When Bertha Garcia was a kid, she used to help her aunt sell barbacoa on blue corn tortillas at an open-air restaurant on the road just outside La Marquesa National Park. Situated between Mexico City and the satellite city of Toluca, it was a rustic, woodsy spot where they also made bone marrow tacos grilled on the plancha with marjoram, earthy epazote, or minty yerba buena. They also griddled tlacoyos, which, back then, were ovoids of the same masa azul, hand-pattied and stuffed with creamy requesón cheese and mashed fava beans, topped usually only with guajillo salsa, onions, and cheese.
The common denominator was blue. "Everything was masa azul," she says. "They had a farm that was growing blue corn."
Tlacoyos, which predate the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico, aren't what they used to be, according to Garcia, who cooks them to order at Xocome Antojeria in Archer Heights. These days, she says, from the capital to Puebla, Morelos, Veracruz, and Oaxaca, tlacoyos are supersized, piled with all kinds of meats, vegetables, and dairy embellishments. But it's a distinction without a difference to customers who come from say, Jalisco or Michoacan, states beyond the usual range of the tlacoyo. "They say 'What is this?'" she says. When she explains that it's like a huarache, only smaller, they'll usually order two.
Tlacoyos are just as uncommon in Chicago as they are in Jalisco (and Durango, Chihuahua, and Sonora), so not long after Garcia opened early last summer, she was championed by local food writers who didn't recognize just their distinction amid the city's wealth of regional Mexican cuisine but also the palpable sense of care—OK, jeez, let's say love—that she puts into all of her food. Love was all around when it came to Xocome Antojeria.
And then, suddenly, six months after opening, Garcia was gone, back to Mexico to tend to her sick father. She'd handed the business off to a part-time employee, who switched meat suppliers and raised the prices, and by the time her father had recovered and she'd returned home, the new boss had had enough: "He told me he didn't want the place because he was not making the money." Garcia's father, then recuperating in Texas, urged her to get back in the game.
On June 7, the one-year anniversary of her original opening date, Garcia, along with the help of her son David Rodriguez, relaunched Xocome Antojeria. Rodriguez, you may remember, is the former fine-dining chef behind Humboldt Park's Chicken Pollo Shack, which is its own sensation. But he'd been working with his mom since the beginning, helping to execute her extraordinary menu of tacos, tamales, tortas, and other antojitos that don't begin with the letter T.
On its face—apart from the tlacoyos—it's not a menu that stands out from those of hundreds of taquerias sprawled across the city. But the foundation of Xocome—a Mayan malapropism that alludes to "fresh fruit"—is masa. Garcia picks up her fresh blue corn masa every other day from Chepe's Tortillas in Cicero, her yellow masa daily from nearby El Popocatepetl Tortilleria.
At 6 AM she's steaming tamales formed from the yellow masa and thickening her chocolatey champurrado along with it, readying for the 8 AM breakfast rush. Both yellow and blue masa are deployed for the breakfast tacos. As vehicles for eggs and beans—or eggs and cactus, eggs and chorizo, eggs and salsa, or eggs and tomato, onions, and peppers—these extraordinary tortillas have a ghostly, griddled crispiness yielding to an equally delicate, almost cakelike softness that nearly renders the fillings irrelevant.
But Garcia and son aren't known for slacking on those, either. The original griddled-to-order filet mignon, simply seasoned to match the uncomplicated splendor of the tortillas, has returned, along with the carnitas, chicken, cabeza, squash blossom, and chicharron in salsa verde, all applicable to the masa in all the forms it takes: quesadillas, sopes, and of course the tlacoyos.
In tune with the times, Garcia builds pyramids of protein, lettuce, onion, tomato, cotija, and lashes of crema on the flat, chewy masa, its equator a thin layer of refried pintos rather than favas or black beans.
Most of what Garcia makes is from scratch—but not everything. For her pambazo, another Mexico City specialty, she sources the telera roll from the wholesale Highland Bakery. It's unique in its ability to stand up to the saturation of lava-colored guajillo sauce, and more than capable of containing its ample payload of chorizo and potatoes for an unusually stable version of the sandwich.
When I spoke with Garcia, I all but begged her to start offering her aunt's bone marrow tacos. It doesn't make much sense to her businesswise, but she is thinking of bringing in another vividly colored rarity, this one a specialty of her hometown.
Toluca is famous for its chorizo verde, ground pork seasoned to an emerald-green hue with cilantro-charred poblanos, jalapeños—and, most importantly—pepitas. It's elusive in Chicago, but back in Toluca, Garcia's cousin and aunt sell chorizo verde tortas. She has the recipe, and she's thinking about putting them on the menu. But that's only one of many reasons to pay attention to what's happening in this little storefront on Archer Avenue. As summer turns to fall and Garcia switches out her cucumber water for her made-from-scratch tamarind agua fresca, all the love for Xocome Antojeria is back. v