[Editor's note: This post is quite long. It has been seperated into parts. This post covers the Logan Square Islas Marias, the Mega Mall, a great Mexican grocery store, Cafe Mariano, and the world's greatest sopes. Ecuadorian, elotes, Pierre's, and Peruvian to follow.]
In between bouts of weeping, I said to Ms. VI, Logan Square was not this cool when we lived there. She reminded me of the multi-colored borsht's we slurped at the long departed Home Bakery, the excellent burritos I would pick up after work at the place she insists was not El Cid, and the morning cafe con leche we routinely had well before Jason made Riconcinto Cubano famous (well she did not quite put it that way). She did not even mention the deep mahogany paneled cigar shop that kept those padron's in cherubs, yet could also accommodate the poorer denizens of the hood by selling cigarettes by the piece. Sadly, the cigar shop is now the gourmet room at Lula's. Lula's itself is several steps up in quality from Logan Beach but could never replace the zone the Beach established for its habities. Maybe you just do not realize cool until you move away. Still, most of the places we visited on Saturday were not there in early to mid 90's.
We began our day at what we would have thought, our one safe choice, Islas Marias. Please, to preserve my sageness and all around decent reputation as a finder of good chow, do not go to this branch of Islas Marias. The room is small and dingy. Somehow, the nice hardwood floors that graced it when it was briefly a Venezuelan place, have been worn completely. There is no illusion of being off the road from the ocean here. The walls contain the same folk art, but smiling dolphins have replaced the "hyper-strange Eisenhower-era 'naughty' pictures of sexy Anglo women". More, while the frothy green hot sauce and tostadas are exactly right, there is a gaping hole on the table where the complimentary ceviche should be. I even asked. Finally, a jukebox set to accommodate a house party about 3 blocks away really put me in an angee-angee mood. None of this would have mattered if we got the usual stellar dishes from the Islas Marias kitchen.
None. The langostino's had the soon to be famous sarendeado, so lickable, but were all leather inside. To boot, a smaller portion. The Condiment Co-President's vulve de vide cocktail consisted mostly of shurami, and a particularly bad version of that. Our companion's shrimp cocktail featured mushy shrimps. Stick with the Grand and Cicero model.
Lucky for us, we ate remarkably well the rest of the day. We crossed the street from Islas Marias to the Mega Mall, a great collection of cowboy clothes, street jewelry and the ravingly popular, water yo-yo. The sign on the Mega Mall promises a veritable Taste of Chicago, but half the time all the food stands are closed for one reason or another. On Saturday, a few stands were open, offering a range from hot dogs to Mexican, including homemade gorditas. We skipped all that for the most crowded outfit, a fruteria moving large qualities of licuiados and other such things. We stayed healthy and got humungus portions of chunked fruit, mango and watermelon and jicama, doused with several limes and then sprinkled, al gusto, to your requirements, with salt and chili. The only thing missing were the little wooden picks. For those with more calories to spare, you could get the fruit with a topping of vanila ice cream, nuts and coconut shavings for only a dollar more.
We moved from Mega Mall down Milwaukee towards that little bit of Calle Ocho parked in Chicago, Cafe Mariano. Before we reached it, I wandered into a neighborhood grocery, San Luis, finding within some fine unstuffed Oaxacan tamales. When the man behind the counter mentioned that most of the customers ate the tamales with a green mole, we expressed interest. He was nice enough to give us a very generous sample of this intensely herbal mole, that had a chili kick that only hit you about 45 seconds later. San Luis had all the weekend meats, barbacoa, menudo, carnitas, etc. They also had a huge clear box of carne seca for those wishing to explore further the mysteries of Mexican dried beef.
At Cafe Mariano we weathered the chaotic ordering system and even managed a cafe cubano sin azucar. I was hardly hungry but cannot resist those excellent steak sandwiches. My only disappointment, the steaks are now being brewed in a regular sauce pan, instead of the old coffee tin as I last remember.
Caffeinated, I was hardly ready for what came next. About a block before Cafe Mariano (from the north)stood a man; rather a slightly aged version of Carlos Santana, manning a booth with agua frescas and what I assumed, elotes. Walking towards Mariano, I had noticed a big bowl of green sauce, and I even wondered what that was for. So, after coffee, we stopped to get the Mistress of Spices one of those ears of corn. No corn. We noticed him selling a sope to another man. We realized what that sauce was for.
I'm no sope man generally, but I have had some special ones including at Ixcapulco and Frontera, and most recently at La Quebrada the night before. All bow down to this new king of sopes, and I swear allegiance now and forever more to the sope, the better taco.
Jim Leff made famous the sainted arepas lady. This is the sainted sope man. Within a cooler rested, how many, I do not know, a wealth of sopes. Each one hand formed and then griddled, a marvelous combination of chewy and crunchy masa. Even not fresh, packed away for later consumption, they excelled.
On the masa, a shredded meat thoroughly converted into a new substance with a red mole. To know how good these things were, I could not even figure out what the heck was the underlying meat. A bunch of seedless pumpkin seeds got strewn over the meat--for texture as Bobby Flay would say. On the side also were unseeded pumpkin seeds, something Quebrada did as well. I never knew of the connection between pumpkin seeds and sopes before. Of course I laddled a big dollop of the sauce. The sauce was so green and smooth, I thought maybe it had avocado in it. No just tons of scovilles. A wealth of flavors in a packet less than an inch high.
To be continued.