Ixcapuzalco/La Bonita Restaurante
2165 N. Western
When Frontera/Topolobampo alum Geno Bahena opened his first upscale Mexican restaurant, Ixcapuzalco, in Logan Square in 2000, he might’ve griddled the image of the Virgin in a tortilla for all the eager Bayless adherents who flocked there, tired of waiting for tables downtown. Bahena’s sublime daily moles heralded the spread of the Gospel According to Rick: that Mexico had a vast and sophisticated cuisine yet to be truly appreciated by non-Mexicans. Ixcapuzalco was very good, ahead of its time, but it didn’t quite live up to its promise. Service in the crowded, weirdly laid out space could be sloppy, and many of the dishes were no more exceptional than what you could find cheaper and heartier every Sunday at the Maxwell Street Market. And after Bahena opened Chilpancingo and Generoso’s in River North he seemed to be spreading himself too thin. Last month Ixcapuzalco abruptly closed–at press time Bahena couldn’t be reached for an explanation–and was rumored to be reopening in a new space on Western Avenue under the direction of his brother Tomas.
Seeking the new restaurant on opening day last weekend felt like living out an episode from a magic realist novel as I drove up and down the block searching for a mythical river of mole that refused to be found. Turns out IXCAPUZALCO is now called the pronounceable LA BONITA RESTAURANTE–on the sign anyway. Inside it’s a long U-shaped hall, with tables along the sides and all the familiar folkloric images on the walls–not less awkward than the old place, just different. A waiter handed me and my companion menus that said Ixcapuzalco on the outside and La Bonita Restaurante inside, welcoming us to “La Bonita Ixcapuzalco.” Geno Bahena is listed as “Managin [sic] Chef Consultant,” and his menu, carried out by executive chef Tomas Bahena and chef Clementina Flores, is pretty much unchanged: six different moles, one for each day except Tuesday (when the restaurant is closed), meant to dress chicken or duck, sometimes quail, sometimes fish. The various moles are good and multidimensional, composed with chiles, nuts, chocolate, toasted seeds, sausage, or fruits. Some things remain undistinguished: The sopes surtidos Xilonen on the appetizer list included masa cups filled with boring beans and mushrooms, plantains and sour cream, or plain old guacamole, which were surpassed by one with shredded chicken smothered in mole rojo, a knockout potion made with anchos, pasillas, mulatos, anise, tomatoes, tomatillos, plantains, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, and chocolate. And the entremes ranchero was a plate of variously dull taco fillings: guac; dry, stringy carnitas; a pico de gallo strewn with a few strands of cactus; and a little pile of chiccharones (puffs of fried pork skin) just like the ones at the corner store. Our entrees, though, were spectacular: Smoky grilled pork loin, sliced and fanned over a bright roasted tomato sauce with toasted guaje seeds, was simple but explosively tasty. And shrimp in a rich and creamy vanilla sauce with roasted garlic and pasilla beat the bland coconut pie I struggled with for dessert. There are 125 tequilas behind the bar, some for before dinner, some for during, and some for after. –Mike Sula
Sea Ranch Fresh Fish and Sushi
518 Dempster, Evanston
Fishmonger Kazuo Sometani has opened a small branch of his popular Wilmette store, the Sea Ranch Fish Market, in Evanston. At the front of the new shop, called SEA RANCH FRESH FISH AND SUSHI, there’s a diminutive sushi counter and eight tables for eat-in diners, but most of Sea Ranch’s business is in carryout. There are grab-and-go packs of maki, nigiri, and seaweed salad in a refrigerated case, and in the back of the store you can buy fresh fish by the pound. The prices are in line with the fish counter at the nearby Whole Foods, but the variety here is greater: Sea Ranch regularly stocks super white tuna, red trout, and other hard-to-find fish. With about an hour’s notice sushi chef Jesus Basilio will prepare a beautiful party tray of subtly seasoned nigiri surrounded by a ring of colorful, tightly rolled maki. The storefront is bright and uncluttered, with neat shelves of merchandise: wasabi peas, fruit jelly candy, and sushi supplies like rice, nori, bamboo mats, serving plates, and soy sauce dishes. –Laura Levy Shatkin
Kitsch’n River North
600 W. Chicago
KITSCH’N RIVER NORTH, in the old Montgomery Ward catalog building next to Japonais and the Motel Bar, is a lot like Kitsch’n on Roscoe–same menu, same cheery decor, same retro theme–but it’s about four times as big. The first thing you see when you walk in is a huge waiting area with comfortable couches and chairs and several flat-screen TVs. There are toasters, Magic 8 Balls, and Etch A Sketches on the dining tables, and the camped-up comfort food and novelty drinks–Green Eggs & Ham (scrambled eggs with spinach and ham), fried chicken with waffles, Tang martinis–are mediocre but cute and moderately priced. Unfortunately the service here isn’t as good as at the original Kitsch’n. On a recent visit I waited over ten minutes to be seated while I watched three servers eat their lunches. –LLS
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.