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.
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.
When Jerry Lombardi moved his small grocery store to Pilsen in 1960, he immediately recognized the local market for authentic Mexican ingredients. To satisfy the cravings of the neighborhood’s Hispanic community, he began importing cilantro, jalapenos, serrano peppers, and canned goods directly from Mexico. A few years later, Doña Maria took Lombardi’s baton and ran with it, setting up a small taqueria inside the grocery store. Maria’s take on Mexican cuisine proved to be a bigger hit than a piñata at a baseball game. Long lines soon forced her to assume a larger space just next door, where today her daughters continue to pay homage to her original recipes for tacos, sopes, and chile rellenos.
“If you have a Mexican grocery store near you, the taquería that’s inside is really a good bet” noted Rick Bayless on a Time Out Chicago tour of his favorite Mexican spots in Pilsen. The taqueria in question was Restaurant La Casa Del Pueblo––located across from the grocery that shares its name––, a place Bayless praised for it’s “super homey” eats. TimeOut seems to agree, calling the eatery’s tamales “incredible” and “tender” in a separate review. All of the authentic northern Mexican recipes served here—tacos, tortas, burritos, twice-baked piñata—have been perfected by the owners, a family that has run the restaurant since 1962. To accompany the spicy menu, patrons can bring their own beverages or keep the authentic tastes coming with a cup or horchata or Mexican hot chocolate.
A mounted goat head keeps watch over Birreria Reyes de Ocotlan, an 18th St. eatery frequented by famed chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill. In the kitchen, cooks stew shredded goat meat with bay leaves, garlic, and onions, and wrap tender morsels from the tongue or head in tortillas. Diners can customize these meals with pinches of lime, chopped onions and cilantro, and sides such as consomme or spicy pickled onions.
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.