Years ago, I did a six-part series on regional Mexican cuisine for a Chicagoland newspaper. I discussed, for instance, the traditional foods of Mexican states like Jalisco, Guerrero and Yucatan, and also where such regional specialties could be found in Chicagoland. Usually, these regional dishes could be enjoyed in little restaurants in Pilsen and Little Village.
While researching a piece on the cuisine of the Mexican state of Veracruz, I tried the Huachinango a la Veracruzana – red snapper Veracruz style – at Lalo's in Oak Park. This dish is traditionally red snapper in a tomato-based sauce with olives or capers and a few other relatively common ingredients. It's not a complex recipe, but like so many simple dishes, it's easy to mess up. Lalo's did an exceptional job with this dish: the sauce was light and mildly spicy, with some bell peppers as I recall, and the fish was meaty and well-prepared.
So on the first draft of my piece on regional food of Veracruz, I made the point that, of the all the versions of this dish that I'd sampled, Lalo's, our little local Mexican restaurant, did the best job. Now, here's the odd thing: my editor refused to include mention of what I thought was a clearly superior version of this classic dish – actually the tastiest version of the many I tried. She said something like, "I couldn't bear to," by which I believe she meant she couldn't bring herself to recognize that a mainstream place like Lalo's could prepare anything but dumbed down, gringo-ized versions of traditional Mexican dishes. A pity. Our focus in this series was on smaller, hole-in-the-wall places, and I guess including a local representative of a multi-site restaurant organization like Lalo's generated just too much cognitive dissonance. At least for my editor.
A recent phone call to Lalo's confirmed that although they will be re-named Margarita's within the next two weeks or so, they are keeping their menu pretty much the same. And they are still serving red snapper in the style of Veracruz, which is great, because even popular Mexican restaurants can prepare fine versions of traditional dishes.
There's an implicit prejudice among foodies against bigger restaurants and in favor of the smaller, one-off mom-and-pop places. I've been guilty of that kind of thinking myself.
But prejudice of any sort is usually pretty stupid, so if you've been avoiding Lalo's/Margarita's because it seems too big, too polished, not funky or "authentic" enough, you're making a mistake. This has been and promises to be a good place for well-prepared Mexican food, and it's encouraging that owner Rene Roman is going to focus more on seafood, because in my experience, that's an area where his kitchen does very well.
And actually, because Roman is "going independent" and breaking away from the Lalo's empire, his place is now, ironically, one of the smaller, one-off mom-and-pop places.
Seafood is a big part of Mexican cuisine (the country lies between two oceans), and during a recent trip to Huatulco, Oaxaca, we were knocked out by the wonderfulness of the fish we were able to sample. If you've been limiting your adventures in Mexican cuisines to tacos and burritos, you might consider ordering some fish and exploring the range of tastes that this major culinary tradition has to offer.
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