Recipes from South-Central Mexico inspire the chefs at Amelia's Mestizo Grill, but the menu also incorporates familiar Old-World flavors. The spirit of innovation undergirds their commitment to traditional Latin-American staples, with dishes such as the grilled pork tenderloin with roasted quince that the Chicago Reader claimed, "could have come out of a far more pretentious kitchen." Stuffed poblano peppers arrive with a sherry-pecan sauce, and smoky chipotle peppers add a distinctive kick to the Mediterranean-tinged flavors of the grilled rack of lamb and potato gratin.
Coming back to its roots once again, the restaurant's dining room embodies a down-to-earth ambiance, complete with exposed brickwork and simple wooden chairs. A red accent wall adds a splash of color to the space, as do vibrant paintings of flowers, children, and Mexico's first rainbow.
Husband-and-wife duo Alejandro and Diana Guerra strive to bring the Mexican beach restaurant experience to Chicago at their Mexican seafood institution, La Palapa. Here, patrons dine on spicy Nayarit-style seafood on an outdoor patio, basking under palapas—thatched palm-leaf umbrellas—with their toes planted in the sand-filled deck. Roving mariachi bands often pop in to serenade tables, and a menacing statue of a shark lords over the beachy scene, hoping to sink its teeth into helpings of seafood paella, spicy garlic calamari, and red snapper. The seafood combo melds shrimp, octopus, mussels, and scallops, and the Palapa shrimp is doused in Alejandro’s grandmother’s own secret spice concoction.
The house specialty carne asada dominates Mexico Steakhouse's selection of recipes honed over 40 years of service. The kitchen concedes to morning cravings with a battery of egg breakfasts and frantic signals with a white napkin, and traditional dishes, such as pork tamales, travel to tables later in the day. A bright-blue awning and a row of arched windows distinguish the brick restaurant, where a jukebox recites an encyclopedic compilation of tunes for diners inside.
As the mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley was not one to throw around his endorsements lightly. That makes the signed token of praise on May St. Café’s wall even more remarkable. Though Mayor Daley was duly impressed by chef Mario Santiago’s blend of Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Cuban cuisines, he might have been equally taken with Santiago’s personal story. The chef’s ascension through Chicago’s culinary ranks began at his family’s restaurant and continued during his stint at the renowned Graham Room at Chicago’s Civic Opera House, where he served as captain of the kitchen. Today, Santiago draws on more than three decades of experience to craft a veritable quilt of Latin American flavors. One exemplary dish is the French double-cream brie quesadilla, which takes an unexpected turn with winter pear and chipotle sauce fillings. In a similar pairing of sweet and savory, the cinnamon chipotle chicken fajitas balance spicy peppers with a tinge of dessert flavor. For a full-blown dessert, try the homemade white chocolate flan, which can be enjoyed by the spoonful or sculpted into an edible bust of Mayor Daley.
Carnitas Don Rafa's owner Rafael Vega transforms the knowledge he inherited from his father, a butcher turned restaurateur, into a menu of homestyle Mexican fare. Staffers lovingly stuff tortillas and tortas with a variety of proteins, including carne asada, milanesa, or the house specialty, the eponymous carnitas, made from a family recipe. A parking lot next door keeps faithful chariots and dune buggies safe as patrons pick up their doggie bags.
Raul Lopez always wanted to be a bullfighter. Growing up in Mexico City, he participated in the sport as much as possible, but economic reasons led him down an altogether different path—making tortillas. He brought this business—and the nickname “el torero,” which means bullfighter—with him when he moved to the United States in 1942. What began as a small operation peddling tortillas to his neighbors turned into El Milagro tortillas, still well known today for a spread of Mexican tortillas, chips, burrito shells, and caseras, distributed throughout the Midwest. True to Lopez’s original process, the company’s current staff—including his wife and seven of their children—grinds only the finest kernels to create their products; they never use processed corn flour or aged corn, despite impressive resumes that list previous work in popcorn bags. Locations throughout Chicago also sell fresh tacos atop Lopez’s famed tortillas.