Rabid culinary celebrity worshippers probably know by now that Top Chef Masters winner and Mexican food savant Rick Bayless just unveiled another jewel in his tasty empire, Xoco, a contemporary expression of Mexican street food here in Chicago. The two times I tried to visit, the hour or so long line on opening week was spilling out on to Clark street in front of his other sister restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.
Though there's no doubt that Bayless' chili spiced hot chocolate, fresh churros, tortas, and caldos made from responsibly raised ingredients from local farms will be a welcome addition to the other goodies he's brought this town, I didn't really want to wait an hour for some great street Mexican. So I headed to Pilsen, the nearby Mexican enclave, and started stopping by relatively new spots that had opened in the last month or so to see if I could find something to sate my chili craving.
I stopped by three spots during the afternoon and was fairly disappointed. At that point I understood one of the reasons why Rick Bayless, the white boy barbecue scion from Oklahoma City, is the father of regional Mexican food in this country. Unlike Bayless, too many cooks—whether it's their heritage or not—were putting low quality, poorly cooked meat in stale tortillas or bad sandwich buns.
After the disappointment, I eventually ended up at a spot called Abuelo's Mexican Grill. The décor here, which includes columns wallpapered with National Geographic magazine covers and a mishmosh of vintage record covers including what looks like a topless Menudo-era smoldering Ricky Martin, can only be described as what would happen if a secondhand bookstore had a head-on collision with a dusty record store. Also slightly disconcerting at Abuelo's is the Warholesque blue silkscreen of Elvis Presley's eyes that burns in to your flesh as you suck down tacos.
Though the place, like most Pilsen taquerias, is modest, the food was spot on. La Morena, a torta featuring beautiful oozing cheese and spicy skirt steak upstaged by char-grilled red chilis, knob onions, and green pepper that displayed a rich integrity I've rarely seen in a vegetable on a sandwich, was exceptional.
However, the star at Abuelo's is their cochinita pibil taco. Featuring tender shreds of sweet and hot spiced red sauce-infused pork, creamy black beans, and pickled red onions, I've never had better, including my old favorite at Xni-Pec in Cicero. At $1.99 per taco, I've also never had cheaper.
While I look forward to checking out Xoco, as long as there's a long line I can rest assured I've got plenty of other spots here to check out in Chicago. Now if there were only a suitable Hot Doug's alternative.
Abuelo's Mexican Grill
2007 S. Damen Avenue, Chicago IL 60608 (map)