We’d love to be able to say that Xni-Pec sits apart from the rest of its neighborhood, that the Mexican restaurant’s sparkling exterior distinguishes itself, that it’s a shining beacon of culinary hope amid the underwhelming industrial buildings that surround it. But the truth is that Xni-Pec’s generic facade blends in with the rest of Cicero’s drab surroundings. And that’s only the beginning of its problems.
Open since late 2005, Xni-Pec has just recently come to the attention of Chicago diners. Antonio and Maria Contreras moved to Cicero from Cozumel, Mexico, to open the restaurant, and they’ve fought an uphill battle from the start, having adopted not just the lease but the poor reputation of the building’s previous tenant (a basic Mexican spot called Mariachi). After an LTH Forum post revealed the hidden gem to enthusiastic eaters last January, Xni-Pec saw a spike in business, but the restaurant’s far-west location nevertheless prevented it from becoming the destination it should be.
And while Xni-Pec has problems convincing city diners to travel there, it has even worse luck with the people in its own neighborhood. Cicero has a strong Mexican population, but owner Antonio doesn’t think that necessarily works in his favor. “We Mexicans, we are not so willing to try different things,” he says. “We feel comfortable in one or two or three restaurants that we know and we stick with it.”
Xni-Pec offers some of the same fare that Mariachi did, like the typical tacos and tortas. But the real draw is the stuff you can’t get anywhere else: Yucatecan specialties like unbeatable papadzules (housemade tortillas stuffed with egg and topped with a lively pumpkin-seed sauce) and the infinitely complex, richly nuanced relleno negro (tacos filled with chicken, beef and pork, all immersed in a piquant chile sauce). The flavors the Contrerases coax out of their ingredients are so lovely and intricate that they practically hop off the plate. Their building may not be a beacon in Cicero, but their food certainly shines.
Of course, dishes this complex don’t come easily. Antonio reckons that he and his wife, who have two small children, put in a combined 120 hours a week. And yet he expresses no doubts about his decision. “I never regret it,” he says. “It gives us so much learning. Even if this restaurant doesn’t work, we’ll open another one some time and it will work.”
5135 W 25th St, Cicero (708-652-8680). El: Blue (54th/Cermak) (rush hrs), Pink to Cicero. Bus: 54 Cicero, 54B South Cicero. Lunch and dinner (Tue–Sun), (closed Mon). Average main course: $9.
Read about the Relleno negro at Xni-Pec and other can’t-miss dishes in our “The best of the ‘burbs” article from June.