After my family, a few friends and the get-the-hell-outta-my-way attitude, what I miss most about Chicago is the food. It’s been almost impossible to get a decent burrito or hot dog in Las Vegas, not to mention a slice of pizza that’s a little more than just edible. To be fair, this food desert nails dessert. You can get a walnut brownie sundae with banana fudge ice cream, mini M&Ms and caramel sauce, all delivered to your door — thanks, GrubHub. And while there’s probably no one with a bigger sweet tooth than me, I’m not the type to ignore the entrée portion of a meal. I need food, dammit! Real food, the kind that’ll make you want to slap your momma.
The Mexican food here isn’t what I thought it would be, considering we’re only a few hours’ drive from SoCal and a few more from Mexico proper. It took us a while to settle on a go-to, a tiny spot on the northern edge of our strait-laced suburb of prissy planned communities. Their rice and beans aren’t bad, and they put them in the burrito, which is handy. Plus they serve lengua — for my wife and my stepdaughter — and they deliver, too. Still, it’s no Los Comales, or even TBK. Their hot salsa isn’t that hot, and their burrito isn’t a dripping juicy mess, the way I like it. It’s all pretty good at most.
So when we drove down to San Diego this past weekend to visit its world famous zoo, our side mission was to hunt down some good Mexican. I even starred a few places that showed potential on Google Maps beforehand, though, as usual, we didn’t hitting any of them. After spending most of Saturday morning and afternoon at the zoo, and then cruising up to La Jolla Cove and down around Coronado — we wanted to drive on the bridge and see the hotel — we headed over to the trendy Gaslamp Quarter and did another Google Map search, settling on Don Chido on Fifth Avenue.
Strolling up to the joint, things didn’t look good. Well, everything thing did look good — beautiful, in fact — but that’s the thing: great Mexican restaurants don’t usually look new and hip and cute. The best Mexican food I’ve eaten has always been at some place where a bunch of dirty blue-collar guys are scarfing down tortas wrapped in tin foil and fat moms are yanking their noisy kids by the arm and shirt. Don Chido doesn’t sport any of those. For starters, it’s in a neighborhood that looks like Chicago’s River North and feels like Wrigleyville (Petco Park is a few blocks away). The restaurant is brand new and is surrounded by brand-new buildings, shiny and sleek, each with their own brand-new restaurant, brand-new bar or brand-new lounge. Most of the patrons are brand new, too, meaning they’re young and beautiful and got money to blow. And, to put it this way, there was hardly a Mexican in sight.
Don Chido has a narrow outdoor seating area hugging the building along the sidewalk, but it was a bit too chilly for that — though there were white girls happily sitting at the high tables, encueradas, of course. There’s no point in describing the place; it’s as stunning as trendy new Mexican eateries in trendy gentrified neighborhoods always are. The first sign of hope was our waiter, a portly middle-aged brown guy who spoke with a Chicano accent. My wife went for the margarita flight — not knowing that a flight comes with three smaller drinks for sampling, and picking the strawberry margarita as her favorite, though she fell in love with them all — while our waiter man-shamed me into getting the mescal mule. It went down smooth, with hints of ginger and citrus, and a kick so soft it was more a nudge, really. As an appetizer, we got the freshly made guac — cilantro, lime, red onion, fresno chili, shaved queso fresco — and you already know how great that was.
I opted for the choice of three tacos served with rice and beans, choosing the carne asada, carnitas and fish of the day, though there’s also pollo and rajas poblano. The carne asada was the standout, with good cuts of steak grilled to perfection. Not to be outdone, the fish was fresh and flaky and served with diced onion, shredded cabbage and jalapeño cilantro crema on top. The rice and beans (black) were just as delicious, and I ate everything as though I were being timed. My wife got the chicken enchiladas served with refried beans and rice, and unlike in too many Mexican spots, the chicken in this dish was legit, with big chunks of juicy chicken breast. My stepdaughter, however, out-ordered us all, getting the carne asada torta with soft bolillo bread and a block of queso fresco pinned to the top with a toothpick. It was, no joke, the most beautiful, most delicious torta I have ever known.
Even then, the meal was nearly overshadowed by dessert: freshly fried churros that were so flaky they damn near disintegrated on your tongue. They were sprinkled with cinnamon and served with a ramekin of dulce de leche sauce too sinful for Sundays. You probably think I’m exaggerating, and for that, I pity you.
Don Chido isn’t your typical great Mexican restaurant, in that it doesn’t look as great as it is. You walk in and your shoulders sink as you spot the trendy decor and hear the hip music flowing from the speakers. There are white families at nearly every table, and so you tell yourself, Okay, this isn’t going to be the best Mexican food ever, but at least you’ll eat in pretty surroundings. But then the food comes, and it hits you: They’re making gourmet Mexican street food here, and they’re making it with devastating expertise. Whoever’s in the kitchen is paying tribute to the everyday Mexican dishes I’ve grown up eating, forcing you to taste for yourself not what Mexican food could be, but what it’s always been.
¡Salud! Don Chido. Nos veamos pronto.