Braised pork belly in a black vinegar and strawberry escabeche topped with a shiso and watercress salad with a fried oyster. (Photo/Courtesy Chilam Balam)

Hot Latin restaurant: Chicago’s Chilam Balam

When diners sit down and open a menu at Chilam Balam in Chicago, Illinois, offerings beyond the usual burritos and taquitos await. Instead, regional specialties with an upscale twist lures in foodies hoping for a taste of Mexico that’s much more affordable than a round-trip ticket.

chilambalam2 albondigasFrom the tiny kitchen in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood emerges creamy masa corn cakes topped with heritage goat cheese, black beans and fresh salsa de arbol. There’s a tinga dish too, but the version presented by Executive Chef Natalie Oswald makes use of veal sweet breads braised with organic tomatoes, fingerling potatoes and homemade chorizo rather than the traditional pork or chicken. And let’s not forget Chilam Balam’s playful rift on traditional tostadas – a dish whose popularity has helped create an average two-hour long wait for the 42-seat restaurant on weekends – which are topped with smoked salmon, shaved cucumber salad, fresh blood orange and luscious avocado cream.

Those dishes are just a sampling of the offerings at Chilam Balam (which takes its name from a collection of ancient Mayan spiritual texts), where the menu changes every month; a nod says owner Soraya Rendon, to Mexico’s culinary diversity.

“I really want to give diners a fresh perspective on the foods I grew up with,” says Rendon, who grew up in Mexico City and moved to Chicago at 22. As Mexico’s capitol, Mexico City is a veritable melting pot of regional cuisines – an experience Rendon says, she hopes to offer diners in her cash-only, BYOB restaurant.

To help fulfill her vision, she’s turned to Chef Oswald, who has been with Chilam Balam since it opened in June 2009. Oswald may have grown up in Toledo, Ohio but the blonde chef is “more Latina than anyone I know,” says Rendon, making Oswald’s small plates the focus of regular praise among local foodies and restaurant reviews.

Oswald enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America with the intention of studying pastry but when she heard mention of a certain Rick Bayless during lecture, her interest was piqued. A six-month internship at Bayless’ Frontera Grill and Topolobampo restaurants soon had her hooked on Mexican cuisine, and now Oswald says, “there’s nothing that makes me happier.”

Oswald supervises every aspect of the restaurant, from its exquisite sauces to its legendary desserts. She makes sure that the chiles – arbol, pasilla, chiotle and guajillo, flown in from Mexico, of course – are toasted to perfection on the comal, while also ensuring that the quality of Oaxacan chocolate stirred into mousse is nothing short of perfection.

“I know I’m doing my job when people tell me they had a better appreciation for Mexican food after their meal than when they arrived,” says Oswald.

“It’s about presenting something unexpected to people and sharing something new.”

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