Counsel's Table: Vaya cantinas my friends
Does anyone else remember when Mexican food was basically tacos and burritos? Maybe if you wanted to impress your date you could get enchiladas suizas, hold the jalapenos. Not any more.
It might have started with Rick Bayless, but even the Arizona legislature wouldn't be able to stop this haute cuisine south of the border storm.
One recent entrant into this market is Mercadito. A staple in the New York NewMex community, this cantina is a fine addition, if you can find it. Hidden in plain sight on Kinzie, a tiny, tiny sign is the only clue to its location. It is a big, open room with a Mayan seaside look to it, complete with rigging and wicker, gold and bronze against exposed brick. One side is made up of a long and comfortable bar, the other with even more comfortable-looking cushy booths with well-spaced tables in between. There are a few outside tables, but then again, too few to mention.
Our server was friendly and attentive and quick to point out the award-winning dishes on the menu. Although this place is billed as a taco paradise, we found that the real action was in the starter courses.
The tacos were good, not great. They come three to an order with the caveat that all three have to be the same kind, which seemed like one of those rules like some motion call judges have, the ones that don't make any sense, but you have to follow. We went with the "award-winning" Estilo Baja, which was batter-fried mahi-mahi with lots of Mexican coleslaw and some chipotle aioli. I am sure it was mahi-mahi, but it could have been cod or pretty much anything. The fish was hard-crust fried and slaw was good, but there didn't seem to be anything particularly Mexican about it. Together, though, it was pretty tasty, especially if you are a fish-and-chips fan and always wondered why the Brits didn't make tacos out of it.
Next were carnitas. It is hard to make a moist carnitas (shredded seasoned pork) taco; they always seem to be a little dry and these were no exception. Good, tasty pork (with more cole slaw), the promise of toasted peanuts, but it didn't seem to have many of them. The last and best taco choice for us was the carne, rosemary-marinated chunks of skirt steak with something called a potato-rajas-cactus fundido sauce that seemed more citrusy then cheesy to us, but still, very good.
While the tacos did not live up to their over-the-top billings, the starters more than made up the lost ground. The guacamoles were traditional and pina. Traditional was good; pina was great. Take the traditional base and mix in some pineapple and habanero and wow - sweet, sneaky spicy and delicious. The menu claimed that mint was included, but they must have used it up in the mojitos that I need to try next time, because none was to be tasted, but it would have been a great complement.
A helpful server pushed the dorado ceviches and that got her extra on the tip, because it tasted like they caught the mahi-mahi outside, picked the oranges, chiles and avocado from the garden out back and served it two minutes later. It was fresh, it was delicious, and it was best in show. The salsas were also great and at two for $4 you should just end the mystery and get them all. Well, at least get the chipotle, which was rich and smoky and worth doubling up on. The verde is for the faint of heart - but in fairness there is one heat-hater in every group, and this is for them. Contrast, however, the habanero salsa. Big, proud and open about its creamy heat, it will leave you looking for a Kleenex and some more chips.
Side dishes are part of the experience here and to be shared. And I'm sorry, I know that foodies have trumpeted the arroz verde, which is basically cheesy rice, but we just didn't see the allure. The thick top layer of mixed melted Mexican cheese was great, but the rice below was bland and nothing special, could have used a little zip. Same with the fried plantains, which we somehow expected to be a little crispy but came off as mushy fried bananas with little or nothing coming out of that nice starchy base with a little bite.
Lagniappe: If any of my 50 loyal readers favor low-brow, friendly, big margaritas and icy cerveza fria along with great traditional Mexican fare over the NewMex movement, try Perez on my favorite food strip of West Randolph. The goat soup is hot and full of sweet tender goat's meat (don't knock it until you've tried it) and some of the best in town. Plenty of taco/burrito/enchilada options, but also some really great spicy shrimp dishes. One warning, this isn't your yuppie Mexican joint: Don't ask for it spicy unless you mean it, but if you mean it, man, this is a great joint.
West Randolph also boasts De Cero, a casual but upscale taqueria with a huge selection of crazy, interesting and delicious taco filling from duck confit to big eye tuna and several vegetarian options. It has a great bar for tequila tasting. Both Perez and De Ceroare perfect pre-Bulls' or Hawks' stops.
108 W Kinzie St., Chicago
Appetizers and tacos: $10.50 - $14.50
Entrees: $21.50 - $27.50
Verdict: Two gavels
Reprinted with permission from Law Bulletin Publishing Company