Well, here we go again. Another weekend, another round of posts. Today’s edition of Mastication Monologues comes off another long week and weekend of work mixed with plenty of play. While I have been around the block when it comes to Mexican eateries, I haven’t managed to adequately compile all of them on my food blog. However, this past weekend provided me with a perfect opportunity to make up for lost time. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a Chicago comida mexicana institution that resides in the once Bohemian, now Latino (predominantly Mexican), and perhaps in the future solely hipster neighborhood of Pilsen. I’m talking about Nuevo Leon located at 1515 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608.
After our trip to a fantastic punch class at Punch House, we were absolutely starving, and what better way to celebrate making our potent libation than enjoying some hearty Mexican cuisine? While I had been to Nuevo Leon before and knew of its delectable selection of Mexican platters, Josah and Janice were unaware of the treasures within. They were soon put wise. Even at 5 pm on a Saturday, there was a line streaming out the door that we had to wait in. Our wait was only made more interesting as I was carrying our large glass container of punch which led the diners to think that I was carrying around a special bowl of motor oil or perhaps the liquefied remains of a deceased relative. Either way, it was a good conversation piece. Also while waiting, I saw the signs that alerted customers to their CASH ONLY policy. If you’re plum out of moolah, they have an ATM inside the establishment. I also noticed that our punch would be put to good use due to Nuevo Leon’s BYOB policy. The only restrictions they have is that patrons cannot bring in coolers, and each patron can only drink the equivalent of three beers. Eventually we reached the front of the line and were ushered to a table in the back. Every seat in the house was packed as we dodged servers buzzing about like bees in a constantly humming hive. Upon sitting down, we were supplied with a basket of tortilla chips, two types of tomato based salsa, and a bowl of pickled carrot and jalapeno pepper pieces. While the condiments were fresh and filled with plenty of south-of-the-border flavor, the chips had a slightly funky fishy flavor which I think was due to the type of oil they used in the deep fryer. They didn’t bother me too much, but I still don’t believe the Mexican equivalent of the bread basket should taste like the catch of the day.
Our waitress greeted us, and I took over from there when it came to communicating with her. It didn’t seem like her English was the best when she tried to speak with Josah, so this might be frustrating for patrons who might not be able to speak Spanish. I started by asking for a carafe of ice, glasses, and straws to imbibe our punch with our entrees. Then I put in my order for the especial cazuela ($10.50) or literally “special cooking pot” in English. There was a funny cultural exchange as well while ordering. Josah asked for a chimichanga, and the waitress seemed quite confused. I then proceeded to ask in Spanish, “Se preparan chimichangas aqui?” (Do they make chimichangas here?). The waitress then said, “Que es una chimichanga?” (What is a chimichanga?) I described it to her as “un burrito frito” (a fried burrito), but she just shrugged and said there are only burritos. Clearly you are not going to find certain super-Amurikanized plates you have come to love at your local Chili’s or Chipotle. However, she was quite curious about our punch we made, so I offered her a glass. Eventually, our meals came out, and I was a bit taken aback by the humble appearance of my dish. A cazuela is a stew-like meal that in this case consisted of grilled pieces of ribeye steak, onions, poblano peppers, and panela cheese. I was anticipating more steak and vegetables, but I quickly found out that the majority of the goodness was lurking under the peppery red broth. When combined in a tortilla with the creamy refried beans and fluffy rice on the side, it was fantastic. The ribeye was high quality with no fat to be seen, and the vegetables were soft but not mushy. The cheese was an interesting addition as well since it provided a slightly salty element to a mainly savory dish. All of these elements’ flavors really popped due to the jalapeno level spice of the aforementioned broth. I was one stuffed and satisfied diner by the end of the meal.
So if you’re looking for a restaurant that is one of the most popular representatives of Mexican cuisine in Chicago without the frills of Frontera Grill or the prices of Topolobampo, then check out Nuevo Leon!