The South Loop is in for some south-of-the-border cooking. Lobo Rey (1307 S. Wabash Ave.) opens in the former Zapatista space in August, and will offer table seating for 100, plus a 35-seat bar for sipping cocktails, snacking on tacos and churros, and watching tortillas being made fresh.
Daniel Espinoza will head up the kitchen. The Chicago-born chef took his show on the road, cooking in France and New York, before returning home for stints at the Drawing Room, Mexique, and the underground dining club Dinner Lab. Fresh off of a consulting gig with Lincoln Park’s Holy Taco! (which he says provided a nice intro to more casual dining), he’s teamed up Scout Waterhouse + Kitchen owner Chris Bravos to launch Lobo Rey (which translates to “Wolf King”) next door to Scout.
“My mother grew up making everything from scratch,” says Espinoza. Of course, that included tortillas. Recently, his mother gifted him her 30-year-old tortilla press, which he’ll put it to good use at Lobo Rey. He’s planned an a la carte menu of traditional Mexican eats—“My responsibility as a Chicagoan and a Mexican is to properly represent our cuisine,” he says—that incorporate seasonal Midwestern ingredients whenever possible. Here, in his words, are two dishes that are in the works.
Enmoladas: “They’re basically enchiladas, but we are using housemade dark mole instead of salsa de guajillo chile [a red sauce]. I’ll have a green-sauced one for all the chicken lovers. It will be stuffed with brined chicken and topped with melted Oaxacan quesillo, which is like string cheese. We’ll sprinkle chicken skin granola on top as garnish and for a contrasting texture. [To make the granola] we bake the chicken skin [separately] until it gets nice and crispy.
“Sometimes when you eat enchiladas, they get all soggy, and you end up saying, ‘Where the hell is the texture?’ Chicken skin granola is not common but, holy shit, it’s delicious.”
Scallop tacos with crispy pig’s ears: “This is a land-and-sea type of deal. We’ll pan-sear the scallops to medium-rare and put crispy pig ears right over the scallop. Then we’ll top them with Granny Smith apple relish that has capers, serrano chilies, and strained Mexican yogurt. The yogurt is like superthick buttermilk and gives the dish a good funk and creaminess.
“And a taco wouldn’t be a taco without a really good salsa. Ours is sikil pak, a dip traditionally made out of pumpkin seeds, onions, garlic, tomatoes, and pork lard. Basically everything starts with pork lard. This is a taco that should make a lot of people smile. It certainly makes me smile.”