Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Mercadito Counter - Chicago, IL

After some unexpected travel delays due to illness (Hackknifette finally caught the flu bug that's been circulating amongst our nation's populace lately), the family and I arrived in Chicago about 24 hours later than planned for our annual holiday trip up north. My in-laws were happy to host the progeny for the missus and I one day so that we could spend the afternoon and evening in the winter wonderland that is downtown Chicago in December; this usually means numb fingers and frozen toes, however, a warm front saw to it that temperatures remained tolerable (in the upper 30s) in spite of a fine mist that occasionally morphed into a steady, bracing rain shower. While Mrs. H. had lunch with old colleagues, my first stop was the old Assumption Church at 323 W. Illinois, founded in 1881 to serve the city's growing Italian immigrant population such as my great-grandparents, who were married there way back on May 4, 1910. At the time of their wedding, the surrounding neighborhood was largely residential. Today, it's the beating heart of River North, with the stately church dwarfed by condo high-rises, office buildings, and chain hotels that now dominate; in fact, Gene and Georgetti's Steakhouse, which has been across the street since 1941, often uses Assumption's paved lot for valet parking, a fact made blatantly aware to me by one of the valets (was his accent Serbian maybe?) when I tried to leave my car there in the middle of a hectic lunch service. Anyway, I only wanted to duck in to see the church's beautifully-restored interior and spend a few minutes pondering my general existence (I had just recently discovered my family's historical connection to this edifice).

This isn't an architectural blog, but I had to post one of my photos of the altar for posterity. I tried hard to imagine a couple of tiny Italian people (young, too - my great-grandfather was only 23 at the time, my great-grandmother 20) standing up there in front of a priest, exchanging vows (most likely in Italian) and feeling excitement for the future in their adopted country.

Of course, no posting is complete without food commentary, and I certainly have some of that. After leaving the church and parking close to Eataly a short distance away (they validate for cheaper garage parking if you make a minimum $20 purchase, which I was planning to do later), I had decided to trek about seven blocks north and east to 738 N. Clark Street, home to a fairly-new "Mexican deli" (as they bill themselves) called Mercadito Counter. MC is part of the growing Mercadito Hospitality restaurant group, an entity that began in 2004 with a single casual restaurant (Mercadito, serving primarily ceviche and tacos) in New York City and eventually made its way to Chicago, expanding into seafood, sports bars, farm-to-table dining, cocktail lounges, catering, and now Mexican-American street food fusion. Chicago Magazine recently lauded MC's pan-fried chicken as one of the city's tastiest values (only $12.50 for a half-bird with rice, beans, and tortillas), but I was jonesing for tacos and Mexican-style hot dogs, two things I don't get much of in Tampa (probably because I haven't been seeking them out enough).

The place was nearly empty at 1:30 on a Monday afternoon before Xmas, a little surprising given how popular this venture was supposed to be (or so I'd been led to believe). They have a contest whereby anyone who can eat 35 tacos in an hour subsequently gets them free for life (don't know if it's been pulled off yet) - sadly, I only wanted two of them and chose the fried shrimp and the al pastor, along with a fundido dog and a signature milkshake (the Little Nutty Mexican, vanilla with Nutella, cajeta - that's goat milk caramel, and Nestle Abuelita chocolate powder) for good measure.

Both of the tacos were fantastic, especially the shrimp, which featured 3 big, pork-rind battered (!) shrimp along with cured onion and cilantro, quite possibly the best shrimp taco I'd ever eaten. The al pastor (featuring ancho and guajillo chile-marinated pork with more cured onion, grilled pineapple, corn, and cilantro) was no slouch either, although I've had some street versions of this in Los Angeles that are mighty hard to top.

The fundido dog included a fried hot dog (couldn't decide if it was beef or pork) topped with melted cheese, crumbled chorizo, dijon mustard, and chile de arbol ketchup, a combo that looks heavy in the picture, but actually wasn't too much so (however, I'd be inclined to try a different variety of dog next time). The real star here was the house-made barbecue chips that came on the side, sweet and spicy and addictive in all the right ways - if MC ever decided to bag these for sale, they'd have a smash hit on their hands. Oh, and about that milkshake - I'd happily trudge through a typical Chicago blizzard for one of these rich, life-affirming babies again. My cold, wet walk back towards Eataly was definitely enhanced by cajeta and Abuelita chocolate powder gently coating my insides (to be eventually overtaken by the chorizo, but that's an unfortunate hazard of this hobby, my friends)...

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