If Italian is Chicago’s favorite ethnic food then Mexican (in the guise of Tex-Mex or even “southwestern cuisine”) has to be runner-up. We’ve got loads of “authentic” Mexican all over town, ranging from Mexican neighborhood spots to fancy-schmancy Topolobampo and Frontera Grill. A couple of now-fortunately-forgotten joints even tried to create nueva cocina of their own, their rapid closings serving as testament to their inventions.

But every month we get more Mexican and Mexican-derived restaurants, “authentic” or not. One of the newest and most immediately successful spots comes from Phil Stefani, the Italian restaurant mogul who shut down his Zio’s in the Rush Street area to reopen it as Estaloca. An interesting new place in Lincoln Park, the Twisted Lizard, is a partnership between a Mexican American chef and a gringo who runs the front of the house.

What these new places share is a tendency to lighten up some traditional dishes and make them healthier–usually substituting olive or nonsaturated oils for lard. They also have more seafood than you used to find in Mexican joints, and they take liberties with classic recipes, internationalizing them without getting too goofy.

What they also seem to share is a festive air and a high decibel level, thanks to the crowds at their bars slurping up margaritas. The bars are integral to these spots, as are a wide range of margaritas, including those stupid fruit and slush varieties. I’m a classicist in the case of this drink: it should be tart, use ice cubes, and have lots of salt on the rim of the glass. Both places also have a good roster of Mexican beers.

Estaloca does some interesting things with its appetizers, such as serving its grilled calamari whole, the tubular body partially slashed so it won’t curl ($6.25). A lime juice bath before cooking makes it very tasty, and it’s served with a slice or two of fresh mango. The “Mexican pizza” is topped with fine grilled vegetable nuggets ($5.95).

There are also creditable versions of standards. The guacamole is nice and chunky and comes in a big portion for $5.95; queso fundido, the spiced cheese melt, is especially good with chorizo crumbled into the mix ($5.95 or $5.25 without chorizo).

The chef here has a heavy hand with the salt shaker, which slightly impaired an otherwise fine slab of grilled tuna, a daily special served with a pleasingly light version of refried beans ($10.95). The big, nicely grilled shrimp that went into our fajitas ($12.95) also had a bit too much salt, but the gaffe was more acceptable because of all the sauteed onions and grilled peppers we stuffed into our nice warm tortillas. Chiles rellenos, one stuffed with mild cheese, the other with pork, were just so-so ($9.25). Desserts ($2.95) include a decent traditional flan and a cooling mango ice.

Ex-Hyde Parker Joe Taylor, relatively new to the restaurant business, and his buddy, chef Sergio Sanchez, opened the Twisted Lizard a couple of months ago in a subterranean venue in DePaul, but it’s so bright and cheery it doesn’t really feel like a basement. The seating is around high, good-looking blond wood tables, and there’s also a small sidewalk cafe.

The menu here features mainly traditional dishes–tortilla soup, burritos, flautas, tacos, and such–but all tend to be light. There also are a few nonethnic items, which do just fine. Sanchez serves his grilled chicken wings ($5.25)–as well as several other grilled items–with his own lively barbecue sauce, tangy but not peppery hot, with complex spicings.

One nice turn is his rendition of queso fundido, with shrimp and scallops tossed in ($5.50). I liked it a lot more than cheese-and-seafood dishes I’ve tried elsewhere. The grilled vegetables, including peppers, onions, scallions, squash, and baby eggplant, are skillfully done and will make you want to eat your veggies ($4.75).

A taco is a taco, and the chicken version here is about as good as any around, but I was very happy about the black beans on the side ($6.75). I was happier still with the grilled pork chop, a nice juicy piece of meat helped along by that fetching barbecue sauce ($6.75).

Estaloca, 2 W. Elm, is open Monday through Friday from 4 PM to 1 AM, Saturday from 11:30 AM to 2 AM, and Sunday 11:30 to 1 AM. Call 337-5622.

Twisted Lizard, 1964 N. Sheffield, is open for dinner Tuesday through Friday from 4 PM to midnight, Saturday from noon to midnight, and Sunday from noon to 10, with the bar open until 2 AM weekends. Closed Monday. Call 929-1414.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.