The cuisines of Mexican states such as Guerrero and Michoacan are well represented in the Chicago area. Preparations from Yucatan, Nayarit, and Nuevo Leon appear less frequently, but these geographically disparate regions have cooking traditions that are also worthy of exploration.
The Yucatan Peninsula, ancient home of the pyramid-building, sacrificially inclined Maya, actually comprises three states: Yucatan, Quintana Roo, and Campeche. Rique’s Regional Mexican Food (5004 N. Sheridan, 773-728-6200), a treasure trove of lesser-known Mexican small-town favorites, serves a breakfast I first enjoyed in a tiny cantina in the Yucatecan town of Motul. Huevos motulenos is just a sunny-side up egg, queso fresco, ham, black beans, and, somewhat improbably, peas on a tortilla or tostada, a creamy, colorful, and savory morning meal.
Perhaps the most popular Yucatecan standard on Chicago menus is cochinita pibil, pork shoulder slathered with achiote, a paste of ground annatto seeds, lime, and vinegar; traditionally it’s cooked in a pit. You can get reliable versions at Fonda del Mar (3749 W. Fullerton, 773-489-3748) and Adobo Grill (1610 N. Wells, 312-266-7999, and 2005 W. Division, 773-252-9990). The most commonly encountered menu item in Yucatan, on the other hand, is sopa de lima: lime soup. Although you’ll rarely see this on Chicago menus, you can simulate it by simply ordering chicken soup at a Mexican restaurant and squirting in some citrus. Tomatoes are a traditional but optional ingredient; limes, which probably originated in India before being carried west from the Near East by Crusaders and thence to the New World, are obviously mandatory.
Wherever you find descendants of the Maya–not just in the Yucatan, but in Guatemala and Honduras, for example–black beans seem to be the preferred frijoles, as opposed to the light-red pintos more often used in Chicago’s Mexican restaurants. Black beans are sometimes seen on menus at restaurants such as That Little Mexican Cafe (1010 Church, Evanston, 847-905-1550, and 1055 W. Bryn Mawr, 773-769-1004) and fancy places like Topolobampo (445 N. Clark, 312-661-1434). They’re always served at Ricos Huaraches at the Maxwell Street Market (Sundays at Roosevelt and Canal).
A tiny state tucked just above Jalisco on the Pacific coast, Nayarit is the home of the Huichol, an indigenous ethnic group that has retained much of its traditional culture (including the peyote ceremony). A fine Nayarit-inspired condiment, salsa Huichol–a deeply flavorful orange red salsa with medium heat–is sold at many Hispanic grocery stores around Chicago. It’s always available at Las Islas Marias (2523 N. Milwaukee, 773-252-7303, and other locations), which is named for several islands off the coast of Nayarit and serves many regional seafood preparations, including shrimp with garlic, chile, and, of course, salsa Huichol.
Pescado zarandeado, barbecued fish, may have originated on the Nayarit island of Mexcaltitlan, where they use a fatty fish such as pargo, a type of snapper, that stays moist on the grill. The fish is usually marinated in citrus juice and chiles. You can find barbecued fish at many places with flame grills, including the chichi though not particularly authentic Bandera (535 N. Michigan, 312-644-3524).
Monterrey is the capital of the northern state of Nuevo Leon, which saw some heavy Jewish migration when the Inquisition hit Mexico City in the 16th century. Jewish culinary influences may help explain the relative lack of pork and the popularity of goat and beef in dishes from this state.
In Nuevo Leon, carne asada–meat, usually beef, marinated and grilled–is a traditional food for family gatherings and festivals. In Chicago there are two unrelated restaurants named Nuevo Leon within a few miles of each other. The more established one, 40-year-old Nuevo Leon (1515 W. 18th, 312-421-1517), serves a mean carne asada along with its signature New York strip. Meat dishes at the “other” Nuevo Leon (3657 W. 26th, 773-522-1515) are significantly enhanced by magnificent house-made flour tortillas, preferred over corn tortillas in this state. For some stupendous carne asada on the run, try Carniceria Leon (1402 N. Ashland, 773-772-9804), where they’ll cut crispy chunks you can down on the spot.
You don’t have to look too hard for evidence of many other Mexican states in Chicago; their names are on the signage for places like Colima Restaurant (4377 W. 26th, 773-542-8868), La Casa del Pueblo (1834 S. Blue Island, 312-421-4664), and Zacatecas (2860 N. Milwaukee, 773-486-9070). Of course, a name’s no guarantee that a restaurant serves the authentic cuisine of its namesake region. A good way to start exploring is simply to say “Por favor, quiero la comida tipica de [fill in name of state here].” Don’t be surprised, though, if in response you’re sometimes served a burrito, which is slowly, inevitably becoming typical cuisine throughout Mexico. Que lastima!
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner (food); Elizabeth M. Tamny (map).