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¡Viva México! Zocalo continues to impress in River North
Before my relocation to Chicago, I maintained for many years that I simply did not like Mexican food. My exposure to “south of the border" cuisine had always been that unappetizing combination labeled "Tex Mex." Luckily, some persistent friends here in the Chicagoland area finally convinced me to try authentic Mexican food in the city and my perspective changed. Over the years, I have sampled some of Chicago's finest Mexican restaurants and have been continually impressed.
One of the best purveyors of authentic Mexican cuisine in Chicago (in my opinion) is Zocalo Restaurant located at 358 West Ontario Street (between Orleans and Kingsbury) in River North. As many of you know, that area of the city is densely populated with restaurants and many of them come and go with amazing speed. Zocalo not only has longevity (over six years) but has grown in popularity and their food keeps getting better and better.
Recently, I had the pleasure of being invited to try out Zocalo after not having been there for nearly four years. I took another foodie friend along and the two of us spent a delightful evening exploring both the food and beverages of our neighbor "south of the border."
We started the evening, as one must in a Mexican restaurant, with tequila. Zocalo has one of the most extensive selections of tequila in the city. I am not quite brave enough to try it straight, but I am brave enough to go for a good margarita, and Zocalo makes some of the best you will ever try. I started with one of their new cocktails, the Grapefruit Margarita, which contained house-made, citrus/chili-infused agave nectar. The glass rim was coated with a salty mixture of several types of chilis - not too hot and a perfect accompaniment to the tart grapefruit and the hot/sweet agave. My friend ordered the Novo Fogo Guava Margarita (also a new offering on the menu) and after a few sips leaned over and said, "I would come back here just to drink this." It was that good!
If you're indecisive, then you might wish to order what I did for my second round - the Zocalo Flight. This sampler contains three of Zocalo's most popular tequila-based drinks: Zocalo Margarita, Citrus Cazuela, and Jalisco Sangria. The sangria, in particular, is worth a try because they substitute tequila for the "traditional" brandy in sangria, and the result is unique and very satisfying.
One of the iconic appetizers in any Mexican restaurant, of course, is the ubiquitous guacamole with chips. For a perfect sampler, order the Trio de Guacamole which comes with three types: Tradicional (good, basic guacamole), Rojo (avocados with sun dried tomatoes and red jalapeño salsa), and Fruta (avocados with mango, guava, habañero, and crushed walnuts). The chips are a combination of corn, plantain, and malanga, all clearly made fresh and far better than your average chip.
Once we reached the point of ordering entrees, there were quite a few amazing choices. Take a look at their menu and you will see what I mean. I opted for one of the house specialties, the Carne Asada. My guest went for the evening fish special, a salmon dish. Although I cannot say the salmon was particularly memorable, the Carne Asada was superb! The mentioned to me that they might switch up the sides a bit, but the tequila-marinated skirt steak will remain the same and that’s a very, very good thing. If you are a fan of steak, definitely order this when you visit Zocalo. You won’t be disappointed.
Despite the enormous meal, we did save a smidgen of space for dessert. Once again, Zocalo excels at catering to the indecisive diner by offering many desserts, but including a dessert sampler platter. You can pick any three of the desserts and they are served in slightly smaller portions. For this particular visit, we opted for the Tres Leches Cake (another "must" at a good Mexican restaurant), Crepas de Cajeta (warm apple crepes with caramel sauce, dulce de leche ice cream, and crushed walnuts), and the Pastel de Chocolate (flourless, dark chocolate cake over hibiscus/agave sauce, with cajeta ice cream). Everything was superb, but special kudos go out to that chocolate cake. ¡Delicioso!
My only criticism of Zocalo rests in the fact that a few items on their menu were unavailable the night we were there. My guest wanted a glass of wine with dinner, but they were out of two of the four wines offered by the glass. For dessert, I wanted to try the intriguing Café de Olla (coffee infused with cinnamon, piloncillo, cloves, and orange peel) but was told that they were out of it. Just a gentle suggestion to Zocalo . . . they might want to pay a bit more attention to this sort of thing. One “sold out” item at a meal is generally fine with me, but to have three different items we ordered unavailable was just a tad irritating.
Otherwise, this was a superb meal and one that deserves the good review. For me, one mark of a great dining experience is asking myself, "Will I come back here on my own sometime?" In the case of Zocalo, the answer is most certainly, "Yes." Or, more accurately, "¡Sí!"
NOTE: All photos in this post are by Neil Burger and used by permission.