Monthly Archives: March 2012

El Mercadito

Find creative interpretations of tacos, guacamole and great drinks at Mercadito Chicago, 108 West Kedzie St.

My neighborhood’s mercadito appeared every Saturday, quietly unrolling an elaborate tapestry of tents at dawn. Overnight, with the mystery of an ancestral spell, our street became the usual host of a festival of flavors, scents and sounds that enchanted the whole block.

Like everywhere else in Mexico, at el mercadito, magic intersected with practicality in the most fascinating of ways- turn one corner, and find  a merolico offering a variety of remedies to mend anything from broken hearts to calluses. Turn another one, and find furniture, jewelry, imported toys, flowers, shoes or someone ready to change your curtain fixtures.

Mercado. Querétaro de Arteaga, México.
Photo credits: Alicia Ramírez Presburger

I remember farmers offering the fruits of their crops with the pride of someone who has managed to talk the earth into creating edible jewelry, and parents always making the point to stop with their kids to either try an orange, a mango or to happily claim their free tostadas con crema at the dairy counter. Inventories were easily altered and could accommodate almost any request:

¨Señito, next week would you like me to bring your chicken alive or dead?¨ 

Food was always local, always seasonal and I am pretty sure, always organic. I am not quite certain anybody realized what a treat that was.

We were just used to it.

One of my favorite Saturday rituals was visiting el mercadito to get sopes, tlacoyos or quesadillas made from fresh nixtamal. These delicious dishes were conjured by skilled marchantitas, sorcerers of their comal. Cheese, green or red salsa, beans and freshly made tortillas delighted the hosts, who managed to rotate and sit by the dozens under a tiny canopy. Cactus, zucchini blossoms, potatoes with poblano peppers and cream as well as a variety of meat dishes, were just a few delicacies that anyone could choose from to stuff their quesadillas. Señoras in charge of this stand would charm masa into capricious forms, while adding numbers and crossing conversations by yelling the total of patrons’ bills. They never seemed to have a written tally, but knew with incredible precision who had eaten what, and how much the total amounted to.

I am not sure if this vignette has been genetically impressed upon me like a Diego Rivera mural or perhaps it is that mercado tarps are the fabric of my childhood memories. Whatever it is, I can’t help to smile when I think of Saturdays, and the magic they bring.

Mercadito Chicago on Urbanspoon

¡Échele Mariachi!

Gaetano´s in Forest Park is one of 600 restaurants in the world to have been acknowledged with the “Ospitalita Italiana” award for having an “Authentic” Italian restaurant.  Consider México Vivo for your own serenata, call  (312) 510-6011.

I really miss serenatas. I especially miss how my friends celebrated their mothers on Mother’s Day. They would pitch in to pay a mariachi to accompany them while they criss-crossed our neighborhood singing. The young troubadours would flag down a mariachi band nearby, and would then go door to door singing for each other’s moms. I miss hearing birthday serenatas, engagement ones, or those that happened just because. The Doppler effect of a mariachi in the distance is a cultural vignette that I am sure I share only with a lucky few.

Although mariachi is often portrayed as “comical” in many movies, in reality, mariachi music is an important part of our celebrations. From festive to solemn and romantic, these bands are a staple of events of any size. Pretty much any mariachi band holds a repertoire that touches on anything and everything that is sacred to us, except for fútbol. Playlists are learned as part of an unspoken social etiquette of sorts. Mariachi trumpets, regardless of the quality of their sound, have the uncanny ability to make me cry.

Knowing this, and wanting to distract me from my doomed battle against gravitational pull, my wonderful, wonderful husband hired a mariachi for my birthday. OK, he asked me to hire one, and to negotiate with them in Spanish for a really good rate. I know it sounds funny, but mariachi bands or at the very least tríos románticos are quite ubiquitous in Mexico. You just call them or flag them down. I didn´t realize what a luxury that was until I tried to find one in Chicago that did not require a notice way in advance and a formal contract.

I finally landed one. How to go wrong with a mariachi named “México Vivo”?  We agreed that we would meet at my favorite place. Wait. My husband reminded me that we had to make sure the venue I had chosen was OK with the idea. My favorite restaurant, Gaetano’s in Forest Park, is a culinary heaven that sits only 60. There were 12 elements in the band alone. Plus, If the name has not given it away, Gaetano’s is an Italian restaurant. It would have been difficult to make an argument for the band being representative of Italian folklore.

Enrico called Chef Gaetano DIBenedetto, the talented and gracious owner of this gem to share with him our plan. Gaetano welcomed us mariachi and all. The food was magnificent, as usual. And the mariachi did not disappoint!

Gaetano's & Ristorantino Mediterraneo on Urbanspoon

¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Vitamina T!

These amazing cupcakes and the best coffee in town delight locals and tourists at  Pierrot Gourmet (The Penisula Hotel, Chicago). 

Tired of trying to find “authentic” Mexican restaurants to give my soul a respite from my homesickness, I stopped looking for culinary embassies for fear of being disappointed. Luckily, as I desperately looked for the flavors of my youth, I discovered in food, an incredibly interactive cultural artifact.  Food eventually became my connection to my new world.  This is how Vitamina T (Vitamin T) was born.

Mexicans talk about “la Vitamina T” (Vitamin T) to refer to tacos, tortas, tamales, tostadas and other carb-loaded delicacies. In this blog, I will share my unbiased findings and recommendations on local and not so local eateries, often served with a side of Latin America. Enjoy!

Pierrot Gourmet on Urbanspoon