Reviews: A Toda Madre and RPM Italian
OF PEPPERS AND PASTA: A standout you’ve never heard of, a big-name spot that’s better than you think, and the danger of first impressions
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A Toda Madre
A Toda Madre
The day before my first meal at A Toda Madre, the reservationist called to confirm. Though no restaurant has ever lost my reservation, nor have I ever blown one off, I like the comfort of the confirmation ritual. Then things got tense. “Because it’s on Saturday,” she said, “we will only hold your reservation for 15 minutes.” Fifteen minutes seemed a bit draconian, particularly since I was about to drive an hour to the far western suburbs to eat at a restaurant none of my friends had ever heard of, but OK. I prayed to the Eisenhower traffic gods.
Upon arrival, I understood. Geneva, a charming burg along the Fox River, is home to more than 22,000 people, and roughly half were eating, drinking, or waiting at A Toda Madre. The other half were next door at Bien Trucha. The Cano/García-Rubio family from Mexico City runs both tiny establishments, and neither needs my support. I’m going to offer it anyway. A Toda Madre is a charismatic place that earns its success: The food is fresh, inventive, and cheap, the staff never stops smiling or hustling, and the vibe is pure fun. The breezy space is packed tight with 12 wood tables, a subway-tiled bar, and an open kitchen with front-row seats. Yes, you might elbow your neighbor in the kidney, but she might also offer you a bite of her Slagel Farms pork belly burrito.
“People always ask us, ‘When you are at home, what do you eat?’ ” says Rodrigo Cano, a partner. The dishes coming from A Toda Madre’s kitchen are meant to mimic that home cooking: egg-and-queso-drenched chilaquiles; rich homemade mole chicken on mini croissants; flaky grilled snapper zarandeado stuffed into tortillas. I can’t imagine when any of this happens at home, since Cano and his mother, Dolores García-Rubio, and stepfather, Ricardo García-Rubio, always seem to be at A Toda Madre. If they’re whipping up fresh Gold Creek oysters in lime-Tabasco-Maggi sauce and pan-made bread with creamy chile morita butter in their spare time, I’ve been going to the wrong dinner parties.
You don’t think of steak tartare as a Mexican thing, but they’ve been doing carne apache in Michoacán for years, and it’s better than the Eurocentric version because the beef is marinated in lime juice, à la seviche (A Toda Madre’s wonderful take also uses Negra Modelo). Cano describes the glistening cubes with serranos, Maggi, and onions ringed with salsa cruda as a raw carne asada. The two cut-in-half fried tortillas that accompany it are not enough—but all you need, really, is a fork.
Details set the standards apart: The kitchen tops its chiles rellenos with a dab of pitch-black cuitlacoche (corn fungus) and crema, which both end up swimming in the punchiest roasted tomato sauce. The menu changes fast, and small dishes, such as sticky tamarind-glazed shrimp brochetas, pack as much flavor as large ones, like juicy grilled pollo adobado with Brussels sprouts and caramelized onions. About the only things that don’t work are the (now departed) fideos, gloppy angel hair pasta that my table dubbed “Mexican Maggiano’s,” and, surprisingly, the starchy homemade tortillas. The rotating cocktail roster plays up ingredients like cactus juice and mole bitters; the bold michelada-inspired Sexy Mamiche substitutes carrot for tomato juice. The kitchen pushes things too far with its cucumber-celery sorbet—if it’s an acquired taste, that taste is foul. Try the pay de limon, a deconstructed Key lime pie, instead.
Food writers love to pretend we discovered places like A Toda Madre, which, considering it has been packed every night since it opened in March, is about as correct as Columbus saying he discovered America. I for one welcome the 15-minute reservation rule, because this restaurant is poised for far more than 15 minutes of fame.
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Photograph: Anna Knott