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Start the Presses!

Misty swoons over homemade huaraches, flecked with black beans and pressed to order.
Monday Sep 17, 2007.     By Misty Tosh
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Huarache Restaurant
photo: Misty Tosh
I'd say that no more than half of Americans have had the sublime pleasure of partaking in a homemade tortilla. And, you can credit that number to the Mexicans that call America home. Made-from-scratch tortillas are a thing of beauty; they're far, far superior to their factory-created counterparts, and based on the number of ingredients they take, it's a wonder why more cooks don't make them. Ahh, such is the convenience of our economy, though. We opt for what is fast and cheap, shunning that which is from the root.

Lucky for us, a few places in town, including Huaraches Restaurant, serve only homemade tortillas. In fact, Huaraches makes more than just tortillas. Via an old-school, well-worn Mexican tortilla press, it pops out crude but perfectly shaped sopas, gorditas and huaraches flecked with black beans, which are my favorite.

A real huarache is a traditional Mexican sandal (you'd know it if you saw it) made from a leather weave or sometimes the soles of tires, and the food version sort of looks like the shoe. Go figure.

Anyway, Huaraches Restaurant sits tucked away into a non-nondescript row of businesses along a dusty stretch of Lawrence Avenue; it's worth a pit stop any time of day. I like sitting at the little bar by the open kitchen and watching as the efficient staff of four goes bananas for the packed house. I've never seen anything like it. Two waitresses service the bar and the spacious, color-splashed dining room, while two very skilled cooks rock the grill. They're whipping out more food from that tiny kitchen than a full-service truck-stop diner, which is pretty dang remarkable, especially considering how long it takes to bust out a huarache.

The cook grabs a glob of soft masa, adds a sprinkle of mashed black beans, hand pounds the tidy packet into a chubby ball, secures it between two sheets of plastic, and, finally, in a wild burst of fury, slams down the ancient-looking tortilla press. With a look of studied intensity, she yanks open the contraption, grabs the flattened mass, and hurls it quickly onto the searing fry grill. What a performance.

After watching this mini-show, there was no way I couldn't order one of these little ditties. I skipped topping mine with meat, instead opting for veg-friendly mushrooms; a spell later, my huarache made its way to my place setting. Topped with tangy red salsa on one side and tart green salsa on the other, it came doused with chopped onions and queso fresco, the whole mess squirted in creama. Talk about a vision of glory. I wolfed down about three bites, and I was totally full.

The friendly fella consuming the barstool next to me had ordered a giant platter of chile rellenos and a heaping bowl of chicken soup. Once I laid eyes on his bounty, my mouth started watering again. I could sense him feeling me eyeball his lunch. Out of nowhere, he pushed his plate toward me and offered me the first nibble of his food. Wha?? What a gentleman! I happily took him up on his offer and carved off a respectable bit of relleno; no sooner had I swooned over the taste sensation of the gooey cheese and stewed tomatoes and peppers, did I spy him pushing his bowl of perfectly dressed soup at me. I chuckled and claimed the first bite of his soup as well. Thanks to him, I now know what I'm ordering on my next visit to Huarache. Though, with prices all under ten bones, I could've afforded to get the sopa this time, too.

The Final Rave: Typical of Mexican restaurants in Mexico, ice seems to be at a premium here. There's nothing quite like the first taste of lukewarm horchata. And, I don't mean that in a good way.

Keep it going:

Try It: Frontera Fresco
The upper crust raves about the huaraches at this upscale fast-food eatery. Good luck finding parking, though; it's downtown on the 7th floor of Marshall Fields.

Eat It: Dona Lolis Quesadillas
This Rogers Park Mexican restaurant also dishes our huaraches and homemade tortillas. Every time I have them, though, it's a comatose siesta directly afterward. Related, or no?

Do It: Los Niches
I still cannot get over how wonderful the chicken soup is at this Colombian restaurant. It's only served on Monday, though.

Get Crazy With It: Huaraches
If you're gonna eat the food, you might as well sport the shoe. They're surprisingly classic and cute, in a funky kind of way.

Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.


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