2558 N. Halsted
Big names beget great expectations, so when Las Fuentes closed and then reopened as TEPATULCO, a new venture from Geno Bahena (Ixcapuzalco, Chilpancingo), the buzz-o-meter was red-lining. But while they're enjoyable enough, Bahena's latest creations never quite blew me away. Sopa Azteca was a good example of Tepatulco's almost-there cuisine: a fiery broth with some complexity, it was undermined by mechanically cubed cheese and chicken. Camarones aguachiles verdes, a Sinaloan version of shrimp lightly "cooked" in lime marinade, was delicately flavored, and the sopes de chapulines--little masa cups stuffed with black beans, cheese, and grasshopper bits described on the menu as "succulent"--was an accessible dish for one with bug parts. Many patrons seemed to dig the molcajete, a hot lava-rock bowl of steak, chicken, and cactus paddles in a full-bodied sauce topped with chorizo and served with handmade tortillas. Salmon (uncommon in traditional Mexican cuisine) was grilled and deliciously dressed in satisfying green pumpkin-seed-based mole just like the one Bahena's mother whips up at Sol de Mexico. Simple but satisfying chicken Milanesa was a meaty capon breast with peppery, pickled red onion--complemented by the menu's one Mexican red wine as well as margaritas, shaken tableside. --David Hammond
The Brown Sack
3706 W. Armitage
It's a long way from Malaika Marion's first Chicago job at Planet Hollywood to her "soup, sandwich, and shake shack," THE BROWN SACK, on the western fringe of Logan Square. Most recently a manager at Lula Cafe, Marion's lived in the neighborhood for years and when she saw the teeny Armitage storefront she knew the time was right to break out on her own. With help from her fiance, Adam Lebin--until recently the GM at Red Light--she's turned the space into a sunny, six-table destination for hearty down-home standards like a gooey grilled peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich and beefarific chili laced with head-clearing handfuls of cumin and chile (a vegan version is also available). The daunting Reuben--a popular choice based on an unscientific peek at the other tables--comes piled with thick folds of corned beef topped with the traditional Thousand Island dressing and melted Swiss, plus grilled onions. There's also rich mac 'n' cheese, meatball subs, Goose Island root beer floats, and daily soup, sandwich, and dessert specials (last week it was Lebin's grandmother's brownies). Come summer the place may be able to handle more customers thanks to planned later hours and sidewalk seating. It's cash only and BYO. --Martha Bayne
5200 N. Clark
ICOSIUM KAFE, an Algerian creperie from Belkacem Elmetennani (owner of Crepe and Coffee Palace and Mamacita's), is the latest inhabitant of the apparently cursed northwest corner of Clark and Foster, and the ghost of the former occupant, the Corner Grille, lingers on in the form of aluminium cafe tables and orange vinyl banquettes. Still, it's a lot cozier than before, with brass, beaded lamp shades, mirrors, and tapestries just about everywhere. Savory crepes come in eight varieties, from the "Cheka Chouka"--stuffed tight with roasted peppers, caramelized onions, goat cheese, baby spinach, tomatoes, roasted garlic, and arugula---to the simple, classic combo of Brie and apples. There's also a make-your-own option, and meat, from chicken to halal merguez sausage to snails, can be added to any crepe for $2.99. Dessert crepes include gold standards like Nutella and strawberries and exotica like the Crepe Icosium, filled with pistachio ice cream and a compote of raisins, pears, and rose water. Elmetennani also offers a range of organic coffees, juices, and teas. While the menu combinations are fairly predictable, everything's well-constructed and filling, and the staff couldn't be sweeter. --Martha Bayne
OTHER RECENT OPENINGS
Cotes du Rhone Bistro, 5424 N. Broadway, 773-293-2683
The Depot, 5840 W. Roosevelt, 773-261-8422
Pasticceria Natalina, 5406 N. Clark, 773-989-0662
Viet Bistro, 1334 W. Devon, 773-465-5720
For more on restaurants, see our blog the Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bob Warner.