Rick Bayless's Pilsen favorites
Frontera Grill's Rick Bayless gets spicy with snacks (and an unbeatable tres leches cake) in Pilsen.
Somewhere along the line, between running his restaurants, making public appearances, writing his cookbooks and filming his television show, Rick Bayless has learned how to talk expertly with a mouth full of carnitas.
“There are two flavor profiles in Mexican food,” he says between bites of a taco at Don Pedro Carnitas (1113 W 18th St, 312-829-4757): home food and street food. “Street food almost always has this super well-cooked fatty element in it that is completely balanced by straight, bright acid.”
He squeezes some lime on his taco.
“When Mexicans go to Europe, they’re just incredulous. There is nothing to balance all that heaviness. They consider it a really super one-dimensional cuisine. They’re always reaching for a lime or a pickle or something—an acid.”
He swallows, takes another bite.
“The street-food balance in Mexico is very much about the fatty [being] as strong as the acid. And that’s why all the salsas in Mexico are not based on tomatoes, they’re based on tomatillos. Because they’re hugely more acidic.”
He eyes the bottles of tomatillo salsa on the table, glances at the plate of pork in front of him. He reaches for the salsa but stops himself.
“I shouldn’t do this, because I’m going to get too full, but it’s really good,” he says. He stands up. “Have you seen the copper pots in back?”
As much as Bayless loves the carnitas here, he loves the handmade copper pots they’re made in almost more. In the back of the restaurant, there are three Jacuzzi-sized pots, bubbling wildly, the ears and snouts of pigs rising to the top. Bayless looks at the pots with a mixture of hunger and awe but finally manages to turn away. On his trips to Pilsen, carnitas are just the beginning.
He heads west. He passes flower shops and bakeries, but doesn’t even slow down to glance in the windows. He’s focused on his next taco, and when he takes a seat at the counter of Birrería Reyes de Ocotlan (1322 W 18th St, 312-733-2613), he orders three: one cabeza, a mixture of cheeks, jowls and other meat from the head of a cow; one lengua, chopped beef tongue; and one of the eponymous birria—a fat taco overstuffed with juicy, shredded goat meat.
Bayless knows some people have problems with goat. The city banned it from the Maxwell Street Market, and customers at his restaurants are often shocked when they read the word goat on the menu. “[To them,] it’s as bizarre as saying ‘cat tacos,’ or something like that,” he says. But he can’t get enough of the stuff. He takes turns noshing on all three of the tacos, ignoring for the moment the bowl of consommé—made with the savory goat drippings—that sits steaming to his right. It’s a thin but lush soup, and earlier Bayless had taken dried chiles and cracked them, sprinkling the shards into the broth. But the consommé fills a need he doesn’t have right now.
“Practically everything served in a taquería at some point or another can be a hangover cure,” he says. “The thing is, if you put a lot of these chiles in there, chiles do that thing that speeds up your heart rate and it gets your blood flowing faster, and usually that will help a hangover.”
He samples a couple spoonfuls of soup and pushes it away. The tacos are only half eaten, but he’s already on the move again—there’s more to be consumed. On the way to Restaurant La Casa Del Pueblo (1834 S Blue Island Ave, 312-421-4664), Bayless puts in a good word for that Mexican institution, the grocery-store eatery. “If you have a Mexican grocery near you, the taquería that’s inside of that place is really a good bet, typically,” he explains. La Casa is next door to its grocery-store counterpart, and is not so much a taquería as it is a fonda—a Mexican diner. All kinds of homestyle Mexican dishes are displayed cafeteria-style, including tortas de camaron (fried shrimp patties) and chicharrónes en salsa verde (pork rinds that have been soaked in a green-chile sauce). All of it is “super homey,” Bayless says. Though he admits that the chicharrónes are “an acquired taste.”
Hankering for cecina—a jerkylike dried beef—and thoroughly sick of tacos by this point, Bayless makes his next stop Taquería Cardona’s (1451 W 18th St, 312-492-8059). There, he reads on the menu that the cecinas are made from sirloin. He’s incredulous. Calling over the server, he fires off some questions in Spanish. She agrees that the cecina is definitely not sirloin, but more likely a cut from the round. And, she adds proudly, it’s cured in-house.
Bayless orders a huarache, a flat oval of masa (tortilla dough) topped with cecina. At the same time, somebody else in the restaurant orders a mango agua fresca, and the server heads directly to a blender, pureeing the sweet, fresh mango and pouring it into a square goblet. When the huarache is served, it’s covered in iceberg lettuce—probably an American addition, Bayless says—but that does little to interfere with the intricate beefy and briny flavor of the chopped cecina.
Soon, he’s on his way to Kristoffer’s Cafe (1733 S Halsted St, 312-829-4150), a coffee shop/bakery he has been tipped off to by a friend. The tres leches cake is rumored to be great, but now, looking at the menu, Bayless is a little dubious. There are all kinds of three-milks (condensed, evaporated and regular) cake here, some in sacrilegious variations—flavors like eggnog, caramel, piña colada and Kahlua. “Here in the United States we tend to want 31 flavors of everything,” he mutters.
But when he sees that Kristoffer’s serves chocoflan, he practically melts. “Chocoflan,” he says longingly. “I didn’t see that!” Bayless is more than familiar with chocoflan, though in his world it’s called pastel imposible (impossible cake). The dish conglomerates chocolate cake and flan, but here’s the impossible part: Though the cake starts at the bottom of the pan, and the flan on top, the two flip-flop during the baking process, resulting in a pastel where the chocolate is on top and flan is on the bottom. It’s a huge hit on Bayless’s TV show, so he has to try a piece here, as well as a slice of traditional tres leches and—what the hell—a Kahlua-flavored slice, too.
He swoons at the first taste of chocoflan. And the tres leches—it isn’t good, it’s more than good. It is sumptuous without being soggy, satisfying without being overly sweet. Bayless sits at the table and falls into deep thought, forking cake into his mouth in silence. Finally, he walks up to the counter and asks to speak to the couple who own the place. He doesn’t have to introduce himself—they’ve been excited since he walked in. Now, as he gets ready to address them, they hold on to each other in nervous anticipation.
“I’ve eaten a lot of tres leches in Mexico,” he tells them. “And this—this is the best one I’ve ever had.”