Ballyhoo Hospitality may not have quite the stable of eateries that, say, Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants has. However, judging by two of the restaurants I recently visited, Ballyhoo is definitely making its mark in Chicagoland.
I'm not going to lie: Visiting Gemini (2075 N. Lincoln Ave.; www.geminichicago.com ) recently was a little jarring.
The place was relatively empty when my friend and I arrivedbut about an hour afterward, the joint was jumpin'. Gemini was packed and everyone (save for one staff member) was maskless. During this time when COVID-related restrictions are lifting, being in this crowded spot took a second to process.
I'm sure some people were there just to celebrate being able to be outbut, most likely, patrons were crowding Gemini because of the quality of the meals there.
The menu, which specializes in contemporary American fare, is not the most expansive. However, what is offered is done particularly well, I must admit.
Starters included gazpacho (a delicious special) and ahi tuna tartarethe latter being a practically addictive disc of tuna, cucumber and avocado with sides of ponzu and wonton chips. (Other appetizers include crostini, octopus and mussels.)
My friend and I skipped the salads (which seemed pretty standard, with varieties such as baby wedge and heirloom tomato) and went straight for the entrees. The swordfish chop (an item with limited availability, and employing a cut our server said no other restaurant in the city offers) was pretty uniqueand I mean that in the best way. The expertly cooked cut didn't taste "fishy" at all, and was light. The blackened pork tenderloin (with roasted corn, salsa verde and poblano crema) was a solid entree although, truth be told, the fish was more desirable. (Other entrees range from vegetable cavatappi to Wisconsin trout.)
Desserts were treats, as well. I really enjoyed the mini-pineapple upside-down cake with rum caramel and ginger ice cream. The strawberry-rhubarb crisp was done very well, with the oat streusel and vanilla ice cream providing nice contrasts regarding tastes and textures.
Cocktails use a wide range of spirits and seem pretty enticing. For example, The Squirtsky Draft has grapefruit vodka, lime and cold-pressed grapefruit; while The Kensington contains gin, lime, elderflower and cava.
Gemini has been a Lincoln Park mainstay for years and there's certainly a good time to be had. Just be sure to get there early or make a reservation.
Old Pueblo Cantina
Not that far from Gemini is another Ballyhoo spot: Old Pueblo Cantina (1200 W. Webster St.; oldpueblochicago.com ). And while its location is not that removed, its cuisine certainly is.
According to the restaurant's website, "the idea for Old Pueblo was inspired by the 10 years [Ballyhoo co-founder Ryan O'Donnell] spent growing up in Tucson, Arizona, close to the border of Sonora, Mexico." The result is an enticing array of Southwestern/Mexican itemsincluding the must-have cheese crisp.
Old Pueblo Cantina is actually nicknamed "Home of the Cheese Crisp," and with good reason: The cheese crispa pizza-shaped form of a quesadillais nothing short of sublime, with varieties like queso (with Chihuahua, cotija and Longhorn cheddar cheeses) and carne seca (a delicious, slightly kicky crisp with dried beef).
Appetizers include a tingly and balanced shrimp ceviche, with avocado, pineapple, Fresno chiles, citrus and cilantro; chicken tinga flautas; and queso fundido con chorizo.
The aforementioned cheese crisp is under the "Sonoran Classics" portion of the menu (which, like Gemini, is not huge). But the other dishes deserve attention, too. The Sonoran Hot Dog is what I call an "instant classic," with bacon, ranch-style beans, pico de gallo, mustard, chipotle mayo, tomatillo verde, queso fresco and jalapeno. Other selections include blue-corn enchiladas; burrito or chimichanga; the Fiesta rice bowl; and various wood-grilled skewers.
And there are the taco platters. Patrons can mix and match the tacos, which include crispy shrimp, al pastor, ground beef, blackened fish, chicken and even grilled sweet potato. I went with the crispy shrimptopped with chipotle mayo and pineapple-Fresno salsaand it was absolutely divine. Something tells me the other tacos are not far behind.
We thoroughly enjoyed the traditional desserts as well. The very warm churros were inundated with cinnamon dust, and came with warm caramel sauce. And the caramel flan was just as fun and delicious, with the right consistency. (Old Pueblo also has ice-cream pops in flavors like pina colada, peanut-butter potato chip, caramel horchata and others.)
Needless to say, you're bound to enjoy yourself at Old Puebloand, if you're lucky, you'll get to enjoy a live band, like my friend and I did.
Note: The visits to these restaurants were arranged.