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 grandma?s own secret spice concoction.
Yucatán-style marinades and Oaxacan moles spice up the contemporary Mexican arrangements at Zocalo Restaurant and Tequila Bar, winner of Citysearch’s Best Mexican of 2011 title. Ceviches create visions of an Acapulco beach mysteriously littered with plates of chipotle-marinated chicken breast, grilled jumbo shrimp, and more than 130 bottles of blanco, reposado, añejo, and extra-añejo tequila served straight up or mixed into margaritas, mojitos, and sangrias. In addition to its tequila treasure, the 50-foot bar also guards a trove of Mexican beers and imported wines, which, as is tradition, the waiters ceremoniously juggle before opening. Wood accents and colorful paintings highlight the eatery’s dining area, an interior that Crain’s called "stylishly rustic and handsome."
Every four–six weeks, Cemitas Puebla’s owner and chef, Tony Anteliz, sends a family member to Mexico to gather ingredients such as chipotle peppers and giant cinnamon sticks. He relies on time-tested family recipes honed in Puebla, Mexico to assemble these imported ingredients into sandwiches, tacos, and salsas that have been praised in the Chicago Tribune and on WTTW 11’s Check, Please!. Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives highlighted the restaurant’s signature cemita sandwich: sesame-seed-bread laden with fresh oaxaca cheese, papalo—a fragrant herb grown in Tony’s mother’s garden—house-stewed chipotles, and a choice of meats such as breaded pork and carne asada. Inspired by Lebanese shawarmas, tacos arabes begin with layers of pork shoulder and onion skewered on a rotisserie. The stack of meat rotates as slowly as a ferris wheel being ridden by a herd of elephants before a member of the open-air-kitchen staff shaves off tender meat and tucks it into pita-like tortillas.
Inside Real Tenochtitlan Restaurant & Grill, vibrant murals by Pilsen artist Oscar Romero give walls eye-popping color, and bright arrays of artisanal Mexican mole sauces emerge from the kitchen. Chefs at the Logan Square eatery mix up new moles each day, pairing the complex sauces with chicken, game meats, seafood, and dry screenplays in need of saucier scenes. House-made tortillas mop up morsels such as queso fundido studded with house-made chorizo or tidbits of citrusy ceviche. The cantina’s bartenders pour margaritas blended with 100% blue-agave gold tequila, Gran Torres orange liqueur, and fresh lime juice, or fill glasses with Mexican beers.
Cesar’s comically oversized margaritas, in flavors including peach, raspberry, and blue curaçao, bolster boisterous chatter over time-tested dishes such as enchiladas, fajitas, and rellenos. On clear days a rooftop deck proffers views of the skyline and cars’ receding hairlines, and comfy couches throughout the eatery serve as ideal venues for contented postmeal sighs. Cesar’s third floor sports two bars and a lounge bathed in ultramarine light and pulsing rhythms, which roll down exposed-brick walls. Beneath the dining room’s idyllic murals and life-size replica of the sun, bottles of imported Mexican brews clink gleefully over steaming plates.
Open seven days a week, Café El Tapatio serves up a menu of classic Mexican dishes plus house originals, such as tortilla chicken soup with chipotle peppers. Diners sup on burritos suiza, enchiladas, quesadillas and steak tacos before drinking deeply from glasses of horchata like tourists drink in panoramic views printed onto postcards and canvas tote bags. Staffers can serve visitors at the café or deliver fiesta fare to front doors for an additional fee.
DeColores Mexican Restaurant is the worst-kept culinary secret in Pilsen. Shortly after the eatery opened, reviewers began to shout the praises of its family-style Mexican dishes; Chicago magazine even placed DeColores on its 2010 list of the Best New Restaurants, lauding the guacamole as “reason enough for a trip to Pilsen.” The restaurant continued its meteoric rise by earning Bib Gourmand awards in the Michelin Guide Chicago in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
The Reyes family members behind DeColores Mexican Restaurant choose to keep the menu humble, basing many of the dishes on closely guarded family recipes that span generations. Made from a blend of 20 ingredients plied from Aunt Alicia, the menu’s rich, chocolate-based mole won the People’s Choice award at Pilsen’s 2012 Mole de Mayo festival and cook-off. The homestyle flavors of the tampiqueña—grilled skirt steak served with a queso chihuahua enchilada—managed to catch Chicago magazine’s attention yet again, earning a place on the publication’s 2010 list of its 30 Favorite Mexican Dishes in Chicago.
Not every dish comes from the Reyes recipe book, though. The restaurant regularly invites neighborhood residents to submit their own interpretations of traditional Mexican staples, honoring any standouts with spots on the menu. This vibrant community spirit radiates from DeColores’ very walls, which routinely change to accommodate new pieces of Mexican-themed works by area painters. Further supporting the artists of Pilsen, the sound system plays recordings of local musicians between dramatic readings of the restaurant’s reservation policy.