly proud of his version of queso relleno, which is Edam stuffed with seasoned ground beef in white sauce. (This dish became popular after a Dutch cargo ship crashed off the coast of Mexico and the locals suddenly found themselves awash in foreign cheese.) Served with sweet raisins, olives, and saffron, it's a characteristic fusion of Native American, European, and Middle Eastern traditions.

Nieto also turns out a traditional rendition of turkey, a Yucatecan native, in black recado, a chile paste that's been around since the Mayans' heyday. Made with a form of the herb epazote peculiar to the region, it comes with a tomato "crepe" sprinkled with queso for visual contrast with the dark bird.

Orange--especially bitter orange--is a common ingredient in Yucatecan cuisine, and Nieto's zin de venado, shredded venison (also native), is served with orange sauce and tamulada, a salsa made with habanero chiles and roasted tomatoes. Yucatecans favor sourness and chile heat, both of which add dimension even to staples like corn and beans. Contreras and Nieto have both faced challenges sourcing ingredients such as chaya, the so-called "Mayan spinach," that give this cuisine its distinct and outstanding flavor profile. Contreras has a family member down in Mexico send him bottles of bitter orange juice--he hasn't been able to find it in Chicago.

Contreras says he wants people to know "that not all Mexican food is tacos and quesadillas." "You're not going to see burritos" at his restaurant, Nieto promises. --David Hammond

For more on restaurants, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.

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