Chef Carlos Gaytan has never failed to impress.
He initially opened Mexiquewith French-inspired Mexican offerings in Chicago's West Townin 2008, running that spot for a decade. Along the way, he became the first Mexican chef to receive a Michelin star, doing so in 2013 and 2014.
In 2019, he opened Tzuco (720 N. State St.; tzuco.com) in the River North area. Patrons were impressed by the upscale Mexican fare.
I'm happy to state that, after the COVID pandemic, Tzuco's high standards have been upheld.
Sitting on the restaurant's patio (with plenty of heat lamps to keep the cold at bay, along with a scenic view of passersby), my dining companion and I had a grand time enjoying each other's companyand, of course, Tzuco's cuisine.
Our server, Ami, was extremely helpful, navigating us through the offerings while breaking down ingredients and even, in some cases, explaining their origins.
As one should expect, there's a twist on even the most basic items, allowing guests to experience them from fresh perspectives. For example, the Caesar salad contains roasted poblano dressing, sunflower seeds and quest de cincho in addition to tomatoes, avocado and lettuce. However, we opted for two other appetizers, and they definitely pleased: roasted beets (with mole rosa, candied hibiscus flowers and rabiola goat cheese) and a sizable tetela (a fried triangular corn empanada stuffed with chicken tinga, sour cream, creamy chipotle and queso fresco).
However, there are several other app options. For instance, there are tuna ceviche (with grilled tomatillo aguachile, cucumber, red, onions, avocado and choclo); guajillo-roasted octopus with salsa macha, pickled carrot, pea, potato and tunnato aioli; and even a French onion soup with poblano peppers, Gruyere cheese and crostini.
But as enticing as the apps are, the entrees are even more satisfying. My friend opted for the cochinita pibila pork shank (wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an oven) accompanied by black bean puree, pickled red onion and habanero salsa. I tried itand a knife wasn't even needed as the tasty pork just fell apart. Ami suggested to my friend that he eat the leftovers with eggs the following morning, which he though was a wonderful idea.
I went for the carne asada. There are two options (the 12-ounce Angus New York strip and the 24-ounce Snake River Farms dry-aged rib-eye, which I went for). Served on a wooden platter with fondue and a large side of vegetables, the steak was absolutely scrumptiousalthough, to be honest, it took me another couple of days to finish it.
If you can save room for dessert, do so. The gianduja is a hazelnut sponge cake that comes with chocolate and salted-caramel ice creamand is topped by a chocolate leaf. The maiz y azafran (corn and saffron) consists of sweet cornbread topped with crunchy honey toffee, along with caramel popcorn and saffron ice cream. Both were sublime.
Even the drink menu has choices for the adventurous. Cocktails include, among others, the heady but tasty Huitzuco Cup (ginger-infused Sotol, Pimmʼs Liquior, lemon juice, chamomile syrup, dried strawberries, sliced orange, mint and ginger beer) and the mole Old Fashioned (Mexican corn whiskey, mole syrup, Xocolatl, mole bitters and chile ash). And, of course, there's a very expansive list of tequilas and other spirits.
If one word of caution should be extended, it's about the cost of the experience. Most prices aren't bad (with the beets being $16, for example). However, the cochinita pibil is $38 (although it lasts at least two meals) and the ribeye was market pricewhich I later discovered was $120.
However, Tzucoespecially if you're celebrating somethingis well worth the excursion. If there's any justice in the world, Gaytan should receive another Michelin star.
Additional item: Through October, Tzuco and Gaytan are also offering a "Back to My Roots" menu spotlighting a year-long journey discovering culinary traditions of a new state in Mexico each month. For March, the Mexican state of Guerrero is featured, with selections such as tortitas de camaron (shrimp and lemongrass cake with salsa, rice chicharron and cactus relish); stuffed quail with homemade chorizo, dates and pickled jalapenos; and the fish of the day with nejo tamale, creamy zucchini, mole verde and pickled red onion. Some of the other states that will be explored include Jalisco (in May), Oaxaca/Guelaguetza (in July) and Yucatan (in October).
Note: This visit was arranged.