La Costa Azul – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Costa Azul, Mexican Food and Mariscos on Albuquerque's West Mesa.

Costa Azul…The Blue Coast…the name evokes images of brilliant sapphire blue waters, perilous promontories and pristine sandy beaches which seem to go on without end. With over 1,000 miles of coastline along the translucent Pacific, Mexico has spawned a thriving tourist trade, particularly in heavily developed resort locations.

Increasingly, Mexico has also become known for high-quality seafood (mariscos) so fresh that even in land-locked locations like Albuquerque, the mariscos taste as fresh as if caught off the coast of Puerto Vallarta, not far from the famous Costa Azul resort.

La Costa Azul launched in 2005 on the former site of Mariscos Altamar, one of Albuquerque’s very best and longest running mariscos dining establishments. While similarly named, it is not affiliated with Santa Fe’s fabulous Mariscos Costa Azul though the quality of its cuisine might invite favorable comparisons.

La Costa Azul is awash in bright colors–three interior walls reflecting various tones and shades of the Pacific’s translucent waters. The back wall separating the dining room from the kitchen is a shimmering green, perhaps the color of some of Mexico’s most iridescent inland jungle foliage.

The waitress stand sits under an overhanging interior roof replete with grass and reminiscent of the beachside food and beverage stands in some of Mexico’s touristy beach resorts. A large plastic marlin lies on that roof, directly above a high-definition television tuned to what must be the Mexican version of MTV. An aquarium teeming with small, multi-hued sea life sits below the television.

Costa Azul, an excellent mariscos restaurant on Albuquerque's West Mesa.

Costa Azul, an excellent mariscos restaurant on Albuquerque's West Mesa.

Even the salsa is of an unconventional color, more orange than red. It is also quite piquant. Thin, but not quite watery, it’s probably too hot to scoop up and eat like the chunky salsas, but immerse it part way and you’ll still get a good kick.

Even better than the salsa is the restaurant’s guacamole, the color of radiating kryptonite. While lime isn’t uncommon in guacamole, the lime on La Costa Azul’s guacamole was definitely more pronounced. It melds wonderfully with the fresh avocado and the jalapeno which gave it a kick.

The tostada de ceviche mixo, is among the very best you’ll find in New Mexico, matched only by the version served at the aforementioned Mariscos Costa Azul. Raw seafood (crab, shrimp, fish) is marinated (almost pickled) with raw onion, lemon juice, cilantro and green pepper to form not only an absolutely delicious appetizer, but a colorful one as well.

The horchata is served cold with plenty of ice to keep it that way. It isn’t as sweet as a child’s cereal as some horchata is served.

You’ll be hard-pressed to select from the menu’s ocean treasures. The back page of the multi-page menu lists several non-seafood items for landlubbers. There were no landlubbers at La Costa Azul during our inaugural visit.

When you don’t know what to order, it’s sometimes advisable to select something named for the restaurant. In this case, that would be Camarones Costa Azul, shrimp from the blue coast. About a dozen shrimp are wrapped in crispy bacon then topped with melting mozzarella cheese. This is a hit-and-miss entree that is oftentimes desiccated. You might also prefer a sharper Mexican queso, but the mozzarella does its job and is a wonderful complement to the slightly briny shrimp. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that not only is the shrimp de-veined, the annoying tail has been removed for you. This entree is accompanied by ridged French fries, the kind out of a bag, and saffron rice with pieces of carrots and peas. The platter on which this is served is roughly the size of the Thanksgiving turkey platter which means you’ll have left-overs.

Another hit-and-miss entree La Costa Azul manages to do exceptionally well is paella. In fact there are two paella entrees on the menu. Go for the Paella Valenciana, a large platter brimming with seafood (squid, shrimp, crab, fish, clams and mussels); sausage (almost as sweet as the Filipino sausage longoniza) grilled red, green and yellow peppers and a buttery saffron rice. It is better than the much more expensive paella we’ve had at some Spanish restaurants.

La Costa Azul has only one shortcoming and that’s a sparse dessert line-up. The only dessert available during our inaugural visit was a desiccated chocolate cake. At least none of the seafood was as dry as that cake.

Costa Azul
640 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 7 October 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST
: $$
BEST BET: Tostada De Ceviche Mixo, Guacamole, Horchata, Paella A La Valenciana, Camarones Costa Azul

La Norteñita – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

La Nortenita at its former home on Wyoming

La Nortenita at its former home on Wyoming

The only disappointment (and it was a minor one) we experienced during our inaugural visit to La Norteñita was in not hearing the lively Mexican polka “Mi Nortenita” crackling over the restaurant’s tinny speaker system. That would have made our visit to “Old Mexico” complete.

More than most Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque, La Norteñita (the little northern girl) has the look and feel of a restaurant in one of Mexico’s northern states.

That means a kitchen and wait staff (and most customers) barely conversant in English, a lustrous color palate on the stark walls, mañana paced service and flavorsome food not adulterated for American tastes.

The original La Norteñita has been around for several years, situated on Central Avenue in an edifice most Americans might consider a “dive.” Business was so good that its owner (ironically from Puerto Vallarta which is in central Mexico) launched a second La Norteñita restaurant about three miles from the original.

A second La Norteñita was launched at the site which once housed Cha Cha’s, DeLillo’s All American Cafe and Christina’s restaurant, all very good restaurants in a heavily trafficked yet seemingly doomed to failure location. If you had wagered that La Norteñita would succeed where its predecessors failed, you would have lost. That is despite the primary reason it should have succeeded–authentic and delicious Mexican food at Old Mexico prices.

La Nortenita Mexican Food & Mariscos on busy Wyoming Boulevard.

La Nortenita Mexican Food & Mariscos on busy Wyoming Boulevard.

La Norteñita’s second location had several dining rooms in the luminous colors of the ultraviolet spectrum. On one dining room, you were surrounded by almost unnaturally, shockingly bright orange and yellow hues while equally intense blue walls were visible in another room. In contrast, the dark brown vigas on the ceilings seemed boring and out-of-place. On one dining room, the sole decorative touch was a framed picture of a vibrantly plumed rooster.

Belying its stark ambience, La Norteñita serves wonderful food. The jalapeño-based salsa is your introduction to taste sensations which will remind you of Old Mexico. Onion, cilantro, garlic and even jalapeño seeds coalesce in piquant bursts of flavor. Housemade chips have a pronounced toasted corn taste and are lightly salted, crispy and fantastic.

Both breakfast and lunch menus offer tantalizingly tempting options, some of which you don’t often see in Albuquerque restaurants. One such rare treat is the caldo de albondigas. A simple translation would be “meatball stew,” but that wouldn’t do justice to what turns out to be a hearty broth in which swim carrots, onions, meatballs (of course) and a whole red potato. This is Mexican comfort food at its finest.

Chilaquiles is another rare gem. A Mexican casserole originally intended as a way to use up stale tortillas, it has been refined at La Norteñita into a layered dish of corn tortillas, potatoes and beans covered in red chile. Layers of flavor is more like it. Best of all, this dish also comes with carne asada, very well seasoned and flavorful cubed beef.

Entrees are accompanied by your choice of flour or corn tortillas. Savvy diners will always opt for the corn tortillas which might have no equal in any Albuquerque restaurant. The tortilla warmer holds four housemade tortillas, the thickness (not quite as thick as tortillas used in pupusas but close) of which you don’t often see. At the bottom of the tortilla warmer is a hand-laced doily which helps hold in the moistness and heat to ensure your tortillas don’t cool off–not that they’ll have a chance to as quick as you’ll devour them. Did I already mention these are the best corn tortillas served in any Albuquerque restaurant?

La Norteñita is a relatively small restaurant, but it’s big on flavor and ultimately, that’s where it counts.

La Nortenita
9119 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 19 August 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tortillas de Maiz, Salsa, Caldo de Albondigas, Chilaquiles

La Nortenita on Urbanspoon

Gabriel’s – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Located fifteen miles north of Santa Fe, just south of Pojoaque and within minutes of two garish native American casinos, Gabriel’s is a culinary oasis back-dropped by nearby cedar and pine tree laden hills and the Santa Fe mountains further to the southeast.  Gabriel’s entrance is flanked by unpeeled latillas, a precursor to one of the best restaurant settings in the Santa Fe area.  In the early spring and fall, weather permitting, the sprawling dining room and its Spanish colonial theme are often rebuffed in favor of an outdoor dining experience.  

Whether on the large flower-filled courtyard, spacious portal (porch) or light-bathed sunrooms, the aforementioned views are spectacular.  If you’re so inclined, you can partake of a man-made view–that of having your waiter prepare guacamole at your table.  It’s an $10 plus thrill you might want to do without even though the guacamole is a real treat–meaty ripe avocados, fresh lime, cilantro, minced garlic fused with other ingredients before your eyes.

Gabriel’s specializes in the foods of the great Southwest and of Old Mexico.  The predominantly Mexican wait staff is attired in black trousers and white shirts.  Service is unfailingly polite and formal.

During our inaugural visit in June, 1999, I opted for fish tacos, which may be the rage in Southern California, but in many New Mexico restaurants they should throw the fish (and any chef who prepares them) back.  That’s because there are so many better meal options.  

For instance, there are Gabriel’s Lone Star barbecue ribs which are absolutely fall-off-the-bone tender and as succulent as any beef ribs we’ve had in New Mexico.  They are prepared with a tangy citrus sauce that gives the ribs plenty of zing without overwhelming them.  The ribs are accompanied by sliced fried potatoes and gaucho beans, both of which are first-rate.  

The flavorful and piquant jalapeno based salsa is served in a generous faux molcajete (unfortunately, bureaucrats decided the authentic molcajete made from lava rock pose health risks) with plenty of lightly salted chips.  There salsa packs plenty of cilantro and garlic, but it’s the jalapenos that will impress themselves upon your taste buds.  Friends swear they were unable to taste anything else after having their taste buds seared by salsa they considered “too good to stop eating” delicious, but tongue-scorching.

Another Texas treat, tender skirt steak fajitas arrive sizzling at your table and invariably draw the eyes and nostrils of all other patrons.  Supplementing those fajitas is a pico de gallo as colorful (with red, green and yellow peppers and sweet white onions) as it is delicious.  If mariscos are more to your liking, seafood fajitas (tender scallops, tiger prawns and red snapper) are also available and equally delicious.  Both corn and flour tortillas are first-rate.

Perhaps even better than the fajitas is a plato de carnitas, a sizzling combination of pico de gallo and Jalisco shredded pork.  The formidable portion size means you’ll have left-overs for the following day’s lunch.  To wash down your meal, try the inspired lemonade, a lively and sparking version.  

The Combinacione appetizer plate is a popular starter option.  A platter of nachos covered in a ranchero sauce and melted cheese competes for your rapt attention with cheese quesadillas and blue-corn tortilla taquitos all kissed by a generous dollop of the restaurant’s signature guacamole.

For dessert, you’ll be besotted by the tres leches cake with chocolate frosting.  Served in a plate sprinkled liberally with cinnamon, it is one of the very best and most moist tres leches cake we’ve ever had.  I’d drive the 75 miles from Albuquerque just for a slice.

Gabriel’s
U.S. 285/84
Santa Fe, NM
455-7000

LATEST VISIT: 13 August 2006
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 20
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Lone Star Ribs, Fajitas, Salsa, Tres Leches Cake

Taco Cabana – Albuquerque, New Mexico

One of Albuquerque's two Taco Cabana restaurants

Few, including founder Felix Stehling, would have envisioned that the humble San Antonio taco stand he launched in 1978 would eventually expand to more than 130 restaurants throughout Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and a few other states or that it would serve over 46 million guests in a year.  In a scant few years, the self-proclaimed “original Mexican patio cafe” has become a popular and powerhouse alternative to Mexican fast-food industry leader Taco Bell and restaurants of that ilk.
Today Albuquerque has three Taco Cabana restaurants, all thriving.  Much of the attraction is the generous portions of relatively inexpensive and mostly familiar Mexican food served in a colorful, lively environment.  An extensive offering of “cooked to order” Mexican fare includes nachos, quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, fajitas and rotisserie chicken.  In the respect that meals don’t languish under a heat lamp, it’s more of a full-service restaurant than Taco Bell and is infinitesimally better, too.  While the Duke City has much better Mexican restaurants, Taco Cabana provides a faster alternative.

Chicken Flameante, an entire chicken

For us, the draw to Taco Cabana (especially on balmy summer days) has always been the aguas frescas (literally translated as fresh waters) in watermelon and cantaloupe flavors as well as the traditional Mexican rice beverage, horchata.  Unfailingly fresh, they can slake the most stubborn of thirsts.  Alas, their availability is subject to the whims and pratfalls of distributors who may not always be as reliable as thirsty patrons would like.  True to its Texas roots, Taco Cabana also serves a red cream soda, albeit one made by Barq’s.

Our first dining experience in a New Mexico Taco Cabana didn’t take place until more than nine years had elapsed since we returned to the Land of Enchantment.  From past experiences in Texas, we wanted to avoid the Tex-Mex stylings of Cabana’s cuisine, so we both ordered the grilled chicken which was marinated in a blend of citrus juices, herbs and seasonings then grilled over an open flame.  It was certainly better than the loathsome rotisserie chicken sold in so many local grocery stores (you know, the hummingbird sized chicken with a leathery coating).

Cheese Quesadilla

In June, 2006, we made a U-turn when we noticed that Taco Cabana was offering grilled pupusas, the thick, hand-made corn tortilla stuffed with sundry ingredients (El Salvador’s national snack).  Alas, Taco Cabana’s version bear little resemblance to the pupusas you’d find at any self-respecting Salvadoran restaurant.  The corn tortillas are much thinner with a gritty corn masa texture and resemble thick tacos.  The “grilled” part turned out to be fajita meat, tomatoes, melted cheese and grilled onions.  Not surprisingly, the pupusas aren’t served with curtido (a pickled-cabbage relish with a taste more than vaguely reminiscent of something between coleslaw and sauerkraut).   To say these pupusas were a disappointment is a vast understatement.

Rice and beans

Taco Cabana offers a nice salsa bar with thin, fresh chips and several salsas of varying heat intensity.  The pineapple salsa may bring to mind a doctored up image of a jar of Gerber baby food spiced with hot peppers.  While it looks like baby food, it does pack a punch.

Taco Cabana
3301-01 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
836-1650

LATEST VISIT: 25 April 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 14
COST: $$
BEST BET: Roasted Chicken

El Taco Tote – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Taco Tote, real Mexican food, not a fast imitation!

El Taco Tote, real Mexican food, not a fast imitation!

Never mind Montezuma’s revenge.  El Taco Tote is striking a blow for everyone of Mexican descent (and anyone else, for that matter) who has ever denounced Taco Bell and restaurants of that ilk for serving inauthentic parodies of Mexican food.

El Taco Tote is making tote (slang for huge)  inroads in the American market where it has been warmly embraced and today threatens some of those long-standing pretenders by capturing an ever increasing share of the Mexican fast food market.

Founded in 1988 in Juarez, Mexico, this burgeoning franchise now has more than 40 locations throughout the Southwest and appears poised to conquer America by storm with its grilled “build your own” taco concept.  In 2004, one of the El Paso Taco Tote stores was named by Hispanic magazine as one of America’s top fifty Hispanic restaurants.

El Taco Tote celebrates the Mexican tradition of “street food,” a term which usually conjures up images of simple street stands serving up steamy, fresh corn or flour tortillas wrapped around seared meat with stinging chiles and sweet, sautéed meat on top of which you splash on a toasted tomato salsa.  Like those street stands, El Taco Tote won’t insult their patrons with tacos crafted of ground beef and sour cream.  Instead, the tacos (not as generously stuffed as the restaurant’s name might indicate) are made with grilled top sirloin, bistec (steak), pork, chicken and fish–what “real” Mexican tacos are made of.

Place your order then saunter over to the condiment bar which is where your taco becomes a tote as you cram it with onions, cucumber, cilantro, grilled hot peppers and more.  Six salsas, all of which pack a potent punch, are also available, but be forewarned, a couple of them might require a fire extinguisher.  The pequin chile talamada isn’t quite hot enough to remove the enamel from your teeth, but it might burn your tongue a bit.  Even the guacamole bites back.  You’ll be impressed by the fresh quality of the condiment bar where everything appeared to be homemade.

We fell in love with the pickled red onions which went well with the fish tacos (which by themselves would have been boring).  El Taco Tote’s fish tacos are more akin to what you might find in Mexico where fried fish is nestled into warm corn tortillas then it’s up to you to dress those tacos with the condiments of your choice.  Americans have become acquainted over the past few years with San Diego style fish tacos, typically made with a coleslaw-like dressing.

El Taco Tote’s corn and flour tortillas are made by hand, ostensibly the way they’ve been made in Mexico for hundreds of years.  You can even watch these magical orbs being crafted thanks to the restaurant’s open kitchen design.  Refried beans have a slight aftertaste of lard which also holds true to Mexican tradition.  The Spanish rice is both flavorful and colorful.   Horchata, a traditional Mexican rice drink is available to wash down your victuals.

El Taco Tote
4701 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
265-5188

LATEST VISIT: 2 June 2006
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fish Tacos, Horchata

El Taco Tote on Urbanspoon

Ay Caramba – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Ay Caramba!  That tired old Spanish expression was part of American pop culture long before Bart Simpson popularized its usage on episodes of The Simpsons animated television series.  The expression translates to “confound it!” or maybe “Holy Cow” and is generally used to register surprise.  You can almost imagine the Mexican equivalent of Robin, the Boy Wonder of Batman fame exclaiming “Ay Caramba” as he and his crime-fighting partner stumble onto yet another perilous plight.  

My hopes were that I’d be exclaiming “Ay Caramba” at how great the food is at this mom-and-pop restaurant which launched in 2005.  After all, my friend and colleague Steve Coleman has a relatively high opinion of the restaurant’s “sister” restaurant in Canutillo, Texas, a restaurant owned by the brother of Albuquerque’s Ay Caramba.  It appears good cooking runs in the family.

Ay Caramba’s menu is replete with many traditional favorites of northern Mexico as well as the wonderful mariscos found along Mexico’s coastal seaways…but Ay Caramba!…the menu doesn’t include Ceviche, one of the items that defines Mexican seafood.

Complementary salsa arrives at your table shortly after you do.  The jalapeno and roasted tomato salsa makes sparse use of cilantro and cumin, two overused spices which sometimes detract from the salsa’s inherent flavor.  The chips are thin but robust enough to scoop up the salsa.  Expect to consume two bowlfuls before your entrees arrive (that’s saying the salsa is excellent not that the service is slow).

The beverage bounty includes traditional Mexican aguas frescas including horchata, the beverage made from ground-up rice, sugar and cinnamon.  Ay Caramba’s version isn’t as cereal sweet as you might find at other Mexican restaurants, but it’s quite refreshing.  

Hoping to duplicate the incomparable flavor and magical properties of seafood marinated and “cooked” in lime juices, I ordered Ay Caramba’s plate of three tostadas con camarones (shrimp tostadas) with three limes.  The magic just wasn’t there.  The shrimp is of perfect texture (not rubbery or flaccid) and delicious in its own right, but when you’ve got Ceviche on your mind, there just isn’t a worthy substitute.  

Carnivores will enjoy the pork tamales bathed in red chile.  The masa isn’t so thick it dominates the pork and the chile is an ameliorant, not an overly prominent flavor.

Business is slow at this southwest heights restaurant, hopefully a sign that Albuquerque diners have yet to discover it and nothing else.  

Ay Caramba
5555 Zuni, S.E. #24
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 22 May 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $
BEST BET: Tostadas con Camarones, Salsa, Tamales

Topolobampo – Chicago, Illinois

A quote attributed to Marcel Marceau, the French mime famous for his sad-faced clown, aptly describes my attempts at describing a meal at Topolobampo: “Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words.” Life’s vicissitudes often include moments which move you deeply and stir your very soul. Our inaugural dining experience at Topolobampo was not so profound and cathartic as to move us to drastically change our lives, but it certainly prompted a stirring awakening as we experienced what was conceivably the best restaurant meal we’ve ever had. Perhaps more impressively, a second visit affirmed that opinion with an equally stunning array of unsurpassed delights.

Several of the other effusive reviews I’ve written are mere hyperbole in comparison to what I’d like to say about Topolobampo if I was skilled enough to do so. Topolobampo is simply the best restaurant in which we’ve dined, so far superior to other restaurants I previously thought were outstanding that I scaled down my ratings for many of them.

The sister restaurant of Frontera Grill, “Topolo” shares its front door and bar with its sibling, but is even more classy and elegant, more than a notch above. On the day we first visited, chef nonpareil Rick Bayless and 30 members of his staff had just returned from an extended culinary excursion in Mexico City where they imbibed culture and culled secrets of Mexico City’s cuisine. Annual pilgrimages to Mexico’s regions continue to inspire his creativity with Oaxaca, the “land of the seven moles” being a favorite.

We were fortunate enough during our inaugural visit to meet Bayless who is as humble and gracious as the Mexican people he loves. From his modest demeanor you might never suspect he has been a multiple time James Beard award winner. It’s in partaking of his culinary creations that you quickly determine he is a gifted and special chef. Topolo has been listed among America’s top 50 restaurants by Condé Nast Traveler and a Playboy restaurant survey placed it among the country’s top 25 restaurants.

Bayless also stopped at our table during our second visit. When he inquired as to my heavily bandaged hand, I replied that I had incurred carpal tunnel from the nasty letter I wrote to the Iron Chef judges who indicated Bobby Flay’s cuisine reigned supreme during their mano a mano competition in 2004. Bayless smiled broadly, steepled his hands together as in prayer and bowed–acknowledgement of my compliment.

Like Frontera Grill, Topolobampo is unlike any stereotypical Mexican restaurant you’ve ever visited. It is electrical in its energy, edgy in its ambience, boisterous in its rhythm and vibrant in its delivery. It’s like an eye-opening, invigorating sensory overload for all your senses. The fragrance of bold spices; the multi-hued walls festooned with festive art; the bold, complex yet refined tastes of fresh, organic ingredients–dining at Topolobampo is like a religious conversion! Every bite is an adventure in unbridled joy. Every appetizer, entree and dessert will make rapturous love to your taste buds, titillating and teasing them with sensations you might never before have experienced.

Topolo’s salads are fabulous–masterpieces deserving of the same rapt attention as a Picasso. A tasting plate called Ensaladas Surtidas is comprised of three salads: crunchy shredded chayote salad with smoky pasilla chile; grilled shitake-cactus salad with poblanos and lime; and roasted vegetable “ensalada rusa” with homemade chipotle mayonnaise. Every fantastic forkful will lavish taste wonders that will enliven your tongue.

Amazing appetizers provide a precursory experience that would be the highlight of a meal anywhere else. Exemplary empanadas de chivo (flaky turnovers filled with red chile braised Swan Creek farm goat birria and served with toasted guajillo dipping sauce and baby greens) surfaced the tastes that make goat a much underappreciated meat. Better still are the Mejillones Ahumados con Chile Pasado which are house-smoked Prince Edward Island mussels with luscious lobster broth infused with chile pasado. These marvelous mollusks are better than you’ll find at any seafood restaurant.

Exceptional entrees follow the sensational salads and artful appetizers. Puerco en Mole Verde de Chabacano feature a serrano and garlic-marinated Maple Creek farm pork loin with Querataro-style green mole (sesame seeds, almonds, peanuts, poblanos, plantains and spices) with sweet corn tamal, poblanos rajas and sugar snap peas. Complementary and contrasting taste sensations made this beautifully presented plate a thrill to look at and a delight to consume.

A sampler of Oaxacan delights called Cuatro Cositas Oaxaquenas featured rustic empanadas filled with chicken, yellow mole and hoja santa; grilled Oaxacan chorizo; roasted cactus salad with lime and green chile; and grill-roasted Maple Creek Farm pork loin with red mole. Although I had previously experienced versions of each of the four samplers, the Topolo version was like experiencing them for the first time and certainly, for the best time.

Pato con Lantejas (literally duck with lentils) masterfully melds seemingly contrasting ingredients to form a concordant, taste bud sating entree like no other. Adobo-marinated, pan-roasted Gunthorp duck breast is paired with an ancho chile-lentil braise, jicama-dried cherry salsa (infused with smoky morita chiles) and a garlicky Snug Haven spinach. The duck was virtually fat-free while the cherry salsa and lentils both competed and joined together in competition for your rapt attention.

Desserts are decadent celebrations of Mexican sweet-tooth tantalizing treats. The pastelito de Chocolate Oaxaqueno–a warm, moist dark chocolate “brownie” studded with Oaxacan chocolate and pine nuts with orange zest ice cream (perfumed with anise hyssop and Yucatecan Xtabentum honey liqueur) and bittersweet chocolate sauce–played a blissful symphony on our taste buds. Equally formidable was the Tartaleta de Mango, a mango-brown butter tart topped with crunchy cinnamon streusel; served with mango-chamomile ice cream and crimson prickly pear sauce.

Rick Bayless’s creations punctuate with emphasis that Mexico is indeed home to one of the world’s great cuisines. The country’s remarkably diverse range of styles has found a home in Chicago and has my undying devotion. Topolobampo’s incomparable fare may not be relatable to Mexican food you’ve had previously, but it will be the basis of comparison with every Mexican restaurant at which you’ll dine in the future. It is simply the best!

TOPOLOBAMPO
445 North Clark
Chicago, IL
312-661-1434
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 7 July 2005
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 29
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Ensaladas Surtidas; Puerco en Mole Verde de Chabacano; Cuatro Cositas Oaxaquenas; Pastelito de Chocolate Oaxaqueno

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