It’s easy to lose track of the restaurants Dudley Nieto has had a hand in over the decades. Adobo Grill, Zapatista, Xel-Ha, Zocalo, New Rebozo, Chapulin, Chapultepec, La Canasta, Eivissa, Mezcalina, Barbakoa—to name a few. There are so many that it’s almost easy to look right past Rojo Gusano, the latest, a taco-focused Albany Park joint with a somewhat labored Sammy-Hagar-staggering-around-on-the-beach-vibe. But after Ixcateco Grill, it’s the second midscale Mexican joint with a pedigreed chef to open in the neighborhood, and as such it deserves a look.
The first thing that jumps out: chopsticks. There are disposable chopsticks on the table for . . . cleaning your ears? Yes, that must be it. Unless it’s to tackle the four rice bowls on the menu, a nod toward E. chipotle‘s bowls, these are garnished with something called “three-color Asian relish.” There are other incongruous nods toward the Far East here and there on the menu—a green curry shrimp taco, and “Thai” roasted tomatillo salsa, which doesn’t taste particularly Thai at all.
In fact, the most glaring thing about the food at Rojo Gusano, particularly the tacos, is how uniformly underseasoned almost everything is. Mounted on small but thick house-made tortillas that are very well done, nearly all the fillings—the chorizo with potatoes, chicken verde, guajillo-braised short rib, mushroom, and arrachera (skirt steak)—need a serious dose of salt, acid, and in some cases chile heat. It’s confounding.
Other plates do a little better: a Peruvian-style octopus and shrimp ceviche textured with chewy large-kernel choclo and toasted yellow corn; a viscous tortilla soup with shredded roasted chicken; or a trio of guacamoles, a spicy habanero version, one with toasted pepitas, and a milder pico de gallo version.
The restaurant does manage to get it together at brunch, with a menu featuring a number of compelling hangover sponges like posole; an egg sandwich piled high with cochinita pibil, bacon, and sunny-side up huevos; and fried chicken and blueberry waffles drizzled in agave syrup. The chilaquiles are particularly noteworthy for their gimmick-free competence: a fried egg sitting at the peak of a mountain of crispy tortilla chips showered in queso fresco and asadero cheese, slowly softening in a blanket of tangy salsa verde.
I certainly hope Rojo Gusano steps up its game before Nieto makes good on the purported plan to open two new locations in other neighborhoods, and before the weather gets warm—it’s to be the home of Albany Park’s only outdoor patio.
Rojo Gusano, 3830 W. Lawrence, 773-539-4398, rojogusano.com