Sky Full of Bacon

#50: Chantico, and the End of My Quest

Chantico is an attractive Mexican restaurant a little ways past one of my earlier discoveries, the grocery store and restaurant Ricardo, on Diversey west of Pulaski. The neighborhood is from Jalisco, mostly (the shop names make that fairly obvious), but one of Chantico’s specialties is apparently enchiladas poblano, which is to say, enchiladas in the style of Pueblo. I asked the owner if he was from Pueblo, and the answer I really got was no, he was from long experience in the restaurant biz in Chicago.

Which is a good and a bad thing, when it comes to opening a Mexican restaurant that’s a little nicer than most of the hole-in-the-wall joints around you. The bad part is if you’re tempted to remake Mexican food in a more American dining style. This is the problem I have even with some of our best alumni-of-Bayless places— summed up by the little Chichen-Itza pyramid of rice next to the steak that you often see in upscale Mex. Basically you’ve taken Mexican flavors and used them in an entirely American way of dining, a big piece of protein and a side of rice; it’s the same steak and starch you’d get in a Wisconsin supper club, with a taste of Mexico spooned over the top. Even when Mexicans eat steak and a side of rice, that’s not really how they eat it; it’s essentially an American fusion dish, invented here to match American preconceptions about what makes a $22 entree.

Does that matter? Wouldn’t you rather have a pumpkinseed mole on your steak than A-1 or Heinz? Now we’re getting into the same debate I had with myself over Chizakaya and izakayas. Inauthentic is fine so long as it’s good… but I want to be able to find authentic, too.

And to get back to Chantico, I liked the authentic things I had here a lot. Starting with the salsas, housemade, with hand-roasted chilis in them. The front one is a smoky arbol, the rear salsa verde, and both pleased me with the full rounded flavor of fresh ingredients, even bringing out a little sweetness as well as considerable heat in the salsa verde.

I tried a pork adobado taco, as an appetizer, or maybe a control. I liked it a lot, about as well as any non-spit pastor-type taco I’ve ever had. The adobado didn’t seem to be just out of a Goya can but to have well-rounded flavor, the pork was cooked to order and tender and juicy.

Then there was what was supposed to be a torta. Except it had been changed in all sorts of ways. Instead of a thin slice of tough beef, there was a tender, freshly-grilled to medium piece of thicker steak. Instead of a crispy torta roll, there was a kind of pretzel bun, like on the burger at Kuma’s. Here something that works fine as it is had been Americanized halfway out of recognition. But you know what? Even with the manifest wrongness of the pretzel bun this was a pretty tasty sandwich, and I was happy to find its second half waiting for me in the fridge the next day. It’s just not an authentic one. But when the owner is telling you how it matters to him to use good beef and cook it right, what are you going to do, tell him, no, you should use the cheap gristly stuff everybody else uses and cook it to roofing tile like they do? They didn’t have to close Cemitas Puebla to open Chantico, they both exist in Chicago right now. Good for him for having pride in his quality ingredients.

So Chantico is an attractive place, with a committed owner who could use some business. If you want authenticity, quiz him a little about how things are made before ordering. But I’ll be back for several things on the menu, including the enchiladas poblano and the fish tacos. That’s the kind of thing where I think his pride might make for a particularly strong example of the form.

Chantico Mexican Grill
4457 W. Diversey
(773) 687-8604

* * *

And so I come to the end of my effort to discover 50 restaurants that had never been reviewed on LTHForum, which began over two years ago here. At the time I felt that LTHForum, which I helped found, had grown stale, people eating at the same places over and over again (I joked to a friend about making “LTH Greatest Hits Tour” T-shirts listing dates of revisits to the likes of Lao Sze Chuan, Myron and Phil’s, etc.) I wanted to prove that there was plenty more out there to be found— and I think I did; though many of the places proved to be ordinary, and more than a few have since closed, the list’s discoveries came to include a great middle-eastern place in a whole enclave of middle-eastern food on the south side, a whole genre of supermercado taquerias (I eventually decided not to count them towards the 50, because they’d have been a third of the total list), a music venue hidden in a grocery store, and more. (You can find them all by clicking Restaurant Reviews under Categories, and looking for the reviews with numbers in the titles.)

So what was the point of this exercise? I actually had the discussion about that a few months back on LTHForum itself, when I protested the fact that discussion had shifted so much toward Burger King, Five Guys, Chick-Fil-A and other such fast food things. My point was, we had lowered the barrier to entry too much, if people could participate with nothing more than frickin’ Burger King to offer their fellow foodies; at the very least you should have to talk about your local taqueria or whatever. As I noted a while back, Wendy Aeschlimann summed up my side of the argument admirably:

People can post about anything they want. That said, I find it exceedingly odd that the food that is “capturing the imagination” of this board lately is mass-produced, of inferior quality, involves CAFO meat, “prepared” by a teenager trained by corporate, and available on every toll road. I don’t get it. One of the reasons we all live in a big city is precisely so we don’t have to regularly eat that stuff — much less discuss it.

Frankly, I’m surprised this was even controversial; it wouldn’t have been when LTHForum was started. But this isn’t the first place where mediocrity has snuck in under the guise of “tolerance.” In any case, my 50-unreviewed-restaurants project was mentioned as evidence that all the continents hadn’t been discovered yet; that there were great rewards out there for the adventurous foodie, if only you would get off your butt and look for them.

I still believe that’s true— but I also think something else has shifted in the six years since LTHForum first came along. Part of the reason the core group of us who started LTHForum, or were central to its early growth, got so enthused about cheap ethnic dining was because fine dining, which was all the media talked about then (with a few honorable exceptions— the Reader on occasion, the Cheap Eats column in the Tribune), just didn’t seem that interesting much of the time. We weren’t prejudiced against it per se— I made my name on Chowhound in 2002 with an epic recounting of the 23-course meal at Trio prepared by a promising young chef named Achatz— but we certainly found it far from the only, or even most, exciting thing happening in food locally.

There was one mainstream media review of an upscale restaurant that always stuck in my mind. It was a fake pan-South American joint near Navy Pier called De La Costa, and the reviewer (a big one to this day) was talking about some martini glass containing a few spoonfuls of ceviche… for $50. Which he seemed to think was an okay deal, and I thought was insane. Of course, difference #1 is that he had an expense account for such follies, and I don’t. So right there was a reason why I felt more inclined to trust my fellow LTHers, who would go out and find ceviche for $8.95 in some Latino neighborhood that would blow this stuff away. And that is why LTHForum mattered, because it knew how to respond to a bullshit dish from a bullshit restaurant like that with something practical and good, that made you feel smart for preferring it to what the suckers eating downtown were paying too damn much for.

Not a $50 martini glass of ceviche.

The first thing that changed over time was that the media started paying more attention to what we paid attention to (and even sometimes hiring us to cover it). New outlets like Time Out Chicago included the ethnic food/neighborhood scene in their coverage as a matter of course, and the ones that already did cover it did more of it, because we proved there was a receptive audience interested in it. Increasingly when somebody would do a “100 best things we ate” list, it would be spotted with the things we cared about and turned people on to, Burt’s Pizza and Cemitas Puebla and Katy’s Dumplings.

But what also has changed is that dining in Chicago has changed. The use-every-part-of-the-pig, simple-farmer’s-market-tastes ethos that has come to dominate at least the middle of the high end— what David Hammond calls the non-interventionists, as opposed to the molecular gastronomists— has had the effect that fine dining now has a lot more of the virtues that our little ethnic places once had for us. They’re serving food that’s not gussied up and artsy-fartsy, but sings of its authentic flavors and peasanty pleasures. It’s certainly why my blog is about a lot more medium-high-end dining these days than it was even when I started it; that scene’s just a lot more exciting to me than it used to be.

But those places are on the media’s radar in a way that taquerias never were; no LTHer is ever going to discover the next Purple Pig, because the next Purple Pig has a PR person working the media three months before opening. So the discussion on a board like LTH— and the same is true of Yelp, and the blogs, and so on— is never going to lead on those places. That’s why, what LTH is talking about this month, is what was in Time Out last month, or three or six months ago. This still has value— you get a picture of how restaurants evolve, which you don’t from some magazine or newspaper laying down the law on a place once in an official review. But it’s a different thing; it doesn’t have the thrill of uncovering hidden worlds that we once knew when Devon and Chinatown and Maxwell Street first began to divulge their secrets to us, now almost a decade ago.

So I’m done trying to school LTHForum on finding new places. Its job now is real-time vox populi reviewing, hopefully about places more worthy than Chick Fil-A. Me, on some days my goal is to be Jonathan Gold, the guy who knows every taqueria in town; other days, it’s to not worry about being something and to do more, sell more pieces and get wider exposure. (Some of that’s in the works, stay tuned.) But at least I can say, there’s no doubt, the city hasn’t been picked clean yet. I found 50; there has to be yet another one, somewhere near you.

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