Chi-Mex: A New Frontier

20080328-mexicaninn.jpgRick Bayless, chef/owner of Chicago's Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, has me brainwashed. Inspired by his example for the last few years, I've been telling everyone that you either go regional Mexican or you go home.

If the shadow of a Chipotle and their swaddled infant-sized burritos fell across my path, I'd consider taking a shower. Scarfing down Oaxacan moles and Yucatecan puerco pibil meant I was living right; chewing on chimichangas and noshing on Nachos Belgrande, not so much. Then a few weeks ago, I discovered Mexican Inn.

Mexican Inn is a 47-year-old corner joint located in the shadow of the Chicago skyway. It's in a south side neighborhood called the East Side, an island of land separated from the rest of the city by the Calumet River and surrounded by behemoth factories with flatulent smokestacks. The East Side is closer to Indiana than it is to downtown. It's a place most Chicagoans never stop for, though many drive through when the tollway gets backed up.

Inside Mexican Inn, the walls are plastered with a vaguely Aztec-looking ensemble of artifacts, posters of chilis, and a lighted cactus. There's an instruction sheet for how to handle a choking incident near some back booths, never a good sign.

The regulars at this divey corner spot are the Tex-Mex lovin' blue collar denizens of the East Side. And on the surface, the menu at Mexican inn has what they need: a slew of crispy tacos, "super large" burritos, and "gravy" slathered enchilidas. While the fare vaguely resembles what you might get at a national Tex-Mex franchise, the Cornejos held on to some remnants of their culinary history.

The gravy on the enchiladas is a cumin and chili perfumed wonder reminiscent of mole. The deep fried taco shells are filled with slow braised pork or topped with crumbly anejo cheese. Poblano specials like torta milanesas sneak in, while corn-laden sopes, deep crumbly housemade wells of masa, hold mountains of bean and cheese.

Even simple iceberg lettuce and tomato garnish on a plate tossed with black pepper and vinegar is refreshing, a sort of savory palate cleanser to prep your for another course of their airy tamales or guacamole-slathered quesadillas.

Mexican Inn turns out to be a very inspired delicious meshing of cultures, a unique Chi-Mex blend, and holds the middle ground between Bayless and Taco Bell quite nicely.

About the author: Michael Nagrant writes for Serious Eats from Chicago, where he also publishes Hungry magazine. Michael never met an organ meat he didn't like. He hopes to meet many more.

Mexican Inn

Address: 9510 S Ewing Avenue, Chicago, IL 60617 (map)
Phone: 773-734-8957

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