The sign outside Más, a new West Loop Mexican restaurant, makes the place look a bit like a Swedish health clinic. "Más," of course, is the Spanish word for "more," and on the slate-colored board there's a red plus sign. The symbol is repeated inside the sleek restaurant too, where it's topped by an accent mark and printed on the menus and on the backs of the servers' black shirts; from the corner of my eye it prompted a few double takes as I imagined I was glimpsing the satanic cross.
But while the restaurant obviously isn't trafficking in medicine or black metal, neither is it the place for carnitas by the pound or burritos as big as your head. The chef is Yanitzin Sanchez, who applied her French training to the food of her homeland at the late Sabor Saveur. Though you won't find much European influence in the food here, what you will find is a concentration on botanas, or little snacks and appetizers—mainly salsas, tacos, and guac—and small shareable plates. So where does the más come in? I'm guessing it's meant to refer to the abundance of different elements in each one of these dishes, from the "tropical" guacamole, featuring a scoop of the green mixed with diced pear, cantaloupe, jicama, and tomato, to the tacos, a few of which include as many as seven ingredients (not including the tortillas), to the crudos, one of which contains tuna, mayo, avocado, cucumbers, and sesame seeds all mushed into a cone formed from wonton wrapper. This isn't simple Mexican food.
Sanchez seems determined to avoid cliches, and to invite surprise. The guacamoles, including a more traditional version, don't come with tortilla chips but with a choice of thinly sliced sections of beetroot, jicama, and cucumber or light fried taro-root chips. The former, when I tried them, seemed dry and listless, as if they'd been prepped far too long before and left outside in the sun. The chips, which are small and have the consistency of what you might find at the bottom of an Utz bag, don't have enough structural integrity to stand up to the thick avocado mash without shattering. They're just as awkward with the four house salsas, which come in small shallow dishes. These include a straightforward green tomatillo amped with jalapeño; a nod to Thanksgiving with a cranberry, apple, and orange juice variety; a piercingly sweet pineapple number that might feel at home on a Colombian hot dog; and a rich, bright-orange pool made with emulsified chicharron and morita chiles. All four are distinctive in taste but uniform in their smooth, highly processed texture.
In the pursuit of originality Sanchez makes some odd choices. Esquites, essentially a corn salad, is served in a jar that's topped off at the table with consomme, obscuring the shriveled tiny kernels that swim among poblano, bell peppers, cotija cheese, and deposits of panna cotta. A scallop, shrimp, and squid ceviche is arranged like a strand of DNA. It's beautiful, but despite its numerous garnishes and dressings—mango, tangerine, tomato, mint, avocado, serrano pepper, vinaigrette, and a giant flower blossom—there's a dearth of flavor that feels almost creepy.
In fact, underseasoning sinks many of the dishes, from three fat pork-and-beef meatballs with chipotle salsa and truffled black-bean puree to a rib eye loaded with chimichurri, superthin fries, grape tomatoes, cheese, and beans. I suspect these torrents of competing ingredients create the culinary equivalent of white noise. And yet bright, vibrant garnishes weren't enough to disguise the odor or taste of a red snapper crudo, whose age announced its arrival before it hit the table.
These problems extend to the tacos, humble street food dressed up like peacocks. Though there are 13 choices, none can be ordered singly—only in pairs or trios, which lowers the risk of tasting a good one. I got lucky with the shrimp taco, which despite its odd and somewhat redundant components, including potato chips and chorizo and bacon, is still all about the snappy, sweet crustaceans. A lamb shank barbacoa taco, on the other hand, is drenched in pureed peas and red curry, displaying a multiple personality disorder by referencing two incompatible British dishes. A grouper taco has potential for its chunks of crispy hot fish, but they're buried in gouts of pink mayo and a watermelon, radish, and cucumber "gazpacho." Same for the pastor, swamped under an avalanche of pineapple relish, and the carnitas, burdened by favas, epazote, pickled red onion, truffle oil, salsa, cheese, and potato flakes. The oddest thing on the menu is a duck taco, the meat wet with red-lentil salsa, cradled not in one of the perfectly serviceable, fresh corn tortillas but in another section of thinly shaved jicama.
Más throws in with a cocktail list dominated by tequila—no surprise there—but most of them are fleeting in character, quickly diluted by too much standard machine ice.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the best thing I ate at Más was a simple dessert: an eggy brick of brioche French toast with a judicious application of piloncillo syrup, served alongside a small scoop of near savory cotija cheese. But by that point all I could do was sit back, sigh, and say no más.