Mixteco Grill (1601 W. Montrose Ave.; 773-868-1601), a 35-seat BYO restaurant named for a region of Oaxaca and the indigenous people who inhabit it, opened last week—and we’re smitten. “The food there is the only food that is 100 percent authentic Mexican,” says Raul Arreola, the chef/owner. “No influence of other food. No Mayan. No Spanish. No French.” Arreola, a Mexico City native, put in 11 years at Frontera Grill, and ascended to sous-chef at Topolobampo, so we had high hopes on our visit. Mixteco, a cute little shoestring operation with IKEA-looking fixtures and a mesquite wood grill, fulfilled them. The sopa Azteca was a dark spicy broth that disappeared all too soon. So did the trio of empanadas, one filled with cheese and epazote, one with beef picadillo, and one with earthy huitlacoche.
“Rice is great if you’re hungry and want 2,000 of something.” –Mitch Hedberg (1968-2005), American comedian
6 Questions for Patricia and Walter Wells
The legendary Paris-based food writer and her husband have a new memoir on their life abroad: We’ve Always Had Paris . . . and Provence (HarperCollins), and will be at the Dining Room at Kendall College on May 8th for a dinner/signing ($85 for American Institute of Wine & Food members, $100 for nonmembers; includes signed book. Call 312-752-2328 for reservations).
D: Has America caught up with France, culinarily speaking?
PW: The whole world has equaled up with France, but France still has the best ingredients and a greater sense of tradition. American chefs have come so far and it’s great.
WW: Agriculture is different in France. The French have seasonal things all the time, and more truck farming within 50 kilometers of big cities.
D: How are Parisians dealing with the cigarette ban in restaurants and cafés?
WW: A huge percentage had already chosen to have no smoking. But if you want to enjoy the terrace and the sunset, you are still surrounded by smoke. And the sidewalks are terribly littered with cigarette butts.
D: Patricia, you once were known for testing recipes from restaurants before writing your reviews. Would that fly today?
PW: It’s become more complicated. I take all the easy things that are done. We were in a restaurant in Marseilles the other day, and they had super-fine eggplant shavings they just cooked like bread. That would be easy to do. I don’t totally redo the recipe, just play with it. But if I want to badly enough, I would ask to spend time in the restaurant’s kitchen or ask for the recipe.
D: Is molecular gastronomy the inevitable outgrowth of nouvelle cuisine?
PW: Food is like fashion: People want things to change. I’m happy that I don’t have to write about this new cuisine. It’s fun but when you go home it’s not how you really want to eat. It’s more about the chef and less about your own pleasure.
D: You write that the French are “entitled to pleasure without guilt,” while Americans fly to Vegas for their pleasure. Which philosophy do you live by ?
WW: I’m still working on that. I grew up as a Protestant, so the idea of pleasure without guilt is still kind of foreign.
D: Walter, Patricia describes you as the perfect tablemate. Do you ever seriously disagree with her judgments?
WW: I don’t think we had serious disagreements. Sometimes she listened to my advice, but it was her job. I tried hardest just to get good lines into her reviews.
PW: He would say, “You aren’t going to send people here, are you?”
We Got a Comedian Here
“I used to do the buying for Treasure Island,” says Mike Itta, the owner of Piatto Pronto (5624 N. Clark St.; 773-334-5688), a new full-service Italian deli in Edgewater. “One day my wife woke up and said, ‘I’m going to shoot you in the head.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Time to make some money,’ she said.” Itta must have been feeling lucky, because it was eight months before he finally got around to opening Piatto Pronto, which gets many of its products directly from Italy. Offerings include fresh pasta, cheeses, Kimbo coffee, spicy figs, gelato, and 36 varieties of sandwiches every day. “We get stuff that nobody can get,” Itta says, “like salami-stuffed prosciutto. For you, $7.99 a pound. For someone else, $8.”
Words of Wisdom from Craig W. Priebe
Priebe, 42, is the executive chef of Henry Crown & Company (222 N. La Salle St.), a co-author (along with Dianne Jacob) of the new Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas (DK Publishing), and a pizza maniac. He’s also pretty interesting, so you might put his free May 29th cooking demo/signing at Macy’s on State (111 N. State St.) on your calendar.
•“The recipes in the book include my own inventions, like the Jamaican [jerk pork with dark plum chutney, fresh mango, and cilantro], and the New Orleans [blackened crawdads, spicy apricot sauce, andouille sausage, and roasted peppers].”
• “A piadina? It’s just a flatbread that has very simple fillings. Maybe prosciutto. They are folded but not calzone. Just fold it over and eat it. I think it’s going to catch on, like panini; it’s just going to take some time.”
• “I don’t have culinary heroes. My heroes are the equipment. The giant stockpots. The 60-gallon steam kettles. Rows of giant deck ovens that rotate. They turned me on. So cool, all that stainless steel.”
• “Kitchen disasters? The ceiling was leaking really bad, so I complained to the landlord over and over, and one day I’m making dough and standing in a couple of inches of water, and I lean on the mixer. It electrocuted me, knocked me off my feet. Then I find out that the cooks were getting shocked by the steam tables, too. Every now and then they would get a jolt.”
• “My grandma is 93, and she’s still a great Italian cook. She had me in the kitchen since I was a kid with her five-gallon pots of polenta and hundreds of ravioli.”
• “I want to open up pizzerias. That is in my heart. Grilled pizzerias.”
Things to Do
- If you’re allergic to gluten, head to Ina’s (1235 W. Randolph St.; 312-226-8227) for gluten-free fried chicken on May 7th. “We’ll clean the kitchen of flour, clean the fryer, and add fresh trans-fat-free oil,” says Ina Pinkney, the chef-owner. “We’re making a wheat-free mix of rice and tapioca flour.”
- Wish that Art Smith (Table Fifty-Two) were opening Art and Soul, a restaurant with “soulful American fare,” in Chicago instead of Washington, D.C. “It’s Washington food,” says Smith. “Scrapple, crab, Lady Baltimore cake. We’ll have Maryland fried chicken with gravy.”
- Try not to feel ridiculous (“Then we get rid of their cutlery and make them eat with two little sticks!”)
Dot Dot Dot . . .
Jason Vincent, the chef de cuisine at the restaurant opening soon from Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds (Lula Café) at 2119 South Halsted Street, recently completed a monthlong stage at various California standouts, including Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. “He’s inspired and waiting (impatiently),” says Hammel. . . . C-House (166 E. Superior St.; 312-523-0923), Marcus Samuelsson’s seafood-oriented spot in the Affinia Chicago, will begin serving breakfast on May 8th. Lunch and dinner will begin in early June. . . . ENO, the wine/cheese/chocolate café in the Hotel InterContinental (505 N. Michigan Ave.), has opened another outpost in the Fairmont Chicago Hotel (200 N. Columbus Dr.).