My fascination with Mexico builds on a daily basis, an allure I credit to the mass amounts of Mexican restaurants populating the streets of Chicago. Every time I turn a corner there's another hole-in-the-wall ripe for exploration. Thanks to the bravery of these sassy Mexican imports, my relationship with every far-flung region grows at a fantastically rapid pace.
For weeks my pal Lisa has been waxing poetic about a small Mexican restaurant she'd been hearing about, one that co-mingles the hearty influence of Lebanese cooking with the rustic bliss of homegrown Mexican cuisine. We finally gave it a go, proving the adage true: Good things come to those who wait.
Tucked into a bleak section of North Avenue, Taqueria Puebla is the only restaurant of its kind in Chicago. The Puebla region of Mexico (just south of Mexico City) sports the influence of Lebanon, and many thanks to owner Tony Anteliz for bringing its fierce flavor back to my town. Quite possibly the best Mexican food I've had in Chicago, it tastes how Mexico feels in my dreams: rich, spirited and soul altering.
When we walked in, we were bombarded with an eyeball-ripping array of soccer posters and staged snapshots. Antonio, Tony's outgoing father, used to be a journalist in Mexico, and every notable person he's ever interviewed has been documented and plastered across the walls.
Once we plunked down at a sunlit booth by the window, Antonio immediately came at us with the round menu, inquiring as to how spicy we like our food. Once we gave up the goods, he quickly explained exactly what we needed to be eat. Perfect, I love it when I'm steered in the right direction; usually that honor is placed on me (as if I'm some sort of expert) and to have someone with authority spare me the thought process...well more power to them.
We started with the chalupas, a particularly tasty version of a mini tostada. In truth, it's more like a lightly fried disk of corn tortilla smothered with perky green salsa, chopped onions and queso Oaxaca (Antonio happily travels back to Mexico every few weeks to bring the mozzarella-like cheese back to the States).
Next rolled out a couple of tacos arebas, an insanely mouthwatering roasted pork taco wrapped in a thick flour tortilla. Here's where the Lebanese influence kicks in: The taco was more akin to grilled pita bread, with the added density of a rough, homemade tortilla. The chunks of charred pork were peppered with smoky caramelized onions, all served like a little rolled burrito with a wedge of tart lime nestled into its belly (think Mexican lamb schwerma).
At this point, Lisa and I were in tacos-studded-with-oregano heaven and didn't think things could get much better. Then the cemita rolled out. This doozy of a sandwich freakin' made my week! Antonio had recommended that we go with the Milaneza version (breaded and butterflied pork) and he definitely didn't steer us wrong.
Stacked onto a toasted sesame seed roll, the flattened pork was the size of a lumbering truck driver's hand. The bread came slathered with a thin layer of creamy avocado, a giant fistful of stringy queso and a dose of deep burgundy roasted chiplote peppers (carted in from Puebla bi-weekly as well). Good lord, this sandwich, this meal, this experience ignited my deep-seeded hunger for the good life in Mexico, and Lisa and I immediately starting plotting to open a restaurant on the beach in our favorite south-of-the-border village. The only thing missing from the sandwich was the papalo (an herb much like cilantro)...but only because it's out of season here (Antonio generally gets it from a family member's backyard). The Anteliz family is all about authenticity—even if it has to drop loads on airfare to get it.
The Final Rave: Though it came out a little late in my meal, when I slurped down some of the horchata, I thought I'd died and gone to cookie heaven. It went down like a liquefied cinnamon sugar cookie.
Keep It Going:
Read it: MexGrocer
Get your Mexican fix with this thorough website filled with all things Mexican. Tamale kits, mortar and pestles and Mexican hot chocolate abound.
Drink it: Salud Tequila Lounge
If you're gonna have Mexican, you gotta have tequila. Enough said.
Eat it: Salpicon
Mole was invented in Puebla, and this cozy joint claims to have the best in Chicago. Just add it to my list of places to try. So many, so dang many...
Get crazy with it: Centro Linguistico Puebla
If you think it's high time you learned Spanish, why not do it in the lovely state of Puebla? This affordable school ($299/week including food and homestay) will get you started.
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.