Raul Arreola tries again, this time in Logan Square.
The thing about Mixteco Grill—the crazed, line-around-the-block appeal of it—is that when it opened it wasn’t just good. It was surprisingly good. Who had heard of chef Raul Arreola? And who would have expected that this random restaurant on Montrose Avenue would put out moles to rival Bahena’s and Bayless’s? The place was a shock. But everybody likes a good surprise, which is why the restaurant doubled in size before its first anniversary.
Now no longer associated with Mixteco, Arreola has stuck out on his own with Rustico (in the space that used to be Rustik), and this time surprise isn’t an option. Now there are just expectations. But I’m afraid those expectations aren’t being met. Even on a sleepy Sunday night, I felt that eating at Rustico was like being on the receiving end of a Mexican-food assembly line. It all seemed hurried, and not just in the plating but in deeper ways: The mole manchamantales, a sauce that should have layers of fruit and spice, seemed slapped together at the last minute, and lacked complexity. Likewise, shells of the empanadas were soft, not crisp. And the fish tacos were wet. The tres leches cake: dry.
These weren’t fatal flaws—the flavors were usually still there, and the meats were impeccably cooked (especially the chicken with a nuanced peanut sauce). But even when the food tasted good, it suffered from an affliction not unusual in second acts: a lack of soul. There certainly wasn’t any in the crab cakes, two big pucks that were deep fried, drizzled with two cream sauces and finished with a pile of fried onions. Though maybe it wasn’t soul that I was missing so much as acid? Either way, Arreola had unfortunately managed to surprise me again.