When I visited the small bay of Xel-Ha in the late ’70s, it was astoundingly picturesque, the palm trees framing a calm body of water streaked with magenta, azure, and lime green. Today, it’s a water park, drawing crowds from Cancun.
In the 80s, Dudley Nieto began making a name for himself with a beautiful little restaurant in Oak Park called El Rebozo. Nieto’s creations became the inspiration for the book he co-wrote with culinary historian Bruce Kraig, The Cuisines of Hidden Mexico, and early on he seemed destined for great things–some of which he went on to achieve at places like Adobo Grill and Zapatista.
Late last month, Nieto launched Xel-Ha, the second of two new restaurants focusing on the food of the Yucatan (the other being Xni-Pec). So far, though, the results are as disappointing as that water park. A ceviche was nearly inedible: the fish mushy, the flavors watery and bland. The classic cochinita pibil–slow-roasted, marinated pork–was dry and lifeless, and carried the chill of the quickly reheated. The panuchos (pictured) were one of the few bright spots, full of the requisite pickled onions, bean-filled sopes, and duck meat shredded on top. But in what alternative universe is it acceptable to serve store-bought tortillas at a high-end place charging more than $20 for an entrée?
Nieto has a deserved name in Chicago, but Xel-Ha has yet to live up to it.