Above anything else... many thanks to RST & Amata for arranging a wonderful afternoon getting to know Chicago's Mexican neighborhoods. RST gave me the tour, and then we meet up with Amata & Family for a wonderful dinner at Sol de Mexico. It was an honor to share the dinner table & great conversation with such knowledgeable, passionate people.
My initial impressions... while the trip was brief & my sample was hardly scientific... there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Chicago - with just a fraction of the L.A's Mexican population - matches (at the very least) L.A. for bragging rights on best Mexican cuisine in the country... and I would not disagree with anyone who argued for its superiority.
> Marked Provincialism... just driving around it becomes immediately clear that Chicago's Mex population express their provincial / regional identities (via culinary offering) to a greater degree than Los Angeles. Driving around Cicero, 18th Street etc., I was impacted by the proportion of places that specialize in regional dishes such as Birrierias, Michoacan style Carnitas, Teloapan Style Moles, Quail & Cornish Game Hens etc... and their willingness to assert themselves & not get lost in the vast label of Mexican or Latino.
> True Specialties... Not Just Names. I was impressed that the names of restaurant have meaning, and the so many places try their best to deliver the dishes as best as possible. That means a Carnitas place is going to braise, roast, fry multiple body parts (not just the boring chunks of Maciza that dominate California's take on Carnitas)... and they are going to be marinated in the unique style of the town of origin, cooked in a copper pot etc.,
On to the food I sampled:
> We started out at Bombon... and was pleased to find a well regarded pastry chef that could be doing anything else... but is focused on bringing improved Pan Dulce & very nice cakes to the barrio. The Cocada was as good as I've ever had, the pan dulces I had wwer very good (although I let them get fairly stale... but the quality was still evident). At dinner we had a very nice Tres Leches Chocolate from Bombon that RST generously brought for Amata's son's birthday.
> Then we hit Casa de Samuel.... which reminded my of cross between a small town Mexico cenaduria & the classic old cantinas that specialize in botanas. We selected from the botanas menu... the Cecina de Venado (wafer thin Venison steaks) & Charalitos (fingerling smelt from local lakes fried in egg batter). The Cecina was tender with a texture reminicent of very good quality Gyros... and the mildly sweet flavor (for some odd reason) brings me images of Foie Gras. The Charalitos was flavorful yet clean tasting, with varying textures from tender to crispy... not at all oily... very well executed. This dish really brough a smile to my face as I thought about how important small, whole fish (albeit cooked in a different matter) were in Pre-Hispanic cuisine is they were (and in some communities still are) a vital source of Calcium (in a traditionally dairy free diet)... and here they were on a restaurant menu (not just in a snack bag at the grocery store).... again gives you an idea of the local communities ability to stick close to their roots. Casa de Samuel also had some other intriguing dishes to be had on a different trip... like the Rattle Snake, Alligator & others.
Wow... I didn't realize how long it really takes to write a post. I have to run & catch a flight... so I will continue the post later.