Chicago Mexican Essentials: Salpicón
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. Last time I checked out La Casa de Samuel, but now it's time for Salpicón in Old Town.
When you order a margarita at Salpicón in Old Town, you must first answer a few questions. Sure, you need to specify if you want salt on the rim of the glass or not—that's just normal operating procedure. But here you also need to select whether you'd like the tequila to be crisp, smokey, or rich. Then you need to relate how whet you'll need to relate how sweet or dry you'd like it. This can seem a little unnecessary, but a few minutes after the interrogation, a drink arrives that is exactly as described. One sip, and all those memories of margaritas made from neon green mix will wash away. A few sips later, and suddenly the glass is empty, and you can't wait to order another one.
Almost every dish at Salpicón comes with choices. Some pay off handsomely, like the excellent margaritas, while others have options that don't always work. But through it all, the food remains consistently great, even if everything is a bit pricey. Open since 1995, the restaurant is run by chef Priscila Satkoff, a Mexico City native and former assistant of Rick Bayless. The menu is divided into two sections: a standard menu made up of her family's own recipes and a "Specials of the Week" menu that changes with the seasons. I sampled a bit from both, and the best ones showcased the wealth of flavors and textures of Mexican cuisine without making me work too hard.
Take one of the restaurant's signature dishes, the trio de tamalitos ($7). The appetizer features three different tamales, each topped with a different filling and salsa. For what it's worth, I devoured the one topped with spicy molcajete salsa and crema first, followed quickly by the one with zucchini and chipotles, and the one with black beans and rajas. But the variety was part of the pleasure, and it's the ideal way to start a meal here, especially since each is built on the foundation of light and greaseless steamed masa.
That said, choice for choice's sake isn't always for the best. The double-cut pork chop in the chuleta de puerco en manchamanteles ($22) was adequately juicy and well charred, but the sauce on its own tastes overly bitter. That's actually on purpose, as it is only meant to come alive when mixed with the fruit circling the plate. It's a decent trick—the plantains were my favorite— but also one requiring you to first cut the chop, cut the fruit, arrange both on the fork, and then drag both through the sauce, even though there is not enough sauce to last you through the whole chop. Not exactly torture, but it detracts from the pleasure of the meal.
As for the chiles doña queta ($18), which features a red and green stuffed chile, the choice was easy. The ancho chile stuffed with potatoes and cheese far outshone its rival. The dried chile was earthy and tender, which was offset by the slightly sweet and spicy roasted tomato sauce. On the other hand, if the bitterness of the poblano chile didn't already overwhelm the huitlacoche, zucchini, and corn stuffed inside, the equally bitter roasted poblano cream sauce finished the job.
Not everything at Salpicon requires you to choose. The coctel de camarones ($10) on the specials menu was straightforward, but exceptionally well done. The refreshing mixture of shrimp and a tomato and chile sauce was bracing and cool—ideal for the hot weather.
As well, dessert is a relatively stress-free decision. That's at least the case with the Pastel Tres Leches ($8), which comes with light covering of freshly whipped cream and a decorative side of raspberry sauce.
Part of me wishes that the menu were shorter and more focused, but in the end, a sense of possibility trumps any decision making paralysis.