Editor's Note: Normally at this time I would weigh in with another round of Chicago Tacos. But every once in awhile it's nice to showcase the number of great Mexican restaurants around the city, many of which are cooking up a variety of other delicious dishes. Once a month or so, I'll report in on an essential Mexican restaurant in Chicago, called, obviously enough, Mexican Essentials. First up is La Casa de Samuel.
Every discussion about Little Village's La Casa de Samuel begins and ends with the tortillas. The restaurant obviously knows this. Why else would the owners station the griddle right up by the front door? Normally the tortillas would be cooked with the rest of the food—in the kitchen. But at La Casa de Samuel, every five minutes or so a waitress treks across the long and handsomely decorated dining room, picks up a stash of freshly made tortillas, and then heads right back to the kitchen.
The process is inefficient, but it keeps your attention on what is important: the tortillas. They are thick, almost heavy in your hand, yet soft and foldable. They arrive in a basket, covered by a white cloth, and when you unwrap them, the aroma of freshly ground masa wafts up at your nose. Everything tastes better wrapped up with them. That includes any of the meaty fillings, the beans, guacamole, or the salsas. On my recent visits, I used up so many so quickly, my waitress had to run around the restaurant for more. (And if you ask nicely, and tip accordingly, she'll even send some tortillas home with you.)
The restaurant could probably smear store bought salsa on those tortillas and still get mentioned as one of the best Mexican restaurants in the city. But La Casa de Samuel also happens to serve a fascinating collection of dishes from the state of Guerrero in Mexico, the same region where chef and owner, Samuel Linares, was born. For the most part, that means meat, though there are some seafood options.
When ordering at La Casa de Samuel, I stick to the section labeled "Especialidades de la Casa" (house specialities), mostly because I've never been disappointed. Plus, it's the perfect occasion to ignore the standard meaty fillings (carne asada, carnitas) and load up on some lesser seen proteins. As long as it is listed as a speciality, it's bound to be delicious.
That's definitely true of the cecina de venado estilo guerrero ($15.95) a plate of thinly sliced venison that comes with guacamole and beans. I've had some great cecina before, but none have been quite this funky and flavorful. You can tell the meat was properly marinated, because even though it comes sliced with the grain, the cecina is still tender. It makes sense that this is probably the restaurant's most famous dish, but for those who just want a sample, the cecina taco ($1.85) has all the elements rolled up and ready to go.
I'll admit that the cabrito al horno ($13.95), a baked goat dish, looks sparse and fatty. But the same funky kick that made the cecina so delicious is also present in these tender little hunks. It's hard to think of another goat joint outside of Birria Zaragoza that shows as much dedication to goat as here.
But I have to admit that my favorite dish of all is still probably the conejo ($12.95), a dish of crispy rabbit, which I recently featured in a roundup. The skin crackles with every touch, and once you get through, you uncover meat that tastes sort of like what you always want thigh meat on a chicken to taste like.
The dishes get some help from two killer salsas. A warm tomato salsa arrives in a molcajete at the beginning of the meal, and while it goes well with the fried tortilla chips served alongside, definitely save some for the main courses. I also received a small bowl of jet black pasilla chile paste, a complex and smoky mixture that enlivens anything it is smeared on. Just be careful; a little goes a long way.
Of course, La Casa de Samuel is no great secret. Before my first visit, I knew that it likely served some of the best tortillas in town. That's true. But just about everything else about the visit was unexpected. Though the tortillas are paramount, all the other details—from the salsas to the side dishes—help make this place an essential visit in Chicago.