Finding a Mexican restaurant in Chicago is a fairly easy task, but it is difficult to find something more authentic than Zocalo Restaurant and Tequila Bar on West Ontario.
As you walk into the rustic décor the vibe takes on a Latin flavor. The large bar in this River North hotspot takes center stage with a subtle display of Mexican artwork that adds flickers of brightness above the wooden paneled walls.
The bar is the focal point here because it all starts with tequila (doesn’t it always?). Zocalo’s tequila menu is tremendous and is divided into Select/Reserve, Anejo, Reposado and Blanco, my choice as I always tend to favor the unoaked wine and spirits.
Among the 100 choices on the “agave spirit” menu, you will also find a selection of Mezcal and Sotol. While it may seem confusing at first, you will find a better than average choice of tequila flights so you can sample based on your preference or the restaurant’s recommendations. Prices are reasonable, starting at $8 for some good offerings and going up to $72 a glass for Gran Patron Burdeos.
I get to do a lot of sampling of various tequilas at home, so I decided I was more interested in checking out something from their creative cocktail menu. I wasn’t disappointed.
Margaritas are the specialty at Zocalo. Whether you want it on the rocks, frozen, flavored, salted or sugared, all options are covered. If you can’t decide which drink to try first, go for the Zocalo Flight, which lets you sample the Zocalo Margarita, Citrus Cazuela and Jalisco Sangria, an incredible combo of red or white sparkling wine, Don Julio Blanco Tequila, triple sec, fruit nectars and fresh fruit. I highly recommend it with the bubbly for something quite different from the norm.
As much as I enjoyed the sangria, I was blown away by the Chile Mango Margarita, a combination of sweet, spicy and salty. Agave Loco Pepper Cured Reposado Tequila is used in this drink, along with triple sec, lime juice and mango-passion juice. I had mine frozen (you can also ask for it over ice) and it came with a rim of chili piquin. The spice was unmistakable, but I did not feel it to be at all overpowering.
The food at Zocalo goes beyond general Mexican and has a bit of a Yucatan influence, a taste I was able to explore last time I was in Riviera Maya. I find the biggest difference between the Mexican most are used to and the food of the Yucatan to be the use of fruit in the dishes, and this restaurant makes good use of that element.
The Trio de Guacamole is a must to start your meal with. The three guacamoles are quite different: Spicy Rojo with tomatoes, onions and jalapeno; Fruta with mango, guava and habanero; and Traditional with cilantro and red onion. The Fruta was definitely my favorite.
Dinner was a tough choice with menu items such as Pollo in Mole Poblano, Enchiladas Rojas (made with beef brisket, red salsa and cojita cheese) and Quesadilla de Pato y Chichirron, filled with a duck confit and pork crackling. There is a host of vegetarian, beef and fish dishes, with some dishes changing seasonally.
I chose a house specialty, the Chile Relleno. It was prepared a bit different than I was used to as this fire roasted Poblano pepper was stuffed with a blend of three cheeses and then baked in a puff pastry. It was filled with mounds of melted cheese, but the flaky dough kept it from feeling to rich.
My dinner companion had the Carne Asada Nortena, a skirt steak marinated in tequila with a spicy salsa, served topped with roasted pepper. The meat was tender and the sauce highly flavorful. She couldn’t stop raving about it all through the night.
As tempting as it is to fill up on the food at Zocalo Restaurant, you must leave room for dessert. You can’t go wrong with any of the unique choices.
We had the Crepas de Cajeta, apple-filled crepes topped with caramel sauce and dulce de leche ice cream; Pay de Queso, a cheesecake with a sweet mango sauce and berries; and Churros y Champurado, fried dough sticks drizzled with apricot-mango and ready to dip into the hot chocolate that has cinnamon and vanilla bean. I wasn’t able to narrow down which I liked the best because they were all so good, but I’d say the Crepas de Cajeta was highlighted by the ice cream.
If you prefer to end your meal in a more spirited fashion, Zocalo offers a selection of dessert martinis to finish off a dinner that will have you believing you landed in the Yucatan Peninsula – at least for the night.