Six restaurants that excel at salsa
Caoba Mexican Bar & Grill In the people-watching crotch where Wicker Park and Bucktown collide, offering margarita pitchers in a breezy, open-front restaurant nearly guarantees a packed house, regardless of what’s on the plate. That’s why we were surprised at the better-than-average eats served at this Mexican spot. ’Ritas are ripe, chips are fresh, salsa is complex and smoky, and sizzling platters of seafood are downright scarfworthy, brimming with perfectly seared, fat scallops; spice-rubbed langostinos; and tender calamari tubes. Just skip the pedestrian stuff—especially the rock-hard sope and enchilada starters—and stick with the parrilladas, or mixed grills. 1619 N Damen Ave (773-342-2622). El: Blue to Damen. Bus: 50, 56, 72. Brunch (Sat, Sun), lunch (Fri–Sun) dinner. Average main course: $12.
Real Tenochtitlan Eating chef Geno Bahena’s food is like watching an episode of The Cosby Show—you can’t help but like it, even the 100th time around. So don’t be concerned that the menu is so similar to projects of his past; take it as a sign of specialization and focus on any dish sporting his incomparable salsas or moles: tender ostrich with ancho chile sauce, for example, or lamb with dark, brooding mole negro. Those familiar with Bahena might yawn at seeing the same plates again and again, but it’s worth hanging in there, either to relish in the comfort of his reruns or to be around when he finally does something new. 2451 N Milwaukee Ave (773-227-1050). El: Blue to Logan Square. Bus: 52, 56, 74. Dinner (closed Mon). Average main course: $20.
¡Salpicon! This swanky Mexican spot is known for perfect margaritas and chef Priscila Satkoff’s traditional salsas, queso fundido and earthy mole served with handmade tortillas. A weekly specials menu highlights seasonal ingredients, but you can pretty much always count on the trio of small tamales, the lamb chops in garlic-pasilla chile sauce and one of the best tequila selections in town. 1252 N Wells St (312-988-7811). El: Red to Clark/Division. Bus: 11, 36, 70, 156. Brunch (Sun), dinner. Average main course: $24.
Taquería el Asadero It’s not going to win any awards for most welcoming decor, but look past the Big Buck Hunter arcade game and the handful of tables that could use some busing, and you’ll find some of the freshest tacos in town. Meats are grilled on the spot (our favorite is the perfectly spiced carne asada), then sprinkled with fresh cilantro and onion and served up with a fiery, take-no-prisoners salsa verde. Wash it down with a cooling horchata and a side of creamy, made-to-order guac—served with a mound of fresh-from-the-fryer chips—that rivals the fancy tableside preparations you’ll find at upscale Mexican spots around town. 2213 W Montrose Ave (773-583-5563). El: Brown to Western. Bus: 11, 49, 78. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $5.
That Little Mexican Café The name evokes unknown taco stands and birreria shacks, so it took a second to get acclimated to this contemporary Edgewater restaurant. But we soon settled in: Just-fried chips and freshly made salsa are as nice a welcome as anybody can ask for. And with seven salsas available, you can spend your whole evening snacking and drinking margaritas. But then you’d miss out on the pillowy tamales stuffed with chicken and the succulent skirt steak. Never fear: This “little” café is actually a quickly growing operation (the first location is in Evanston), so you should have plenty of opportunities to come back for what you missed. 1055 W Bryn Mawr Ave (773-769-1004). El: Red to Bryn Mawr. Bus: 36, 84, 136. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $10.
Xni-Pec The name (pronounced “shnee pek”) refers to the runny nose–inducing, housemade habanero salsa, but the truth is, everything is so masterfully executed there’s no need to douse dishes with fire. Must-haves include Yucatecan specialties like tacos de cochinita, rich pork tacos cut by pickled onions, and papadzules, housemade tortillas stuffed with egg and topped with sprightly pumpkin-seed sauce. If the relleno negro tacos are on offer, order as many as you can—the shredded pork-chicken-beef mixture is immersed in a midnight-black sauce with throat-tickling heat and endless flavor. You won’t have room for the chilled, citrus-kissed, roasted pumpkin slices, but definitely take them to go. 3755 Grand Blvd, Brookfield (708-290-0082). Metra: Burlington/Santa Fe to Brookfield. Dinner. Average main course: $9.