Sky Full of Bacon

#31: Amelia’s, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

I wouldn’t have paid any attention to Amelia’s if Martha Bayne hadn’t reviewed it for the Reader. First off, that’s because I would have mistaken it for this Amelia’s, a onetime blight on the Mexican food landscape which (in a victory for truth in advertising, I suppose) now has an even more blatantly inauthentic name like Fiesta Sombrero or Cantina Cucaracha. David Hammond reviewed that Amelia’s thusly:

I’m awe-struck, however, by the transcendently sensation-free salsas. I’m bummed by the Disney-version of mole negro – tasting as though squeezed from a bottle of Bosco. I take a scoop of beans but can barely believe it: there’s weight on my tongue, I feel it, I know there’s something there and yet…there’s just about no flavor, there’s barely even a hint of grease, there’s no there there.

This new no-relation Amelia’s has a far more promising, if also somewhat checkered, Mexican food pedigree: the couple who owned Mundial Cocina Mestizo, an upscale restaurant in Pilsen, divorced, selling it to the third partner in the business; now they are each opening separate businesses. The ex-wife plans to open a bakery, the ex-husband has opened this attractive restaurant in… Canaryville.

And that’s the second reason I would never have noticed this restaurant: it’s in the middle of freakin’ nowhere. This may have seemed like a repeat of the successful urban pioneer strategy Mundial employed, the first high-end joint in Pilsen just as it gentrified. But Pilsen was at least full of life if not entrees over $8; this is in an attractive building facing a vast empty lot that was once stockyards, with next to no housing in its immediate vicinity. You’re going to have to want to go to Amelia’s.

So do you want to go to Amelia’s?  You do, I think.  Chef Eusebio Garcia worked at MK before opening Mundial, and his thing has been high-end Mex tinged with Mediterranean flavors.  My feeling is that the former are much, much more promising than the latter.  Oysters topped with spinach, hot sauce and Asiago cheese reminded me that Asiago cheese should be banished to Panera by now, and it didn’t help that no two seemed to have the same proportion of those ingredients.  A gorgonzola polenta on the side of a ribeye was a bowl of warm blue cheese goo, like baby food for gourmet babies.

But the straight-up Mexican things were quite good, especially scallops in a chipotle sauce with onion marmalade and some grilled vegetables.  And the steaming homemade tortillas were impossible not to want to instantly grab and wrap anything at hand in. Generally, in most of the upscale Mex places I think you’re better off ordering off the appetizer menu, where you’ll find simpler and more authentic things like tamales rather than entrees consisting of a large hunk of protein in a sauce with vegetables on the side, which is not really the way Mexicans tend to eat; and Amelia’s is no exception to this rule.

So the next time you’re facing the prospect of a long line at Mixteco, Frontera, or whatever Geno Bahena’s opened this week, consider being a real food adventurer and making the hike to Amelia’s.  Since there’s basically no traffic for a mile in any direction, it’s an easy shot down the Ryan to 43rd from the north side; the neighborhood is no scarier than, say, Humboldt Park and probably safer just by virtue of being so empty.  You’ll get the personal, relaxed attention those other places are too busy to provide, and you’ll help sustain, for at least a little while longer, a very attractive and pleasant restaurant which probably made the mistake of opening at the end of the universe.

Amelia’s Mexican Cafe
4559 S Halsted St

IL 60609
(773) 538-8200

P.S. Chuck Sudo has reviewed it here for Chicagoist.  Note that he had exactly the same things I had!  (Yes, I was his extra ordering power.)

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