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Zocalo keeps them coming by being dependable yet exciting

A longtime favorite Zocalo is diverse tastes guacamole trio served with basket dried sweet plantachips. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times Photos

A longtime favorite at Zocalo is the diverse tastes of guacamole trio, served with a basket of dried sweet plantain and chips. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times Photos

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358 W. Ontario;
(312) 302-9977;

Hours: Open for dinner at 5 p.m. daily and for lunch from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Prices: Appetizers, $6-$10; specialties, $15-$25; desserts, $6-$7.

Try: Trio of guacamole, carne asada, pollo en mole, camarones al mojo de ajo, tres leches cake, cheesecake.

In a bite: Upscale Mexican that mixes traditional and expected dishes with a few that are unexpected and impressive for such a casual setting. The atmosphere is Chicago loft — a very comfortable place to dine. An impressive menu of margaritas, mojitos, tequila flights and Mexican beers. The service was on the mark. Reservations suggested.

KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary;
★★★ Excellent;
★★ Very Good; ★ Good;
Zero stars: Poor

Updated: September 20, 2011 1:37PM

A quick check of my “Where Did I Eat?” calendar reminded me that I first ate at Zocalo some five years ago, shortly after it opened. I am reminded that restaurants with consistently good food and a humming vibe have longevity because they have built a base of loyal patrons. Zocalo is that kind of place; it has settled nicely into a niche, one that works for its patrons because they know what to expect.

For example, the trio de guacamole has been on the menu since day one. Yes, a tweak has been made here and there in how these three are put together, but along with a Zocalo margarita, this would be a good way to kick off your meal. The guacamole trio ranges from the traditional to “rojo” (roasted tomato and onion with the avocado) to “fruta” (avocado, papaya, mango, habanero, walnuts). Served with a basket of dried sweet plantains and chips, the varying textures and flavors really brought home how creative guacamole can be as it moves beyond the ordinary.

Overall, I found the menu at Zocalo quite impressive in scope. The expected? Yes. Tamales, empanadas, queso fundido, enchiladas, tacos. The edgy? Yes. Elotes (grilled corn on the cob), grilled pork tenderloin with an adobo rub, confit of duck leg with an ancho-peanut salsa. And the traditional? Carne asada Nortena, for example. Zocalo takes a tried-and-true steak dish and turns it into quite an enjoyable feast. The skirt steak gets marinated in tequila before it hits the grill. Tender, cooked perfectly medium-rare steak got a smear of earthy salsa macha (chiles, garlic, peanuts), a fine salsa that added immensely to the enjoyment. The steak came with black beans (so thick you could stick a fork in them) and rajas poblanos, which is a melange of strips of soft-cooked onions and peppers.

Camarones al mojo de ajo — shrimp basted with a garlic/butter sauce — boasted seven large shrimp, tails on, grilled to a turn and plated with sauteed spinach, white rice and an avocado salsa. That may sound rather ordinary and plain, but it was far from that.

And another staple of a well-run Mexican restaurant, pollo en mole poblano, was decent enough. I am picky when it comes to mole sauces (spoiled firsthand by those made in my kitchen by the great cookbook author Diana Kennedy). Zocalo’s rendering was composed of a grilled, decently meaty breast of chicken with a Puebla-style mole sauce that, though quite acceptable, needed more chile oomph.

To finish, there was tres leches, my favorite milk-soaked sponge cake, which was finished off to the last pleasing crumb. Also we tried pay de queso, which translates (loosely) as an upside-down cheesecake with a crispy-crumb crust, under which was a wedge of cheesecake sluiced with a mango dulce de leche (milky-caramel sauce). Very innovative and a treat for the sweet tooth in all of us.


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