A rendering of Mercadito’s Chicago outpost
“Tacos. We’re known for tacos,” says Alfredo Sandoval, managing partner (with his older brother, Felipe) of Mercadito, a spinoff of New York City’s adored cantina chain poised to open in River North this month. Alfredo’s younger brother, Patricio, masterminds the popular finger-food menu and the sibs can’t wait to spring their tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and a speakeasy-style tequila lounge on Chicago Mexiphiles. All this within two blocks of Frontera Grill. When asked about going head-to-head with Rick Bayless, Alfredo didn’t flinch. “There’s room for both us,” he said. “I’m going to invite Rick Bayless to our opening. I’m a big fan.” Sounds like a win-win for Chicago. 108 W. Kinzie St.; 312-245-9555.
Naf Naf Grill
Opening an Israeli restaurant in a former Taco Bell in January on a franchise-laden stretch of Naperville may not seem exactly kosher, but Sahar Sander and his friendly staff definitely know their stuff. Freshness is key. Just about everything at this spartan, order-at-the-counter spot is made from scratch including zaftig disks of pillowlike pita bread. They provide the ideal cushion for generous fillings of thinly shaved, crisp-edged chicken shawarma ($6.35), char-grilled cubes of juicy beef tenderloin ($6.95), and delicate, golden-hued falafel ($4.35). Pita also merges splendidly with a veggie combo starring smoky baba ghannouj, hummus, Mediterranean salad, tabouleh, and falafel ($8.99). Heftier options include several delish kebab entrées and a sesame-sprinkled chicken schnitzel ($9.99), and you’d be smart to throw in an order of the terrific potatoes, a delectable cross between home fries and chips. Finish up with Turkish coffee and assorted mini-baklava or mamul, a Lebanese-style cookie stuffed with either dates or pistachios. If you happen to be around toward closing time, you might be handed a bag of pita to go. Just another reason that Naf Naf is a must must. 1095 E. Ogden Ave., Naperville; 630-904-7200.
We believe Dudley Nieto when he says that his ambitious multistory tapas/pintxos/sangría spot in Old Town—named for an island off the coast of Spain—will not be like anything he’s done before. (We also believed Nieto when he said that about Xel-Há in 2007. And Chapultepec in 1999. And Chapulín in 1995. Quibbles.) “This is about my heritage [and] I’ve always dreamed about cooking this type of food,” he says, reminding us that his father was a Spaniard and Nieto spent part of his childhood in Spain himself. We have no doubt that the Catalonian-style paella and esgarrat (cod brandade) will be authentically Basque to the last bite; we just want the talented-but-nomadic Nieto to still be there when we finish the last bite. 1531 N. Wells St.; 312-654-9500.
Fred’s At Barneys New York
It’s been years since Oak Street had a restaurant as glam as the shops that hold court on both sides of the road. Now Fred’s at Barneys, slated for a mid-April début, an offshoot of the American brasserie within New York’s chi-chi retailer, has taken over the snazzy sixth floor of Chicago’s Barneys along the Gold Coast’s most gilded lane. Mark Strausman, the man who put the restaurant on the map in NYC—and helped open Coco Pazzo here in 1992—promises homemade artisan pizzas galore. “I’m really into yeast right now,” says Strausman. “It’s going to be simple food. I’m not looking for people to come and eat my fantasy.” 15 E. Oak St.; 312-587-1700.
–Jeff RubyDining & Drinking