While the dazzling array of Baja-inspired seafood dishes at Rick Bayless’s fantastic Leña Brava can be a bit overwhelming, next door at its sister cervecería/taqueria things couldn’t be simpler.
Just as Leña Brava is inspired by Baja, Cruz Blanca references the meatopia known as Smoke Alley in Oaxaca City’s Mercado 20 Noviembre. And while Cruz Blanca doesn’t quite mimic the stacks of flattened, glistening raw flesh and hanging ropes of bulbous, scarlet chorizo that adorn the vendors’ stalls, it does feature the signature tacos you’ll find there with all their requisite accompaniments. Queue up at the back of the room and place your order for portobello, roasted chicken breast, chorizo, pork cecina, or beef tasajo, choose red or green salsa, and retire to one of the communal tables, where shortly you’ll be presented with a tray heaped with meat, grilled chiles, green onions, and four freshly made tortillas. Both the beef and the pork are quintessential preparations in the Oaxacan market, the former a cured and often air-dried flap of beef, sliced thin and grilled. Like many of the offerings at Cruz Blanca, it’s pretty salty, more the better to entice you to order another beer. The pork cecina is a bit less aggressive, pork loin marinated in red chile, again sliced thin and grilled. These are substantial platters, capable of yielding three or four tacos depending on your construction methods.
Salt be damned, don’t neglect to order a boat of Oaxacan peanuts, roasted and salted Spanish legumes tossed with bits of chewy roasted garlic, or the nopales, grilled and topped with green onions and queso fresco.
The whole idea is to quench your salt-parched palate with the half-dozen beers brewed in the gleaming tanks lined up behind the bar. There are six guest brews on tap, but it’s Goose Island vet Jacob Sembrano’s efforts that line up with the Bayless MO. Three are brewed in the French farmhouse bière de garde style, incorporating local honey, hominy, or piloncillo sugar. Among these midrange beers, La Guardia Ambar is the most distinctive, brewed with hominy and toasted malt, resulting in an amber, vaguely sour effort. The Smoke Alley is a dry-hopped smoked-wheat ale whose main characteristic is so sublimated it takes a few quaffs to even present. The Basica is just what it sounds, a basic hoppy India Pale Lager.
Oddly, you can only order one of these beers when you order food. The rest have to be ordered separately at the bar, which is the only confounding aspect of this unusually straightforward and focused establishment in Empire Bayless.
Cruz Blanca Cervecería, 904 W. Randolph, 312-733-1975