Photo: Grub Street
A list of all the places I’ve been, week 21: 210. Kellari Taverna 211. Mexico Diner 212. Saint Julivert 213. Department of Culture 214. Lure
I was in Chicago over the weekend attending the James Beard Awards and wondering why no one thought of calling them “Da Beards”. A few changes took place while I was there: Your humble diner is now a James Beard Award winning dinerI met Padma Lakshmi, and I can finally say I was in Chicago.
I ate a spectacular two-foot-long bouquet of hot cheetos made by the kitchen staff at Esmé – a very fancy restaurant with a rotating art collection that you can buy if you wish. The adjacent bar, where I sat, has much lower stakes, though food is still served on the restaurant’s bespoke ceramics. My waiter told me that the dishes are often conceptualized in conjunction with the food, and I will say that I briefly understand chefs who say Chicago is overlooked as a national restaurant destination because if a restaurant in New York were extruding XL cheese puffs and placing them in locally made sky blue vases, everyone in the country would know that.
Behold the Chicago Cheetos. (Then use the napkin to wipe off any orange dust.)
Photo: Tammie Telemariam
Since the fake Cheeto is covered in an aggressive amount of orange-flavored powder, the bartender warned me not to inhale while taking a bite or things could go bad. Annie Hall. I advise you to use two napkins, one on your shirt and one on your lap, because this material is everywhere.
The weekend was great, but I was happy to get back to New York on Sunday – even though flying is still a nightmare and I had to catch a connecting flight in Columbus, Ohio. By the time I landed at La Guardia, the sun had already set and I was hungry, which brings me to the real subject of this week’s newsletter: the joy of resorting to a family restaurant when you need it most.
I’m sure Mexico Diner has some of the best Mexican food in the vicinity of Prospect Park South, and I would feel that way even if it wasn’t within walking distance of my house. I go there a lot – it was the last place I ate before heading to Chicago – and that’s mainly because unlike most of the other decent Mexican places around me which are based around corner stores and bakeries, the staff in Mexico Dinner will feed you and sit you. In fact, the diner has recently expanded into an adjacent space, which helps with the crowds on Sundays, when nearby churches empty, or whenever there’s a good football match. I prefer to sit in the smaller, original part of the restaurant that is connected to the kitchen, where you can look out through the neon-lined windows. My favorite time to go is lunch, especially on weekdays, and order the taco salad served in a flour tortilla bowl fried as nature intended.
The food at Mexico Diner isn’t Taqueria Ramírez’s stewed stews, the kitchen isn’t obsessed with heirloom corn varieties like at For All Things Good, and it doesn’t look like the restaurant makes the fresh tortillas Fonda-style. Garibaldi, where the chips are as light as air.
But you know what? At Mexico Diner, I got out of a taxi with my luggage and ordered three tacos copiously stuffed with partially gelatinous carnitas sealed on the flat top, finely shredded lettuce, cream, and some fresh cheese. I bought tacos, because I arrived in an empty dining room at 10pm, as the staff was simultaneously trying to close and finish the last hour of delivery orders. This is not the time to order a chile relleno.
On a typical day, my dinner order is usually enchiladas suizas – which are surprisingly hard to find on New York menus – because it’s one of my favorite dishes and perhaps the most delicious example of Swiss-Mexican fusion in the entire world. Tamales are another pattern for me. I love that Mexico Diner serves them all the time – not just weekend mornings, which would require someone to choose between sleeping or waking up before the day is exhausted. The tamales are always steaming and tender and come wrapped in a banana leaf, which adds a deep flavor to the pasta dough.
Mexico Diner excels at two salsas in particular: one with a fiery, burnt orange undertone and a green version that offers a more rounded profile with plenty of bite. The restaurant serves it generously in jars and with a spoon so salsa freaks like me can drench anything they want, though I order extra to go because it’s better than anything I can make myself.
I’m sure the steady number of delivery orders that arrived as I ate at the empty restaurant had something to do with why it was open so late on Sunday night, but I wasn’t complaining. With a Cold Model, some amazing tacos, and unlimited salsa, I knew I was back home.