Guerrero, on Mexico’s southwestern coast, is home to Acapulco and Ixtapa–the former an old Spanish port, the latter created by the government to lure tourists. Folks from Guerrero make up a sizable portion of those migrating to the States, and many restaurants in Chicago serve Guerrerense specialties.
Vuelve a la vida
Vuelve a la vida (translation: “come back to life!”) is a spicy seafood cocktail that may be just the way to greet the dawn after a night of partying on Guerrero’s “Mexican Riviera.” Freshness is crucial with a dish like this, so it’s best ordered in a place that specializes in seafood and moves product briskly. I’ve enjoyed good versions at Playa Azul Ostioneria (4005 N. Broadway, 773-472-8924) and La Condesa (1003 N. Ashland, 773-276-5121), but probably the most succulent rendition of this Acapulco antojito (“snack”) was at Frontera Grill (445 N. Clark, 312-661-1434): oysters can never be too fresh, and a dish of absolutely pristine marine life is something that few local chefs besides Rick Bayless can consistently deliver.
Perhaps the signature meat dish of Guerrero, cecina is a salted and dried beef preparation that originated in Spain; dehydration concentrates the flavor of the meat, which is rehydrated before cooking, then usually grilled.
Not surprisingly, La Cecina (1934 W. 47th, 773-927-9444) puts out a delectably toothy version very good on the house-made tortillas. Machacado con huevo at “the other” Nuevo Leon (3657 W. 26th, 773-522-1515) is a simple taco with cecina and scrambled eggs, a nice neutral platform for the intense meat. At the remarkable La Casa de Samuel (2834 W. Cermak, 773-376-7474) you can try venison cecina along with many other exotic meats including bull’s testicles, wild boar, and rattlesnake.
Goat and beef are usually the featured meats on a barbacoa platter, traditionally baked or steamed in an earthen pit. La Quebrada (4859 W. Roosevelt, Cicero, 708-780-8110), named after the famous cliff-diving spot in Acapulco, serves a barbacoa de chivo, moist goat chunks with a slightly pink center served with cilantro and onion. At Carnitas Don Rafa (4617-19 S. Kedzie, 773-847-8342) beef barbacoa is available on weekends, which is frequently when smaller Mexican restaurants prepare other specialty dishes such as carnitas (“little meats”) and pozole, Mexico’s hominy-based soup. Oddly, the barbacoa here is not pulled into threads but served in large hunks splashed with rather tasteless barbecue-style sauce.
Often barbacoa is sold in containers to go; you can pick it up at La Casa del Pueblo (1834 S. Blue Island, 312-421-4664), Taqueria El Nuevo Mundo (5901 W. Roosevelt, Cicero, 708-656-6503), and at many other taquerias and Mexican grocery stores around the city.
Pozole comes in several colors, but in Guerrero it’s typically green. At Pozoleria San Juan (1523 N. Pulaski, 773-276-5825) you can get red, white, or green versions, the last made by chef-owner Jackie Aguilar, a native of Guerrero, with tomatillos, serrano chiles, and green mole, served with raw cabbage and chicharrones, crunchy bits of pork skin. At Manolo’s storied food stand at the Maxwell Street Market (Canal at Roosevelt) every Sunday you can chomp on a delicious Guerrero-style pork taco in green sauce, a tangy, moist mess so good you won’t mind spending the rest of your market day with sticky fingers.
It’s possible to make a meal of the green mole of Guerrero, and I’ve almost done that a few times at Sol de Mexico (3018 N. Cicero, 773-282-4119). Here the seemingly simple green mole with pipian, a kind of pumpkin seed, is deeply complex. It’s wonderful with chef Carlos Tello’s house-made tortillas.
Many Mexican regions have a signature way of making tamales, and within a three-block area on Clark Street you can sample two very different styles from Guerrero. Cuetzala (7360 N. Clark, 773-262-9417) serves an unusual species of Guerrerense tamale called nejos, a sheet of slightly gelatinous masa cooked in a banana leaf and used to scoop sauce into your mouth. A few blocks south at Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero (7024 N. Clark, 773-338-6450) you pay ten bucks for a dozen transcendent tamales handcrafted by Guerrerense grannies in the back room. Filled with cheese, peppers, meat, or fruits like pineapple and strawberries, these tamales are thick as a sub sandwich and preternaturally light, paradigms of Mexico’s magnificently simple, satisfying cuisine. –David Hammond
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Elizabeth Tamney (map), Jim Newberry (photos).