Serious Eats: Chicago
Lunch in the Loop: Salseria Grill
Editor's Note: Whether you're a tourist or an office worker in downtown Chicago, you can get sick of eating at chain restaurants all day. So we've started a series to get you the lowdown on where to find a great and affordable lunch.
The Sears, er, Willis Tower actually has a few regular options for lunch, including Venice Cafe on the lower level, French Accent, Market Creations, Corner Bakery, and, last but not least, Salseria Grill. In order to access these restaurants, the easiest entrance is on the Franklin side of the building; once inside, stay on your right side and ride the escalators up to a magical destination of food and lunch you may not have known existed! Oh, the magic! The reason why I'm giving you all the directions is because it can be confusing on your first trip. I don't want you to die of dysentery along the way, because I love you, and wish for your survival during your harrowing journeys for lunch.
Salseria Grill is within the confines of this magic second floor area, and from my experience, is a really popular location for summer lunch, as there's an outdoor patio. It's also a popular Friday lunch destination for those of you who like to get crunk on margaritas while the boss is on vacation.
Salseria Grill is one of those kitschy places with a Mexican party vibe, brightly colored chairs, and plates that just scream ¡Olé! It reminds me of On the Border Grill. They offer freshly fried tortilla chips and a varied salsa bar for free, which is always a plus. The fresh chips are crackly, oily, and satisfying, especially when you get a fresh batch.
On my recent visit, they offered eight types of salsa, almost all of which were mild and sweet in flavor. Only few had any kick, like the standard jalapeño salsa, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most of them were mislabeled. The sweet corn salsa which I sampled was nowhere to be seen on the salsa legend.
The white substance you see on the left is a jalapeno cream salsa, which tastes like ranch dressing mixed with crema (sour cream) with some jalapeños thrown in. The corn salsa on the right is sweet and mild. And the top and bottom salsas are mild and sweet tomato salsas, neither of which had much discernable flavor other than tomato and maybe some chile.
This monster is the burrito gordo ($12.00), which means fat in Spanish, and it sure fits the description well. On the menu it's labeled as only available with steak, but I sweet-talked the server into filling mine with a half-pound of carnitas. Otherwise, the thing is filled with cheese, beans, onions, sour cream and salsa. And I ordered mine suizo, which means the burrito is covered in salsa and cheese.
Perhaps I went too far, because this beast is soggy from the inside-out from an overwhelming amount of sour cream, and, sadly, the carnitas. They didn't sport much pork flavor, and were bland. Plus, the texture was extremely soft, bordering on mushy.
My coworker ordered the shrimp salseria ($15.00), which is shrimp, tomato, cilantro, onions and jalapenos, tossed in breadcrumbs. The problem really lies in the breadcrumbs; when you toss dry breadcrumbs with what basically amounts to pico de gallo, they inevitably turn into a soggy and clumpy mess. The dish is designated as "spicy" on the menu, but the heat is totally absent. And the shrimp are woefully overcooked, which is a disappointment for the $15 you're spending on lunch.
The carne asada con camerones ($16.00) is a combination platter of skirt steak along with shrimp tossed in pico de gallo (sans breadcrumbs). The skirt steak is charred, seasoned well, and a little chewy. The shrimp is the same as in the shrimp salseria version (overcooked), and in a soggy mix of cooked pico de gallo.
If you're in the Willis Tower for lunch, I might suggest going to Market Creations just around the corner on the same floor, where they have plenty of fresh options, or Venice Cafe, which is on the lower level. Unless you're hell bent on getting drunk, in which case, there's plenty of free chips and salsa to go with your beer and frozen margaritas.
About the author: After a failed attempt at starting a chain of theme restaurants called "Smellen Keller," Dennis Lee traveled the world to discover his true passion. Sadly, midwifery didn't pan out. Now he works in a cubicle, and screws around as much as possible. Follow his shenanigans on Twitter.