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Huitlacoche Huarache [Photographs: Roger Kamholz]

At first glance, the menu at Quesadilla La Reyna del Sur reads like any number of other Mexican joints: tacos al pastor, milanesa tortas, quesadillas stuffed with chorizo. But Quesadilla La Reyna del Sur differs from those places in one major respect—all those meats aren't meats. The quaint corner restaurant on Western Avenue serves a fully vegetarian menu, including housemade soy-based alternatives to steak, pork, chicken, sausage...pretty much everything in the handbook of Mexican cookery. For vegetarians accustomed to a narrow set of options to choose from when it comes to Mexican dining, browsing Quesadilla's lengthy menu can be at once liberating and a little overwhelming.

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As the neon says, Quesadilla is BYOB and serves fresh jugos.

So, where to begin? On a recent visit, I loaded up, trying to take the broadest bite of Quesadilla's meatless offerings. I was immediately drawn to the huitlacoche huarache ($6.75), being a big fan of the tangy, funky-flavored corn fungus that stars in this dish. Or, so I expected. With all the elements piled atop the thick, doughy, oval-shaped "sandal" of fried masa—including refried beans, lettuce, and sweet corn—it was difficult to pick out the distintive flavor of the huitlacoche. The huarache is also a big, slippery, unwieldy thing; despite not quite discerning the influence of the huitlacoche, I was enjoying the play of the ingredients' savory-sweet flavors—when I could hold it together well each to steal a few bites.

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The xochimilco taco ($2.75), by comparison, was delightfully handheld in size. Not only that, but the soy steak, cactus, and mushrooms that make up the taco's key ingredients each had much more individual presence. Tomatoes, onion, and cilantro added crunch and the heady scent of fresh herbs.

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Interestingly, the order I viewed with the most skepticism turned out to be my favorite dish. The veggie cubana torta ($6.25), which packs soy sausage, bacon, and chicken between slices of a super soft roll, could have easily been muddled and overwrought. But actually the sandwich works. The "meats" are helped along by fresh, unctuous avocado, crisp lettuce, and juicy tomatoes. If it bears a strong connection to a traditional Cuban sandwich, it must have went over my head while chowing down. No matter. Call it whatever they want, Quesadilla's cubana is robust, slightly spicy, and big on flavor. Much like the restaurant itself, this sandwich is doing its own thing, and I like it.

Quesadilla La Reyna del Sur

2235 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map)
773-235-8807

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