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Long ago May St. outing

Aaron D | Oct 27, 200401:04 AM

Over at LTHForum, someone mentioned our Chowhound outing to May St. Café earlier this year. For some reason, I wrote most of a post, but never finished or posted. Here it is. Lill has another report from a separate outing around the same time.



May St. Café

A week ago, several board denizens and a few others congregated for a meal at May St. Café in Pilsen. The restaurant is located on a rather lonely industrial stretch of Cermak, at least walking east from Halsted.

My curiosity, and surely many others’, was piqued by Chicago mag’s occasional not-quite-praise for the joint. I’m not sure if being named “Most Offbeat New Opening” of the past year is a compliment or not, but it surely has won the place lots of business, including the patronage of myself and 13 others last Tuesday night.

Curiously (and maybe Chicago mag feels this way too, hence the not-quite-praise) most of what I find myself inclined to say about the place is not about the food. But let me begin there anyway. My memory is already fading a bit, so hopefully others in attendance will pick up the slack.

We got to sample a good bit of the menu, which aims for a mid-level Nuevo Latino/pan-Latin eclectic flavor–I recall explicit Puerto Rican and Cuban mentions. Our starters included a mango-jicama salad, a few types of quesadillas (chorizo and Chihuahua?, pear and brie), a marinated portobello mushroom with dandelion greens, pasteles (Puerto Rican tamales, with the masa surrounding made of more traditional Puerto Rican starches, not corn, and in this case served with coconut shavings and herb sprigs–tarragon, thyme, maybe sage?).

I very much enjoyed the pasteles, and the dandelion greens were a big hit, I liked the chorizo quesadillas even though they weren’t particularly special and the pear-brie combo didn’t do much for me. I only got a bite of the mango-jicama salad.

Entrees included pork chops, steak, lots of roasted veggies, chicken in a very cinnamon-y “mole”, a few different kinds of rice, some soupy Cuban black beans, and maybe some other stuff.

Everything, I thought, was good. There was nothing I didn’t enjoy, but also nothing that made me feel I needed to get back and try it again. Desserts were flans and something else at the other end of the table that I didn’t try. They were very small.

Knowing the restaurant was also on the small side, I had called to make sure they could handle 14 people. They said no problem. Upon arriving, the table more or less agreed that, if the chef was up to it, we would give him a price per person and let him do what he felt would best show off the restaurant to a group of intrepid eaters.

Chef Mario Santiago was game, and off to work he went. I’m not sure that this family-style eating, however, was the best way to sample the restaurant. It was tempting because it allows you to sample a broad range of the restaurant’s offerings. But the experience is much different than the plated dinner you would typically get. In this case, I think the party size would have made plated dinners equally challenging.

In retrospect, and to view the restaurant at most honestly, I would have gone with a smaller party, maybe 2-6, and just ordered off the menu. And I may yet do that. But again, Chef Mario was excited, and is primarily a caterer, so everything was prepared and plated beautifully, and I didn’t at all feel the restaurant wasn’t up to the task. Chef (and owner, I believe) did say he would have been happy to prepare us something special with advance notice (he knew a party of 14 was coming, but I didn’t try to arrange any menu in advance).


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