Counsel's Table: Viva Zapatista
Chicago Lawyer Magazine
South Wabash is starting to rival West Randolph for its concentration of great food. On the 1300 block alone a new gastropub called The Scout opened, Gioco is still serving some of the best southern Italian and across the street is Zapatista — a nearly perfect Mexican restaurant.
Nearly perfect only because the service can be painfully slow, but the food and atmosphere make up for it. The huge, airy exposed brick bar boasts tequilas of all shapes and sizes, cold beer and delicious snacks. Mini tostadas come five to an order. Try the platano — sweet, caramelized plantains with a little habanero bite drenched in chocolaty mole sauce. The free chips — a hallmark of any Mexican joint — come with a chipotle salsa that will have smoke lovers asking for more. The other benchmark is guacamole and here they do it table side — you set the heat level — and it is fresh and delicious. Seating is indoor and outside on a surprisingly nice and roomy sidewalk patio. Inside the heavy wooden tables and rustic décor aim to put you in a southwestern frame of mind and do a pretty good job of it, especially when aided by any one of a dozen margarita choices.
The food is really good, better than most. Expect all your classic tacos, burritos and they are all good, but venture out a little more. Try chiles rellenos — huge roasted poblano peppers lightly dusted in cornmeal (the same stuff they make their homemade corn tortillas with) overstuffed with shredded chicken tinga (stewed chicken with Mexican spices) and Chihuahua cheese or the spicy alambres de pollo with a little bacon and chiles. Both were worth the wait.
Pass on the "special" mac and cheese, which is sleepy, not special, and the empanadas that were OK as empanadas go but are served in this weird tomato/oregano sauce that tasted a lot like Gioco's marinara.
But do not skip the fajitas. This is the main event here and it is the kind of show that will make your kids — young or old — want to come back. Choose chicken, shrimp, tilapia, carne asada or even filet. We tried the carne asada and were rewarded with a giant volcano caldron of bubbling, molten, hot cheese, with mild chiles, grilled scallions and, of course, lots and lots of strips of meat. The strips of seasoned steak that were literally drowning in this roiling hollowed stone were somehow still charred and crispy on the outside and tender and delicious inside. This is one of the best presentations in town.
Lagniappe: It's just a simple syllogism. New Orleans has the best food in America. Emeril's has the best food in New Orleans. Therefore … in a city teeming with great chefs and restaurants, Emeril's sets the standard. No, Emeril Lagasse will probably not be holding court and shouting "bam" at every sprinkling of Essence on the BBQ shrimp, but the shrimp will be there and they are spectacular — meaty and tender bathed in a smoky buttery sauce that is so smooth that you almost miss the peppery, Worcestershire bite. Almost. Emeril's is not what you think it is. Sure, it probably has the best wine cellar in NOLA, but it is not the slightest bit haughty. It's fine dining, but jeans are fine too. It's amazing food, think yellow fin tuna over crisp pork belly served in a lettuce wrap with a shaving or two of jalapeño. This is Chef David Slater's sustainable garden, fresh catch, small farm playground and boy does he like to play. Try everything from the cast iron rib eye, sorghum-smoked duck served over little nutty pasta and special magic slaw or the escargot with chorizo or the short rib shepherd's pie with brown egg on top. I only have two rules at Emeril's. Please don't say "bam," but if you do, tell them you are from New York, not Chicago, and don't consider leaving without trying the banana cream pie.
Traveler's tip: I remember when people got dressed up to go on airplanes. Not anymore. That was over way before 9/11. But still, before those bastards attacked us it was still sort of fun to fly. You almost always got fed. First class was spectacular. One time they carved beef tenderloin in the aisle. Drinks flowed and the people who worked for the airlines were proud of their jobs. Sadly that is gone too. Business flying is awful; the only reason it is better than Greyhound is that it usually doesn't take as long, but even that isn't guaranteed. If you fly out of Chicago, hands down Midway is the answer. Since there is no good food served on planes, eat while you are at the airport and eat at Miller's Pub. Yep, the branch office of the joint on Wabash, which is still great and serves a fine steak or signature ribs way, way late, midnight during the week and 2 a.m. on weekends. Miller's at Midway will serve you a proper breakfast, has a nice bar and great reubens, burgers, ribs and the like. Plus, since it is by Gate B12, most of the hungry traveling sheep who don't know any better are in line at one of the earlier chain places so you can usually get in and out without wasting any of that precious time.
1307 S. Wabash Ave., Chicago
(Also located in Lincoln Park and Northbrook)
Appetizers: $8 to $12
Entrees: $11 to $36
Verdict: Three gavels