Serious Eats: Chicago
Lunch in the Loop: La Cocina Mexican 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.
I'd like to start this post off by announcing I am hungover as hell while I write these very words. Not like cool Bruce Willis hungover, with scruff, a growly voice, and a cigarette hanging from my lips; but like a puffy faced Elvis (not young, irresistible Elvis, but fat sad Elvis) sort of hungover. But I am a champion, a true shining beacon of perseverance, a writer that goes above and beyond and—who am I kidding? I feel like total sh*t. Thanks, sweet nectar of disaster known as Buffalo Trace. Thanks for nothing.
In my experience, Mexican food is a great hangover cure, and maybe it was a portent of things to come, but I visited La Cocina Mexican Grill with some coworkers last week to give you the skinny. My coworker asked me if I wanted to do tacos for lunch, which sounded good, and then he promptly ditched me for fried chicken.
La Cocina used to have an outpost on Jackson and State, but it shuttered, leaving us with one location on Wells and one on Franklin. The Wells location is right by Pollito's and Westminster Hot Dog, which I've reviewed in the past.
The guacamole ($5.50, large) is a relatively small portion for a "large," and it's nothing you haven't had before; creamy and rich avocado with relatively large chunks of tomato, bits of cilantro, and onion. I appreciated it had the right amount of salt, rather than the underseasoned versions I always seem to get.
The steak enchilada suiza dinner ($8.50) comes with your choice of either mole or a green salsa version. I'm a red mole junkie, and I can't get enough of it. This version has a fairly potent bitter chile finish to it and a big hit of cinnamon in the spice mix. The steak, while beefy in flavor, is a little on the pebbly and dry side, with occasional chewy bits.
There's plenty of taco filling choices at La Cocina, and along with the steak, they offer al pastor and chicken, among others, for their taco dinner ($7.00). I tend to avoid chicken at fast Mexican restaurants only because I'm used to dry, stringy, white meat, but in this case the chicken was moist, well seasoned, and not swimming in sauce. The al pastor was a little on the oily side, heavy on the sweet red chile marinade, but it's good in smaller quantities, like in a taco. I couldn't see filling an entire burrito with it. I did ask how it was cooked, and was told that it's cooked on a spit in the morning (Nick would be happy about this), but cut off and put into a bin, where it loses its crisp char (Nick would be sad about this).
The vegetarian sope dinner ($8.00) is your choice of refried bean or avocado topping on top of thick, fried, cake-like corn tortillas. The tortilla ends up being too oily, unfortunately, and it imparts a fairly bitter aftertaste with every bite. My coworker commented that it's also served with a lot of crema, making it hard to taste any of the other fillings.
Out of total curiosity, I saw the choco flan ($3.00) in the refrigerator and got a slice. I've never had flan quite like this; rather than being the jiggly custard that I'm used to, this version is much denser, with the texture of firm tofu (that's the closest approximation I can think of). It's silky, sweet, and smooth, with the traditional caramel flavor, and is topped with a large layer of dense chocolate cake. Why isn't more flan served like this?
Of all the Mexican restaurants I've visited in the Loop so far, La Cocina is one of the more authentic in terms of flavor and execution. Not everything's a home run, but it's definitely a welcome option against Chipotle.
La Cocina Mexican Grill
45 N. Wells, Chicago IL IL 60606 (map)
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.