After listening to no less than five reputable people tell me that Wholly Frijoles was the best Mexican food they'd ever had, I finally trekked up to the far north side (Lincolnwood) to see what all the fuss was about.
Attempt No. 1 yielded a total drive by (this is a blink-and-you'll-miss it sort of hole-in-the-wall), a near fatal flip around into oncoming traffic and a harried zoom into a tiny parking lot that doubled as a bumper car holding tank. After the mess of finding this gem in a haggard strip mall patch of suburbia, I wasn't at all prepared for a two (yep, two) hour wait. Goosebumps rose on my arms at this news. Though I couldn't stand by for this long, I prepared myself for my return trip later in the week (basically that consisted of me telling everyone that I could that I'd hit the golden jackpot; finally a restaurant that no one had heard of boasting a longer wait time than most of Chicago magazine's Top 20).
Attempt No. 2 and I wizened up a bit. Not only did I arrive before the harrowing lunch crunch (by 12:30 p.m., there was an hour wait), I kept my tummy flat-out empty and went nuts on the menu.
I started with a toppling basket of warm chips and homemade ground salsa (some of the best around), plus a lovely order of ceviche. Served with the requisite saltines, the Coctel de Ceviche ($10.95) was an intense arrangement of fresh seafood (chunks of snapper, baby shrimp, and chewy mussels) in a sweet tomato sauce. This appetizer was good, but compared to the rest of the meal, a downright waste of time and chews.
I ordered the simple sounding Chile Relleno y Enchilada special, but when it came out, both were covered in delicious sauces (mole and green tomatillo) and plated up with buttery yellow rice. My dining compadre had the best looking plate around, the Pollo a la Brasas ($9.95); a chargrilled half-chicken that tasted as if it had been marinating in fresh limes and garlic all night, and then spit roasted to perfection. Nestled into a bed of smoky chipolte mashed potatoes (with a dollop of butter, pure heaven), the caramel-colored chicken fell off the bone upon first tug.
The most satisfying and bowl-licking part of the meal was the traditional tortilla soup and slaw-like house salad that showed face just before the entree. The soup was much like I've had all over Mexico, and we were convinced there was cheese peppered throughout, but the waiter smartly informed us that the thickness came from blended tortillas. Stone brilliant. When the salad arrived, we were stunned (and happy) that the ingredients (iceberg, shaved corn, red onion and paper thin radishes) were chopped and drenched in a buttermilk lime dressing. Beyond addictive, it's the exact salad I'm always longing for.
The ultimate for me, though, was the Puy de Queso de Mango ($4.25). Somehow this fresh mango cheesecake was a miracle mix between flan and vanilla mousse and had actual mango strings falling out of the body of the cake. Covered in sliced mango (on top of homemade shipped cream) and squirted with tart raspberry puree, this dessert has easily made its way into my top desserts of all time. Thank God for spreading the good word on this one, kids.
THE FINAL RAVE: No matter how long it is, just stand by for the wait. No other Mexican grill food will ever compare.
KEEP IT GOING:
Read It: 26th Street Mexican Independence Day Parade
I bet this rowdy parade (in September) will have the local vendors pitting against each other for dibs on who has the best carnita and churro. I can't wait.
Drink It: Uncle Julio's Hacienda
The chips are thin as reeds, warm as toast and plentiful to boot. That, and a good stiff one, is just about all that's required for a delightful Mexican shove down.
Eat It: Nuevo Leon
They say it's the best in Pilsen. I'll have to hear it from at least two more people before I boot Wholly Frijoles from the top. Convince me, please.
Get Crazy With It: La Bonita
They changed the name from Ixcapuzalco, but kept the same menu and sadly the same prices. Good as the grub is, $50 bones (at lunch) just slays me. The good news? The crowds left with the name change.