Hold your breath. Geno Bahena and Dudley Nieto have opened (and closed) plenty of Mexican restaurants in Chicago—but none as good as their new ones
Geno Bahena and Dudley Nieto are two of those familiar names attached to so many Mexican restaurants over the years, that after a while you lose track. This time, pay attention. Both chefs, talented and focused, have landed in spots where they fit. Bahena's regional Mexican at Lincoln Park's Tepatulco finally makes good on the promise he hinted at with Ixcapuzalco years ago; Nieto's Yucatecan stunner in River North, Xel-Há, harks back to his glory days at Chapulín in the nineties. If we're lucky, they just might stay.
Geno Bahena has returned from hightailing it out to Los Angeles and done it again with another tongue-twister restaurant. As at Ixcapuzalco and Chilpancingo (both now closed), complex moles play a big role along with other classic regional dishes, but with Tepatulco, he's extending his reach into more contemporary Mexican cuisine.
It's an attractive corner storefront that looks Latino but isn't overdone-sparingly decorated with butcher paper over white tablecloths, red hanging lampshades, and little café curtains. Bahena is usually visible in the open kitchen in the back. On one early scouting excursion a couple of weeks after it opened, we were surprised to see the place already two-thirds full. The neighborhood had obviously discovered the new cantina in town.
A good introduction for a hungry party of four is the entremés surtido appetizer platter. It overflows with Mexico City–style quesadillas stuffed with Chihuahua cheese; greaseless crispy chicken taquitos filled with queso fresco; chunky guacamole; and seviche tostadas made with lime-marinated marlin and manzanillo olives. None would surprise anyone passingly familiar with Mexican food, but all were high quality. More exotic are appetizers like insanely fiery camarones aguachiles verdes-shrimp marinated with lime juice and serrano chilies (waiter says habaneros) served with red onions and cucumber. And downright adventurous are Oaxacan picaditas de chapulines: masa boats stuffed with black beans and slightly tangy fried grasshoppers topped with chile de árbol tomatillo salsa, and queso fresco.
Bahena is still the king of the moles. Wood-grilled Alaskan sockeye salmon has seldom been seen swimming in Querétaro-style green mole whose many ingredients include almonds, peanuts, and sesame seeds, served with green chili rice, roasted chayote squash, and esquites (fried corn kernels with chilies and the herb epazote). And a grilled pork chop was terrific in a classic Oaxacan mole manchamanteles ("tablecloth stainer") made with chorizo, sweet potatoes, plantains, and pineapple, served with achiote-flavored rice and garnished with avocado and queso fresco. Trying to control my jones for moles one evening, I took the waiter's advice and ordered the molcajete surtido: a bubbling cauldron of grilled top sirloin, chicken, homemade chorizo, and cactus paddles in a rich tomatoey sauce garnished with queso fresco. Pure succulence.
Tepatulco's molcajete surtido, an $18 assortment of grilled sirloin, cactus paddies, and chicken flavored with homemade chorizo; served in a scorching molcajete.
Tepatulco also offers a tasting menu of five courses for $40 with a flight of wines for an additional $19. That's a good deal. It's drawn mostly from the regular menu, and my friend and I got different dishes for nearly every course-one of mine was huitlacoche (corn fungus)–stuffed jalapeños that should come with a warning: fire hazard.
Coconut pie topped with strawberry ice cream was much better than the crêpes, which were overwhelmed with too much (and too sweet) cajeta (goat milk caramel). Service is attentive, though it tends to break down as the room fills up. It's also not as polished as it could be. Our waiter was better at describing the food than the wines, often just saying something like "a 2005 sauvignon blanc from California" without bothering to mention the winery. During a lull late one evening, I noticed Bahena dining alone across the room, and had to resist the urge to walk over and see what he chose for himself from the menu.
Dudley Nieto-who charmed us at Chapulín, impressed us at Adobo Grill, and disappointed us at Zapatista-gets back into the groove at Xel-Há. The name (pronounced shell-ha), which means "spring water" in the Mayan language of Yucatán, is also the name of a resort in Riviera Maya. Nieto says he plans to serve many dishes from Yucatán, but on early visits only a few had appeared on the menu. Not that I'm complaining: the food I tried was compelling enough.
I love most any dish from Oaxaca, and Nieto's fire-roasted chile poblano relleno proved no exception. The pepper, filled with picadillo oaxaqueño (a lively mix of shredded pork and beef with apples), came accompanied by pear and plantain basted with mint and roasted tomato salsa and a garnish of queso fresco. The mingling of savory, slightly sweet, and exotic flavors reminded me of the Arab influence on Mexican cooking via Spain. And the sopa tarazca-classic pasilla–pinto bean soup with roasted tomato, crema mexicana, queso fresco, avocado, and fried tortilla strips-was so good I was completely bummed when my dining companion who had ordered it wanted it back. A light and puffy empanada made of plantain and stuffed with crab meat and olives is amazingly delicate, and a slightly sweet guajillo chile salsa and a scoop of sour cream round out the plate.
If you have ever been lucky enough to imbibe a Château Petrus Bordeaux, you understand the glory of merlot. But, because of the softness and the grassy imperfections that often creep into inexpensive bottles, the grape has gotten a bad rep. Yet my wife loves merlot with grilled or roasted meats, so I dutifully went looking for some affordable ones. My trusted wine store guy came up with several beauties: California merlots brimming with blackberry, plum, and cocoa flavors, supporting fleshy texture and, yes, softness. (Not a bad thing in a marriage.) The four best were the 2002 Echelon Central Coast ($9); the 2002 Castle Rock Napa Valley ($9); the organic 2003 Bonterra Vineyards Mendocino County ($13); and the 2004 Hahn Estate Monterey County ($11). Château Petrus they ain't-but any of the four should renew your faith in merlot.
–D. R. W.
Pollo en mole de Xico is a terrific entrée, combining the smokiness of juicy grilled chicken breasts with the wonderful flavors of a mole made with hazelnuts, pine nuts, almonds, mulato chile, and prunes with poblano rice and calabacitas (zucchini). And at $9, it's a bargain to boot. On one visit the very shareable fish of the day was a handsome whole sea bass, served a la veracruzana with fire-roasted tomatoes, onion, güero chile, capers, and olives with poblano rice and fried yucca; another time, a thick, juicy red snapper was made the same way. Same delicious result.
Nieto whips up some tasty meat dishes, too. Consider the lamb shank marinated in guajillo-tequila salsa and braised in a banana leaf; guacamole and silky black bean soup with little masa dumplings called chochoyotes make delightful sidekicks. But one of my favorites delivers the goods on Yucatecan fare: conchinita pibil. It's achiote-marinated pulled pork baked in banana leaves, served with xnipec (Mayan pico de gallo made with fairly mild habanero chiles) and a cup of frijoles colados (black bean soup). Our waitress gave a delightful demonstration in how to properly handle the deeply flavorful meat: take a warm tortilla, fill it with pork and xnipec, turn your head at a 45-degree angle, and eat.
A bottle of 2005 Argentine La Puerta malbec ($30) hit the spot for the savory dishes. And to finish there is lively orange flan and a Mexican chocolate cake (made with masa) cooked tamale-style-wrapped in a fresh corn husk-and paired with dulce de leche ice cream. The warm cake is not too sweet and a lot of fun.
Anyone who ate here when the restaurant was Meztiso will recognize the room, with its brick wall behind the long, handsome bar. The mini face-lift seems to consist of a few walls getting a new coat of paint (apricot, aqua, and ecru). Unlike at Tepatulco, the white-clothed tables were mostly empty on our three visits, but Dudley Nieto greeted patrons during the meal. Once the word gets out about how good Xel-Há's food is, however, he might be too busy in the kitchen to chat up customers.
TEPATULCO-2558 North Halsted Street; www.tepatulco.com. Appetizers: $6.50 to $8, entrées $13 to $18, desserts $5 to $7. Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: 773-472-7419.
XEL-HÁ-710 North Wells Street. Appetizers: $5 to $10, entrées $15 to $23, desserts $6 to $8. Dinner Monday to Saturday. Reservations: 312-274-9500.