So, pretend you’re Zorba, improvising a
dance on the island of Crete. Or prepare to
bone up on Greek life during the Ottoman
Empire. Or just pour ouzo on your octopus.
But do leave room for Valrhona chocolate
semolina halvah. Ours came with candied
mandarin oranges, a flood of almonds
and a lovely cloud of Chantilly cream—
transporting us to an imaginary culinary
island in trendy Wicker Park.
Tucked into one of Chicago’s gastronomic palaces, Lettuce Entertain You’s
M Burger serves up hamburgers,
cheeseburgers and bacon-and-cheese
M burgers, plus fries, shakes and a few
other choices, while offering a clear view
into the kitchen of Rick Tramonto’s Tru,
where studious chefs prepare seared
foie gras and the $280 sturgeon caviar
staircase. Meanwhile, M Burger’s merry
crew flips burgers for long lines.
Moving beyond upscale Blackbird, Avec
and the Publican, Chicago’s Paul Kahan
twinkles with a less-exalted price point
at Big Star, his new taqueria/bar where
“oinky-toink meets honky-tonk,” as tasty
cheapie tacos—on the mini side—include
pork belly and spit-roasted pork tacos
al pastor. Count 35 bourbons and 25
tequilas, plus mezcals and beer.
Upscale chefs twinkling down
M Burger, 161 E. Huron,
Burgers, $2.49-$4.49; french
fries, $1.99; shakes, $2.99.
Big Star, 1531 N. Damen Ave.,
Wicker Park, (773) 235-4039
Tacos and tostadas, $2-$3;
dulce de leche milkshake, $4;
guacamole and chips, $5;
whisky shorts, $3.
Small plates, $5-$14; entrées, $16-$32.
*Taxim opened shortly before the last
449 North Clark St.
No one is better than Rick Bayless at evoking
the joy of instantaneous eating. And that’s
just the problem. We almost fainted when
the gregarious new manager told us that,
every day, between 750 and 1,500 people
crowd into Bayless’ tiny XOCO (which means
“little sister” in Aztec). If only Rick’s renditions
of Mexican street food were served up in a
real Mexican market full of clamor and color
instead of in this long, thin space where some
40 diners push up to counters facing walls.
So, with such high expectations, may
a mariachi band sing in your head as
you savor a delicious red chile chicken
torta with pickled white onions, avocado,
tomatillo salsa and black beans. And may
the maracas jingle and your Mexican silver
jewelry shine as you devour the wood-roasted garlic/mushroom torta filled with
creamy goat cheese, three-chile salsa, black
beans and wild fresh arugula. Other versions
aching for the aromas of a real Mexican
street are wood-roasted suckling pig,
braised short ribs and pork carnitas, plus a
ham and organic cheddar cheese torta with
avocado, black beans and chipotle mustard.
(Go ahead, add a fried egg!)
With so much success, thanks to this tasty
array, and with forgiveness for poor Clark
Street, which will never shimmer like a
Mexican market or byway, America’s king
of Mexican food can only be crying tears
of gold, just like the Mexican sun god.
Tortas, $8-$12.50; soups, $10.50-$12.50;
Ethel Hammer is a writer, lecturer and
cartoonist based in Chicago.
Though the wait can be daunting, cheerful
staff will bolster your hopes that soon,
soon you’ll be biting into one of Rick’s
nine warm succulent tortas, pulled straight
out of the wood-burning oven or from the
griddle. If only you could be gallivanting
through the streets side by side with Rick,
when instead you are left to envision your
own Mexican street scene. Still, his fried
churros offers up a sugar and cinnamon
high as hepped up as the chef himself
caught biting into a taco in Mexico City.
At Rick Bayless’ XOCO, soup’s on after
3 p.m., when diners can enjoy this caldo
de carnitas—slow-cooked pork carnitas
with potato/masa dumplings, chayote,
roasted serrano chiles, spinach, chunks
of avocado and arugula.