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New Spice

Four rollicking new spots have the Nuevo Latino and/or Mexican thing down pat: brassy flavors, smart service, and over-the-top fiesta atmosphere

Photograph: Jeff Kauck
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Carnivale’s seared sea scallops with black olive relish, roasted tomato salsa, and garlicky spinach

Last month, I wrote about eight of the city’s quietest restaurants. I didn’t set out specifically to follow it up with a column about the four loudest, but I may have found them. If you love din with your dinner, you’re in for a treat at these recent arrivals in the suddenly crowded Chicago Latino dining scene. Two of them are Nuevo Latino, two are Mexican-and all of them boast spicy flavors every bit as noisy as their happy tequila-fueled atmospheres.

Popping down for a Rio carnivale is still on my to-do list, but Carnivale, in the former Drink space, gives me a hint of what to expect. On a recent weekend night, the main bar’s glass-enclosed lounge was so jammed with frisky young trend seekers that after a couple of caipirinhas I considered crawling through it in search of some carnivalesque adventures. Besides the uproar, the place is visually loud, too, with plenty of the blaring décor expected in any Jerry Kleiner enterprise (Opera, Red Light)-beginning with the Sunset Boulevard–like ad on the side of the building overlooking the expressway. Acres of velvet curtains sequester private nooks surrounding the multicolored main dining area; balconies and a soaring ceiling hung with silk-covered lampshades add to the party.

At one point, I was sitting under a palm tree that seemed to be swaying to the beat of the salsa rhythms as I tried to make out what our waitress was saying about the Nuevo Latino cooking of chef Mark Mendez. It was something to the effect that Mendez, a veteran of Manhattan’s formerly hot Patria as well as Spiaggia and Gioco locally, hits varied South American stalwarts with creative touches. That sounds about right. I appreciated the goat cheese sauce and mushrooms with Colombian arepas (corn and cheese cakes), as well as the Salvadoran pupusas (masa cakes) stuffed with cheese, oxtail, and refried beans. My favorite was a tasting of all five seviches on the menu, among them spicy Ecuadorian shrimp and Peruvian scallops with curried coconut milk and aji amarillo, a kicky yellow South American chili. Two Mexican starters, the overhyped “Kleiner style” guacamole and the spicy pork and hominy posole (stew), were good, but nothing unusual for Chicago.

Mama Mendez’s arroz con mariscos was a respectable cousin of paella. Its rice was bountiful with fish, shellfish, chicken, and chorizo in lobster broth, and, of course, sofrito (the ubiquitous Caribbean purée of chilies, onions, cilantro, and garlic). But I preferred the hefty chunk of roasted wild salmon with ancho barbecue glaze on Swiss chard with lobster-pumpkin sauce. My Puerto Rican friend Marisel naturally wanted to try the rum-glazed pernil (pork shoulder) with Puerto Rican rice and gandúles (pigeon peas) garnished with fried plantains. “Pretty good, but mine is better,” she said. “Come over Sunday and you’ll see.” My wife and I did, and her version was fantastic; but if you don’t have a Puerto Rican friend, Carnivale’s ain’t bad, especially with a bottle of fine 2003 Chilean Yelcho Carmenere ($36) to wash it down. And the mango upside-down cake with roasted pineapple sauce and passion fruit ice cream is about as much fun as any dessert gets.

All of these new restaurants are eager to please, but none more so than Pancho Viti’s Mexican Cantina, the third cornerstone of Gabriel Viti’s North Shore restaurant empire (Gabriel’s, Miramar). The expert staff here are exceedingly gracious, from welcomes when you enter, to handshakes when you exit. Viti’s wryly named faux-funky Mexican eatery features a made-over garage door fronting, a weathered wood interior, and instant rough-hewn bandito ambiance. The margaritas are only so-so, but there’s a good selection of tequilas-the kind you sip, not knock down-with optional sangrita chasers.

This rollicking joint is not afraid to delve into flavors non-Mexicans may be wary of but I savor: one of the eight taco filling choices is tender tongue; on weekends there is honest menudo (spicy tripe soup), a proven hangover remedy from my college days in Mexican border towns. (Menudo is also delicious when you’ve only been sipping Pancho Viti’s jamaica, a hibiscus flower juice.) Others might prefer the mushroom quesadilla-slightly greasy but so good-the fine seviche tostada, savory tamales filled with chicken, pork, or cheese, or the heavily salted tortilla soup garnished with avocado and cream.

Grilled skirt steaks are solid entrée picks, whether marinated and smothered in grilled onions or tampiqueña-style, garnished with a fried cactus paddle and served with a choice of enchilada. (Don’t order a cheese enchilada with mole: way salty.) A macho burrito filled with chorizo and garnished with avocado, radishes, and cucumber was a bull’s-eye, and I saw lots of them coming out of the kitchen. Chiles rellenos stuffed with cheese and simmered in a light tomato sauce were right on target, and after watching a Mexican couple nearby splitting the huachinango a la veracru-zana-whole red snapper with tomatoes, Spanish olives, and plenty of garlic-I found another winner. Somehow I can’t see Pancho Villa eating a tres leches cake, but the one at Pancho Viti’s would be a good place to start.

Cuatro, whose name refers to the four Navarro siblings who own it, is pushing the South Loop even farther south, to just north of Cermak. This Nuevo Latino hothouse is a compact, earth-toned restaurant with two sections-a bar area with bare stained-walnut dining tables, and a dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows and nicely illuminated banquettes bordered with pillows. At the time of my visits, there was still no liquor license, but the place was boisterous with Latino music and bursting with savvy diners, some of whom had brought their own bottles of Patrón tequila. At a nearby table, a waitress was offered tastes of South American wines.

In the kitchen, visible behind a big saltwater aquarium, chef Bryan Garcia creates striking presentations of what our enthusiastic waitress described as “Old World cooking methods with Latin spices and a modern twist.” A seviche of salmon and seared bay scallop with tamarind–ají panca vinaigrette set inside a beautiful ring of avocado slices was an instant hit with me. So were the spicy fire-roasted corn and potato chowder with an understated epazote herb seasoning, and the chicken-filled humitas (soft Peruvian fresh corn tamales) served on a corn husk with strips of poblano chilies in a light cream sauce.

If seafood stews make you happy, by all means order the moqueca do mar, a fine dish from the São Paulo region of Brazil, replete with grouper, shrimp, scallops, squid, and clams in a spicy tomato/coconut-milk broth. And the side of fragrant coconut rice and crisp plantain tostones won’t hurt your mood. The whole thing is pure New World fusion, blending indigenous, African, and Portuguese cooking. While it’s not really “beer-braised beef short ribs” as billed, you’ve gotta like the huge beef long rib curved like a boomerang with the fork-tender meat attached-"roast on a bone,” our waitress jokes. It’s set on Mexican rice with roasted tomatillo and avocado salsa topped with charred spring onions. More hearty meat comes with the pan-roasted, sugarcane-juice-cured double pork chop the size of a pork roast with plantain mole, crisp yuca cake, and green beans in sofrito. Who could finish all this pig? I was impressed by the varying starches and vegetables with these entrées, though they were inconsistent from visit to visit.

Desserts, on the other hand, were not. A lovely Oaxacan chocolate mousse cake with cocoa-nib and añejo tequila coconut crème comes with earthy yet delicate sweet corn ice cream, and the abacaxi crème brûlée-yerba maté–perfumed caramelized vanilla custard on diced pineapple confit with cinnamon polvorón cookies-is not your everyday flan.

Another Mexican revolutionary hero is evoked at Zapatista, also in the South Loop. The former Saiko space is now awash in Mexican adobe hues and archways, wood tables, thumping music, a plasma screen near the stone backbar, and an open kitchen with an imported tortilla machine. There are so many Z motifs around the place, including on the embossed steak knives, it looks like a Zorro movie. But it’s in honor of partner Luís Meza’s grandfather David Ortega, who fought with Emiliano Zapata-photos of both mustachioed gents are prominently displayed. Meza and co-owner Matt O’Malley (Grace O’Malley’s, Chicago Firehouse) hired the veteran chef Dudley Nieto (Adobo Grill), and he’s cooking both rustic Mexican and Tex-Mex.

Along with typically pulsating Latino music, there are whopping margaritas and a list of more than 80 tequilas to generate diners’ enthusiasm. But I found the fiery Michelada-a Dos XX lager with limes in a glass rimmed with chile pequín-potent enough to get me in the mood for empanadas filled with chipotle-fueled shrimp and cheese soothed with avocado salsa. The seviche, in its mango-habanero sauce, was generous with shrimp and scallops; the queso fundido, a gooey delight of Chihuahua cheese, chorizo, and poblano chilies, was a calorie-laden treat with a stack of fresh soft tortillas.

Zapas-a choice of three tacos with rice and beans-zapped me with ancho-guajillo chili–seasoned pork, pineapple, and chile de árbol salsa; so did another with mixed mushrooms. While enchiladas and grilled chicken breast in mole poblano were perfunctory, a thick, moist pork chop in red mole sauce was enhanced by luscious sweet potato fries, and the carne asada of grilled skirt steak with roasted poblanos and chile-avocado salsa grabbed my tongue and wouldn’t let go. Always look to Chef Nieto’s specials, such as grilled beef tenderloin spiced with tequila-jalapeño salsa with wild mushrooms and sautéed spinach. I think the guy has cooked with more Mexican soul elsewhere, but when I dug into the warm chocolate cake baked in a corn husk and served with strawberry compote and vanilla ice cream, a little bit of soul was more than enough.


CARNIVALE -702 West Fulton Market Street. Appetizers $5 to $24; entrées $14 to $38; desserts $5 to $8. Dinner nightly. Reservations: 312-850-5005.

CUATRO -2030 South Wabash Avenue. Appetizers $5 to $9; entrées $22 to $27; desserts $4 to $8. Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 312-842-8856.

PANCHO VITI’S MEXICAN CANTINA -431 Temple Avenue, Highland Park. Appetizers $3.50 to $13.50; entrées $12.95 to $18.50; desserts $6.50. Lunch Monday to Saturday; dinner nightly. Reservations: 847-433-5550.

ZAPATISTA-1307 South Wabash Avenue. Appetizers $5.99 to $8.99; entrées $8.99 to $23.99; desserts $6.95. Lunch and dinner daily. Reservations: 312-435-1307.

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