Underneath the supernatural halo that surrounds the concept “Shaman”, you will find the fascinating meaning of a cross-culturally relevant word that some say can be traced back to Sanskrit: survivor.
Fittingly, Soraya Rendón, the owner of Chicago’s “Shaman” and “Chilam Balam” is that and more. Just like the concept, she has crossed countries and cultures. Beyond surviving, she has thrived. She has conquered.
Leaving her native Mexico in her teens, Soraya remembers how she was passed up for a job as a receptionist because she did not speak English. Unfazed, she told the hiring manager she would learn the language and then come back. A few months later, and faithful to her promise, she returned to land the job. Actually, Soraya negotiated a higher-paying position with a better title because, as she explained, she “was now bilingual.”
Consistently fearless, Soraya soon opened Chilam Balam, a Mexican restaurant focused on sustainable cuisine. “It survived, so we decided to open Shaman,” Soraya said about her second “child” as she calls each one of her establishments. “The name made perfect sense to me.”
True to form, Soraya would continue to challenge convention and predictability. Her BYOB eatery treats patrons to a dynamic menu featuring Mexican-inspired small plates. The dishes are a creative take on traditional recipes, and are thoughtfully brought to life by none other than chef Natalie Oswald, an Ohio-born chef who brace yourself, happens to cook fluently “in Spanish”.
But what is absolutely certain is that when you visit Shaman, you will be charmed by a fascinating out-of-country atmosphere that you could very well find in a restaurant in Coyoacán. The food is a reflection of the story behind it: bold, creative, passionate… Delightful.
What we loved: If you visit, try the porkbelly tacos. I was impressed by the balance of textures and flavors packed in a small bite. The tortillas, by the way, were perfect.
Shaman by Chilam Balam
1438 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60642
Hours: Tue-Thu: 5pm-10pm Fri-
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I accidentally stumbled upon La Diosa (Spanish for “goddess”), a little café in Lincoln Park that I did not remember having seen before. I was first curious about the name, and since we had already had lunch, we decided to go in for dessert.
I had no idea that I was really in for a treat.
We were greeted by La Diosa‘s owner Laura Martínez, a young Mexican chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. We exchanged pleasantries in Spanish (the restaurant had just opened in January). The pictures on the wall prompted more questions. I learned that Martínez honed her cooking skills while interning, and later working for Charlie Trotter.
As if these accomplishments were not already impressive, Laura Martínez happens to be the first blind chef to open a restaurant in the US.
The entire concept behind La Diosa, from the menu to the name, are both her idea and her dream. Losing her eyesight as a baby, Martínez is convinced that her condition pushed her to succeed. “Being a chef was not the easiest path for anyone in my situation, and I did not want anybody to tell me that I was not able to do something. I am the only one in my family with a degree,” she said.
Her kitchen is completely open and pristine, and watching her prepare empanadas with great precision, is nothing short of amazing. Her husband, Maurilio, doubles as both Martínez’s eyes and her sous chef. “Sometimes it can get frustrating, you wish you could see when it gets busy so that you can move faster,” she added.
Why La Diosa? Martínez said the name is a nod to her faith. As she spoke, I could not help but be reminded of her strength and resolve. Plus, if I could ever imagine of anyone embodying supernatural powers, it is her: Martínez masterfully wields a knife without sight.
If you visit La Diosa, please say hi to chef Martínez from us. We recommend that you try her tequila-cheese pie or the flan. The hot chocolate is heavenly indeed.
2308 N. Clark St.
8 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday
9 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
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This is the first thought that came to mind when my dish was served – a beautiful combination of colors and textures that made me take notice. The impeccable service and a thoughtfully curated space overlooking Michigan Avenue added to the experience. Comfort meets class here, and you can´t help but feel charmed when you visit. I was hooked.
And beyond beauty, substance. Heart. You are after all at Saks Fifth Avenue… a model walking by each table with the latest designer jacket can be a reminder of your targeted budget or caloric intake. Chef Ron Aleman’s food is so good though, that somehow you feel welcome, not intimidated.
As I kept coming back I realized that something resonated within me. Just like shorthand, food is a secret language that transports you to a particular time and place. I knew the author of my meal was undoubtedly an artist. But, why did I think that this American fare spoke Spanish to my soul?
Chef Ron Aleman grew up dreaming of pursuing a career in the arts, perhaps painting or drawing (when I heard this, the artistic plating made perfect sense). Instead, he took a detour and graduated with a degree in business. As a successful salesman, at the age of 30, (when many professionals have consecrated themselves to their craft) Aleman was starting over. In his new position, tending to the chores assigned to the most junior staff, he took over washing dishes and mopping with pride. “I knew this was the path I needed to follow, and there was nothing to be ashamed of”, he said.
If you have tried Chef Aleman’s food, you have looked at a snapshot of his heart: “Family is at the center of food. Food is love… cooking for others is an honor.” It is precisely his family where Chef draws a lot of his inspiration. Aleman found his Mexican mother-in-law’s asada salsa so irresistible, that he recreated her recipe in his kitchen. Growing up with tortillas as a staple of his family’s meals, his point of view is down-to-earth yet uniquely cosmopolitan. If you visit, try his coconut bread pudding, a dessert that in Mexico, we call capirotada.
Like CliffsNotes on Chicago, Chef Ron Aleman’s dishes are a synopsis of the character of the city- elevated yet approachable; informally sophisticated; worldy American with just the perfect touch of heat.
Follow Chef Aleman on Instagram: @Ronaleman27
Si estás en Chicago y te da un ataque de nostalgia, o si estás de visita y quieres descubrir un lugar diferente dentro de la ciudad, a sólo 5 kilómetros al sureste del “Loop” se encuentra el barrio de Pilsen. Fundado por colonizadores de Europa del este a fines del siglo XIX, Pilsen fue nombrado en honor a la cuarta ciudad más grande de Checoslovaquia. No fue sino a principios de 1960 que la comunidad hispana empezó a hacer de Pilsen su casa. Ya para los 70, Pilsen era, como les hoy, una colonia muy diversa y predominanemente hispana.
Virtualmente un museo al aire libre, quien visita Pilsen podrá descubrir una serie de murales que sirven como vehículo para el discurso social. Exilio, lucha e identidad son los mensajes predominantes de esta expresión de arte urbano. Si prefieres un museo intramuros, no te pierdas el Museo de Arte Mexicano. La entrada es gratuita.
La calle 18 es una puerta dimensional a una serie de negocios que van desde restaurantes, panaderías, dulcerías, hasta peluquerías. ¿Quieres pan como ese que probaste en las ferias de Acámbaro? Aquí lo encuentras. Estos personajes llegaron como recetas en los morrales de artesanos michoacanos y aquí se hicieron pan.
Y si en tu paseo te da hambre, acuérdate de visitar Carnitas Uruapan, donde encontrarás desde chicharrón, hasta quesadillas de sesos y ensalada de nopales. Pasa a saludar al Güero Carbajal y díle que te recomendó tu amiga Brenda Storch de La Vitamina T.
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Horchata, a delicious Mexican rice drink is one of my favorite beverages. Masa Azul’s executive chef Jonathan Zaragoza, surprises us with a cocktail inspired in this drink. This is definitely horchata for adults.
What a way to take summer into fall!
- 8 cups of water, divided
- 1 cup long grain white rice, rinsed
- 1 stick of Mexican cinnamon
- ½ cup of sugar, or to taste
- ½ cup Jim Beam Hardcore Cider
Working in batches, combine the rice, cinnamon and 4 cups of water in a blender, pulsing to grind the rice and cinnamon. Transfer the rice/cinnamon mixture to a bowl and add remaining 4 cups of water. Soak overnight. Puree the rice mixture, again and strain through a fine meshed strainer or cheesecloth. Mix in sugar and Jim Beam Hardcore Cider and chill. Serve over ice with a cinnamon stick as garnish.
Appointed Executive Chef at Logan Square’s Masa Azul since 2012, the Chicago native taps into his Jalisco roots to bring to life Mexican-inspired dishes with a creative twist. This recipe is the second of a series.La Vitamina T was invited to an event sponsored by Red Stag by Jim Beam® Hardcore Cider and received free samples of food, pairings and product. The decision to write this review, as well as all opinions, are our own.
Inocencio Carbajal becomes emotional as he shares a very personal story. In the late 70s, as a recent transplant from Uruapan, Michoacán, he had to make the decision to let go of his most precious possession- a medal of the Virgin of Guadalupe. “I asked Her to bless my choice,” says Inocencio, his eyes tearing up. “We bought our first piece of equipment with that money.”
Fast-forward four decades later, and Inocencio’s hardship has paid off. As we arrived at the Pilsen eatery, a long line of patrons had already assembled. Marcos Carbajal, Inocencio’s son, kindly invited us to tour the kitchen while we found a spot to talk.
The state of Michoacán in southwestern Mexico, is famous for its carnitas, one of Mexico’s favorite folk dishes. Usually cooked in large copper containers brought in from a specific neighboring town, it is not uncommon to find this treat also being prepared in large stainless steel pots. “In many villages, eating carnitas is a Sunday morning ritual,” said Marcos, who periodically visits family in Uruapan, his father’s birthplace. “People know to arrive early, as typically only one pig is prepared, and they gather to eat after church. Many of our customers still follow this custom, but we cook a fresh batch every two hours.”
Although he kept in his heart the desire to go back to Michoacán at some point, Inocencio’s family and his growing business kept him in Pilsen. “All of a sudden, Marcos was ready to go to college, and I was happy that he had the opportunity,” said Inocencio. For Marcos, the word “pigskin” is not merely a seasonal one- with a degree in Economics from the University of Michigan, and thinking of helping his dad, Marcos left his corporate job to work in the restaurant full time, while also pursuing a Master’s Degree in Entrepreneurship from Northwestern University.
Although Inocencio has not returned to Uruapan, he has brought Uruapan to Chicago with him. The path he chose was not easy but, he says smiling, “I would do it all over again”.
His eatery’s menu is perfectly simple, with many well-achieved crowd pleasers. From mouthwatering pork carnitas, to menudo, chicharrón en salsa de tomate ( chicharrón in tomato sauce, of which I took a big container home), cacti salad and even quesadillas de sesos (brain-stuffed quesadillas), this place is the real deal. In fact, the cueritos I tried here are the best I have ever had in both, texture and flavor.
Carnitas Uruapan did not disappoint. My stomach was full and happy, and after talking to Inocencio and Marcos, my heart was too.
1725 W 18th St Chicago, IL 60608
Claim your free carnitas taco with your to go order and and free order of chicharrón if you check-in on Facebook.
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If you visit New Rebozo, chances are that aside from a remarkable meal, you will be delighted by owner Chef Paco’s warm and exuberant personality. After more than 20 years of success at his Oak Park location, where Chef Paco (A.K.A. Francisco López) is already a fixture, this Mexico City native decided to bring his creativity and passion for authentic Mexican food to Chicago’s Gold Coast.
Chef Paco equates food to the dynamics of everyday life: “Life can be sweet and sour… even salty, add love to it and you will strike a balance.” His philosophy spills into every corner of his restaurant. There is definitely love in New Rebozo, named after a shawl Mexican women wear. From the cozy fireplace to the thoughtfully picked art, the dining room and patio embrace you like welcoming Mexican embassies. Do not expect to find cultural clichés here. New Rebozo is the real deal both in form and content. “My work is about making people happy,” said Paco. “That’s my ultimate goal.”
Full of flavor, depth and whimsy, it is so fitting that mole is one of Chef Paco´s specialties. Very few words say fiesta and Mexico as loud and clear as mole does, particularly in the countryside, where this traditional dish is served during important celebrations such as weddings and christenings. Chef Paco´s mole Poblano is so good, I have no doubt that my Pueblan grandma, who was often charged with making the mole for her village’s fiestas patronales*, would have approved.
If you visit New Rebozo, do not miss the cochinita pibil tacos, a delicacy straight from Yucatán. There is a piece of Mexican heaven in every perfectly flavorful bite and they are surprisingly not greasy. The watermelon mojitos are also quite memorable- one sip of those glorious cocktails had my entire table exclaiming in unison: “Oh my God!”
*In Mexico, fiestas patronales are a village’s most important celebration, and are typically dedicated to the patron saint the village is named after.
46 E. Superior
Chicago, IL 60611
Open Mon-Sun 12-10 pm
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A few weeks ago, I set out to find the best taco al pastor (‘shepherd-style’ taco) in Chicago. This down-to-earth, charismatic delicacy is a dietary staple of defeños*, and despite the fact that in Mexico City taco stands abound, any local will tell you that not all tacos al pastor are made equal. Finding the perfect taquería is almost a rite of passage, one that speaks to the way we connect with our city and beyond- a Mexican’s relationship with their pastor is emotional… personal, mystical.
Finding good tacos (let alone authentic ones) north-of-the-border is not so easy. Our taco al pastor story in April made me aware of the fact that I am not alone in this realization. I asked La Vitamina T readers and friends to submit their favorite al pastor destinations in Chicago. A few Facebook posts and tweets later, I had a list of 18 different establishments endorsed by locals, among them, several Mexican transplants. Similar to how my friend Dave from New Jersey can recognize a good Philly cheesesteak, I figured recommendations from Mexicans added instant credibility to the suggestions.
This is how my search began.
Below is the final list of nominees. I visited every establishment on this list without letting the owners or staff know my intention, as I thought this might influence the quality of the service:
- Atotonilco (I tried the tacos in both locations, Joliet and Chicago)
- Big Star
- De Cero
- El Pastor
- El Tío Luis
- El Solazo
- La Ciudad
- Los Comales
- Los Gallos
- Mercadito (tacos al pastor are only a seasonal item, so we did not get to try them)
- Rubi’s Market on Maxwell
- Taco joint
- Taquería Juanito
- Tierra Caliente
- Zacatacos (Berwyn location)
Several Pepto Bismol doses and 3 extra pounds later, my wandering through the streets of Chicago and its suburbs came to an end. Dozens of tacos have been sampled and scorecards have been tallied!
Each taco has been carefully evaluated based on criteria that we believe brings to life un taco al pastor “hecho como Dios manda.” (according to God’s orders)**
I am now ready to “go tell it on the mountain”!
* Defeño is a Citizen of Mexico City (D.F.)
** Mexicans say something is made como Dios manda (according to God’s orders) when something is accurately accomplished.
If you, like me, have lived in Mexico for the great majority of your life, you will be perplexed to hear what has been smuggled into menus, and sold and passed up across the country for the real deal: some of the most popular and readily available counterfeit versions are stuffed with ground beef and covered with cheese or something resembling cheese; others are called tacos al pastor, and are served with sliced lettuce and tomatoes. Heresy! In certain places, you might be given a choice of hardshell or softshell taco. During my search I found that even some of the taquerías in predominantly Mexican neighborhoods have lost their way- in their attempt to to cater to a non Mexican palate, they have begun serving some of these apocryphal versions.
This leads me to provide the following word of caution: If you are visiting Mexico and you are looking for a hardshell taco, you will give yourself away as a tourist. We simply don’t have them. We have tostadas, which have a crunchy surface similar to a totopo, which is considered a completely different plate.
In the northern part of the country, flour tortillas were made popular by the Jewish settlers in the area. Still, you will find that most tacos in Mexico are made with corn tortillas.
Treating oneself to tacos al pastor is an experience that entails a known ritual. Taquerías usually go from the very informal ´hole-in-the-wall’ joint, to fancier establishments featuring a more elaborate set up. The dynamics are the same across the board, and patrons know what to expect: quick service, dinner and a show. Taqueros (half cooks, half ninjas) conjure up juicy tacos with meat and pineapple they shave off from a giant spinning skewer, to then catch the pieces in a tortilla with quick, precise movements. They do this gracefully, while keeping tallies, processing new orders, and sometimes, giving change and even interacting with the crowd.
Tacos al pastor must meet the following criteria:
1. Must be roasted vertically in a spit called trompo (top), which is clearly visible.
2. Should be made with pork meat, seasoned with a variety of chilis and achiote, which gives them their color.
3. These tacos are served in small tortillas (about 4 1/2 inches in diameter).
4. Tacos al pastor must include a chunk of grilled pineapple, chopped cilantro, raw onion and limes.
5. Salsas are very important in taquerías, and often times they become and element of differentiation.
6. Lime should be abundant and readily available.
Each taco was evaluated using a scale of 1- 5 points for a total of 30 points in six different categories:
- Meat quality
- Meat flavor
- Tortilla size and quality
- Portion size
- Accuracy/freshness of ingredients
- Quality of salsa
Points were assigned using the following scale to score each taco:
4= Really good, but not extraordinary or the real deal
5= Perfect. ¡Órale! Am I in Mexico?
And the Winner is..!
De Cero – 28/30 Points
De Cero (The Loop)
Meat Quality: 5 Meat was absolutely fantastic. We did not see the trompo, but we asked and confirmed it is indeed there.
Meat Flavor: 4 Flavor is really nice, but the meat has a bit of a kick to it.
Tortilla Size and Quality: 5 Tortillas were fantastic. Perfect size!
Portion Size: 5 Perfect ratio. This bundle of joy offers the perfect burst of flavors in each bite.
Accuracy/Freshness of the Ingredients 5 Really fresh ingredients, a check for cilantro, onion, pineapple (although cubed) and lime! The ratios were so good in each bite, I did not let the cubes deter me.
Salsas 4: I got red salsa with my order which was really, really good.
First Runner Up
Big Star – 27/30 Points
Big Star (Wicker Park)
Meat Quality: 4 Really good and not too fatty. Meat was a bit chunky, which is why we did not rate it a 5.
Meat Flavor: 4 Flavor was really nice, maybe a bit sweet, but really good. Saucy, not dry as it should be.
Tortilla Size and Quality: 5 Perfect size. Tortillas were great.
Portion Size: 5 Perfect portion
Accuracy/Freshness of the Ingredients 5 Really fresh ingredients. I loved to see pineapple on them, which is not easy to find, so I did not allow the cubes to worry me.
Salsas 4 Salsa is good and they have chiles toreados (grilled jalapeños), as well as pickled peppers and carrots. But, you will have to order them separately, as they do not come with your order.
We waited for about 3 hours to get a table at this famous eatery, which was even more difficult considering the aroma around the restaurant teases you with a preview of what is to come. There is a walk-up window with considerably faster service. The bar is quite a bit noisy, so if this is where you want to hang out, you will have to be prepared to forego conversation and focus on your food, which is well worth it. Bring cash with you. They only take cash! Service from the greeters might be a bit rough, but will improve once you sit down.
Second Runner Up 25/30 Points (Tie)
Taquería San Juanito (Albany Park)
San Juanito was the only place where the meat was not saucy. I found their meat flavorful, but the taco had no pineapple, which lowered-down their score. Green salsa was particularly memorable.
Zacatacos in Berwyn features the most tender meat you can possibly imagine. The tacos are a bit bulky and a come in a bigger tortilla, but are still really good. Salsas are amazing.
Bien Trucha (Geneva)
I really liked the concept of Bien Trucha, a modern-looking Mexican restaurant that reminded me of the vibe of restaurants in Mexico City. Food, not kitsch is the focus here, and the execution of the tacos spoke to quality. Also, Bien Trucha was the only establishment that got the pineapple right, as they had just a chunk of it vs. the cubes I found in other restaurants. I don’t remember getting any salsa with my tacos and had to ask for lime, but if you have had enough of taco talk, try their guacamole of the day or their Pulparindo cocktail! The photo below is not the best because I did not have very good lighting inside the restaurant.
Del Seoul (Lincoln Park)
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Our story on tacos al pastor was very well received, thank you for reading and for all of your comments! Messages poured in asking for recommendations in Chicago. Since we don’t have a favorite taco al pastor purveyor in the city yet, we decided to go in search of the best taco al pastor! We have asked our friends to submit their favorites. We will evaluate the tacos for the next few weeks considering a variety of criteria- from meat quality to freshness of the tortillas and salsa, we will share it with you all! Our readers submitted the eateries below. Stay tuned for our verdict.
- Big Star
- Burrito Jalisco
- El Pastor
- El Tío Luis
- El Solazo
- Los Altos de Jalisco
- Los Comales
- Los Gallos
- Rubi’s Market on Maxwell
- Taco joint
- Taquería Juanito
- Tierra Caliente
Jorge Galván, uno de los dueños de La Dulce Vida Nevería, nos compartió esta receta para hacer atole de guayaba, uno de los favoritos de los clientes de este establecimiento. Jorge dice que además de los ingredientes, esta receta necesita paciencia, ya que hay que mover constantemente para que el atole no se corte.
Rinde aproximadamente 2 litros
- 1 vara de canela
- 2 cucharadas de piloncillo
- 200 gramos de guayaba
- 1/2 taza de azúcar refinada
- 5 tazas de leche
- 2 1/2 tazas de agua
- 2 1/2 cucharadas de masa preparada (Maseca)
- Paciencia y determinación para mover constantemente el atole hasta que espese
- Pon el agua a hervir. Una vez que esté hirviendo, incorpora la canela y el piloncillo.
- Echa las guayabas en el agua hirviendo. Ya que abran, sácalas del agua junto con la canela.
- Incorpora la leche y déjala hervir.
- Agrega la masa a la leche hirviendo
- Muele las guayabas y agrégalas junto el azúcar moviendo constantemente durante 30 minutos a fuego lento hasta que espese
2015 W. Rice St.
Melrose Park, IL 60160