Mundial Cocina Mestiza

1640 W. 18th312-491-9908

University of Chicago anthropologist Robin Shoaps didn’t know what to expect when she happened into Mundial Cocina Mestiza a few weeks ago. The little Pilsen restaurant had only been open a day or two but, intrigued by the regional Mexican dishes on the menu in the window, she and her friends decided to give it a shot. By the end of the meal Shoaps, who’s traveled extensively in Mexico and Central America, was so impressed by the food coming out of the tiny kitchen that she hired the chefs to cater her birthday party.

It’s the sort of serendipitous occurrence that chef and co-owner Katie Garcia has been hoping will get the word out about Mundial, a casual BYO storefront whose modest prices belie the sophistication of its menu. “I didn’t want to price and promote the place in a way that we couldn’t come through for our clients,” she says. “I want everyone who comes here to be surprised and to tell other people ‘Guess what, I found something!'”

Between the three of them, Garcia and her partners have enough fine-dining experience to blanket Pilsen in white tablecloths. She and her husband, Eusebio, met in the kitchen at Gordon in the 80s, where Eusebio had made a name for himself as one of the few dishwashers to ever move up from the sink to pantry chef and line cook. (“You should go out with Eusebio,” Katie remembers chef Ron Blazek telling her at the time–“he’s going to be famous.”) Katie went on to La Tour and MK before getting out of the game five years ago to raise their two children. Eusebio helped open Red Light, Gioco, and Bin 36 Lincolnshire before taking a position at the Park Grill two years ago. When the couple decided this winter that it was time to open their own place, they brought in Eusebio’s Park Grill coworker Jorge Hernandez, a vet of, among other places, Coco Pazzo and Bistro 110. They refinanced their southwest-side homes and in April signed the papers on an 18th Street taco joint that, according to Garcia, “was a total dump.”

Three months later the sunny storefront is anything but, with a tiled terra-cotta floor, a warm yellow paint job, and decorative blue-and-gray tiles lining the walls. The trio did most of the work themselves, putting in a new stove, cooler, and grill. Garcia’s uncle did the electrical work; her niece is helping out with the bookkeeping.

They drew on their broad culinary experience to design a menu with something for everyone. There are plenty of regional Mexican specialties: seviche and seafood stew; sweet, moist, surprisingly light tamales de elote; and red snapper served with a delicate tomatillo-and-pumpkin-seed mole verde, fried plantains, and rice. But there are also Mediterranean dishes, including an appealing trio of bruschetta (topped with mushrooms and shallots, caponata with raisins and fennel, and zucchini with squash blossoms and ricotta, respectively) and a variety of homemade pastas and panini, not to mention a raw bar. Of the several vegetarian options, baked veggie empanadas were outstanding, a flaky sesame-and-cream-cheese pastry wrapped around a mad paste of spinach, hearts of palm, raisins, green olives, red peppers, and hard-boiled egg and served with a tangy sweet onion-tomato marmalade. The short list of desserts includes a refreshing coconut-pineapple mousse and a wild and woolly plate of crepes topped with brandy-braised bananas, chocolate chips, caramel, marshmallows, nuts, and vanilla ice cream. The bill read simply “Crepe loca, $6.”

It’s not fusion. “I’m not putting black beans and corn on a panini,” says Garcia, the black-bean-and-corn relish that accompanies the spareribs in a tamarind-ancho glaze notwithstanding. Rather, the menu is a reflection of their aspirations for Mundial, which means “worldwide.” “We wanted it to be classic,” she says. “If you start out and you can do the classics well, then you can do your other stuff. I want the restaurant to be like the world, so we can grow.” Down the road, she says, they’d like to dig deeper into regional cuisines, offer a tasting menu, teach workshops in moles and paella, and perhaps have a salsa night (a Latin quartet plays on Sunday evenings).

“We’re not a fancy downtown restaurant, and I don’t want to be,” Garcia says. “The people that we wanted are coming in, and I don’t want them to be ‘Oh my god, will my credit card clear?’ I really want to make our clients happy.”

By 8 PM last Saturday Mundial had generated enough buzz that more than a dozen people clustered awkwardly inside the restaurant’s front door, waiting as long as 40 minutes for a table. Once seated, diners unpacked coolers of beer and wine, and the noise level in the two small dining rooms rose to a happy clatter–save for the squalls of a cranky toddler who was finally soothed by a briskly multitasking waiter, a friend from Park Grill who’d been pressed into service that afternoon.

As for Robin Shoaps, she hadn’t planned on having Mexican for her birthday. “I’m really picky,” she says, “and since Topolobampo or Frontera Grill were out of my price range, I had imagined I’d find an Asian restaurant.” But she wound up pleased by her impulsive decision. She says the fare at her party two weeks ago–including poached salmon, two kinds of seviche, tamales with red and green mole, individual leek-and-potato tarts, and make-your-own quesadillas with queso Oaxaca, huitlacoche, rajas, and squash blossoms–“was the best Latin American food I’ve had on U.S. soil.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.