Oaxacan food isn’t the most well-represented subset of the vast regional Mexican canon that we have in Chicago, but we’ve had it both on the high and low end, from the mole dishes of the peripatetic Geno Bahena to the soft banana-leaf tamales at the Maxwell Street Market. Among the handful of established restaurants that do serve the great food of the mountainous southwestern Mexican state, few go at it full-bore.
That’s odd, because the region—drawing upon abundant and varied produce and literally ancient history—is arguably Mexico’s most revered. So when a wholly Oaxacan restaurant opens its doors, it’s best to pay attention.
The folks behind Kie-Gol-Lanee took over the space once inhabited by the late Riques Cocina Mexicana in Uptown, amid the abundance of pho joints and Vietnamese groceries. Led by chef Reynel Mendoza, they’re a group who found work cooking at the Andersonville Italian restaurant Anteprima after emigrating from the tiny mountain town of Santa María Quiegolani, the latter word being the Spanish translation of Kie-Go-Lanee, which means “old stone” in Zapotec, the majority language of the village.
In Uptown, where the Virgen de Guadalupe blesses you as you pass beneath her post above the arch of the door, you’ll find exactly the sort of dish likely to be prepared in those pine- and oak-covered mountains: mushrooms, varied in species, enveloped in a packet of fragrant banana leaf, along with cilantro, green onions, and tart salsa verde. I’m sure Mendoza and company didn’t forage for those mushrooms anywhere more remote than their wholesaler’s warehouse, but it’s emblematic of the kind of thing you don’t see on the menu of a restaurant that’s just dabbling in Oaxacan.
There are a few other uncommon offerings, in particular, the tlayuda, aka the Mexican pizza, a crackly, superthin cornmeal flatbread smeared with black beans and loaded with cabbage, tomato, red onion, avocado, and the long white string cheese the state is known for, plus a choice of toppings, from mushrooms to chicharrones to skirt steak to the dried beef known as cesina. These are a rarity in Chicago—though they arrive shattered at the table with salsa at Rick Bayless’s Leña Brava—and occasionally they do here as well, for dredging through an inky black-bean salsa.
Oaxacan-style tamales complete the more street-food-oriented section of the menu. The flat, rectangular banana-leaf packages contain steaming, silky-smooth cornmeal that bursts with its filling—chunks of pork with tangy green mole or shredded chicken in the spicy, chocolaty, head-spinningly complex mole rojo, one of the seven classic moles associated with Oaxaca.
A darker, richer mole appears among formally plated entrees dominated by proteins smothered in sauce, with a side of starch or vegetable. And it’s an entirely appropriate pairing with Cornish hen, though the odd choice of serving this with a scoop of creamy pasta salad seems less influenced by the chefs’ hometown than it does by their work at Anteprima.
So too does the barbecued lamb served with mashed potatoes, peas, and carrots, but the fall-off-the-bone meat and the rich sauce make for a nearly homogenous dish that feels as if a warm blanket has enveloped your digestive tract. Same goes for rabbit stewed with potatoes and peppers. These are homey, comforting plates, a bit at odds with the grilled quail with sweet plum sauce or the skirt steak with an earthy salsa made with the corn fungus huitlacoche.
A smattering of snacks, appetizers, and lighter dishes rounds things out. Garnachas are little masa cups stuffed with pork, cabbage, radish, cheese, and red salsa. Tlacoyos are corn patties stuffed with black beans and topped with cheese, cactus, tomato, onion, and radish. A salty tortilla soup is fueled by chipotle chiles and cooled by fatty avocado, while tacos are loaded with beef birria or chicharrones softened in red salsa.
You’re not embracing the full protein experience without an order of chapulines, the tiny grasshoppers snacked on all over the state, though at Kie-Gol-Lanee they’re a bit overfried and missing much of the customary lime acidity.
For dessert, in addition to the standard tres leches cake and a blueberry tart, there are the more uncommon tastes of moist caramel-drizzled zucchini cake and squash cooked down in cinnamon and the raw sugar piloncillo. And with Kie-Gol-Lanee’s BYOB policy, it’s not a bad plan to use your own mezcal to spike the horchata, tamarindo, or the sweet squash drink known as chilacayota.
Kie-Gol-Lanee doesn’t present the most comprehensive or even the most varied Oaxacan menu compared to ones we’ve seen in the past (no mole amarillo? no manchamanteles?). But for its fairly straightforward approach, it’s a nice change for the neighborhood. v