Daily Herald

Taste of Mexico City comes to Humboldt Park



Posted Thursday, September 15, 2005

It might be too late to buy inexpensive property in Humboldt Park. The West Side neighborhood seems poised to become the next Wicker Park, if the activity around California and Chicago avenues is any guide. While a massive steel Puerto Rican flag marks Division Street at California as the "Paseo Boricua," a Puerto Rican community stronghold, the neighborhood restaurant mix is becoming increasingly global as the area gentrifies.

Among the newcomers is Carlos Reyna's Maiz - "our third and final location," said the restaurateur, who had moved his tiny Mexican restaurant from Cicero to larger quarters in Wicker Park only to lose the building to fire three years ago. At his sprightly new space, with pale green walls and terra cotta accents, he still offers a menu venerating corn, that most Mesoamerican of foodstuffs, in a savory tapas-style menu modeled after contemporary dining spots in his native Mexico City.

"Over the last two years," Reyna said in a post-visit interview, "I traveled to Mexico several times. I found several interesting things happening there, so I decided to incorporate them."

Mexico City, it seems, much like major cities in the United States, is going in for small plates.

"You don't find many places serving complete dinners," Reyna said. Instead, diners there are more likely to graze their way through a selection of antojitos, snack- or appetizer-sized dishes, often built on or around a corn tortilla base. At Maiz, you can order one or two with drinks or assemble a multifaceted meal.

The centerpiece of Maiz - its fresh, silken, handmade corn tortillas - remains the same. Maiz offers few dishes that don't incorporate them and most of those use corn masa in other ways.

One that doesn't is the elote con queso y crema, which starts with fresh sweet corn. If you spend time in Mexican neighborhoods, you've most likely encountered this method of serving corn on the cob - coated with mayonnaise, which forms the medium for adhering shredded cheese and a sprinkle of hot chile piquin. The texture of mine suffered from overcooking, but the blend of flavors was perfect.

Another appetizer, the tostada de ceviche, is a crisp tortilla round topped with marinated tilapia in a fresh tomatoey sauce and covered with slices of avocado. You can also start with one of two types of corn tamale or guacamole and tortilla chips.

The tortillas also wrap the enpanadas, delicate, crispy, fried turnovers with your choice of a variety of fillings, such as tinga (marinated chicken); chorizo (Mexican-style sausage); picadillo (ground beef); cactus; mushrooms; and more.

Most of the menu is based on a selection of different fillings like these. Try the pastor, bits of tender pork marinated in zesty spices, served with a bit of tomato-onion-cilantro pico de gallo and a dab of sour cream. Cecina, nicely chewy strips of slightly dried beef, also makes a good filling, though not for the salt-averse. Bistek encebollado, steak sauted with onions, offers beefy flavor. Plain pork, steak, chicken and shrimp are among the other options, and pleasantly peppery chorizo with cubes of potato also makes a fine choice.

The tacos are tiny (the tortillas are no more than about 3 inches in diameter), served two to an order and are nice for sharing. You can add cheese, bacon or avocado for an upcharge or opt for fajita versions with sauteed onions and bell peppers.

Somewhat more substantial, the huaraches start with a thick, long oval tortilla smeared with refried beans, topped with shredded lettuce and your choice of 17 filling options, all of which can be enhanced with cheese, poblano chilies, avocado or bacon. Sopes, slightly thicker masa "boats," come with a similar choice of fillings, as do quesadillas and cazuela.

Cazuela is basically a ceramic bowl of filling served with corn tortillas, with which you assemble the tacos yourself. On the side you get dishes of chopped onion, pineapple and cilantro.

I liked the quesadillas best - large tortillas filled with Chihuahua cheese and your choice of filling. Additional, seasonal options include huitlacoche (earthy corn "mushroom") and fresh zucchini flower. The slightly crunchy blossoms taste intriguingly herbal, a flavor deliciously enhanced by a dollop of the spicy green salsa provided on the table. There's also a red, tomato-cilantro hot sauce.

Desserts are limited to a fairly solid flan and helado, or ice cream, which was a very light - ice milk-like - coconut when I visited.

Beverages include margaritas, pia coladas, sangria, Mexican beers, red and white wine and two beer cocktails - the michelada, beer and lime juice on the rocks; and the bull, beer, rum and fresh lime juice. Nonalcoholic choices include refreshing bebidas frias (juice drinks) including a not-too-sweet pineapple and a punchy jamaica made from hibiscus flowers. Don't miss the cafe de ollo, a traditional coffee made in a clay pot and redolent with vanilla and cinnamon. Reyna expects to add Mexican hot chocolate when the weather cools.

While you could look at Maiz as a jumped-up taqueria, it offers a much wider selection of tacos, fajitas, sopes, etc., than most. You'd be hard pressed to find many other local eateries offering 17 kinds of queso fundido! Nor many that serve this quality of fare.

For non-Spanish speakers, the menu, largely in English with full explanations, offers a very accessible route to a wide variety of fresh Mexican tastes. Maiz offers many vegetarian options, too.

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. Our aim is to describe the overall dining experience while guiding the reader toward the menu's strengths. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

Maiz

1041 N. California Ave., Chicago, (773) 276-3149

Cuisine: Mexico City-style small plates

Setting: Cute, casual, contemporary Mexican

Price range: Appetizers $3.75 to $7.75; small plates $4.75 to $10.25; dessert $3.75

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Accepts: Cash only

Also: Street parking readily available; no smoking; limited bar