Mexican restaurants are a dime a dozen in Chicago, but every now and then, I come across a hidden gem.
Just two cooks run the small kitchen at El Xangarrito, a straightforward Mexican restaurant on a Ravenswood side street. One of them is Rogelio Benitez, a veteran of several Lettuce Entertain You restaurants. He and his wife opened the restaurant during the pandemic, with a combination of his recipes and her front-of-the-house hospitality.
“We thought that we could start up a restaurant to showcase his food, his ideas,” said Erika, Rogelio’s wife and the co-owner of El Xangarrito.
Ceviche is like a whiff of the tropics, painted by Seurat. Plump shrimp is combined with fresh cilantro, mango, red peppers and cukes; a squeeze of fresh lime then a vigorous toss, plus cubes of fresh avocado, then mounded in a ring mold for presentation points, surrounded by a mild tamarind sauce and crowned with micro greens. You know what those tortilla chips are for.
Feeling out of the loop? We'll catch you up on the Chicago news you need to know. Sign up for the weekly Chicago Catch-Up newsletter here.
Carne asada is griddled while three corn tortillas are covered with chihuahua cheese. Once the beef is cooked, it’s rolled up in the tortillas, which are then doused in a smooth mole negro.
“The dark mole is usually a little bit sweeter than the red one; the red one is gonna be a bit spicier than the other one,” said Benitez.
Mole is to Mexico what curries are to Thailand. Each one contains nearly two dozen ingredients. From chocolate and peanuts in the Negro, to almonds, sesame and pumpkin seeds in the red Coloradito. The thing all moles have in common: dried chiles, in this case ancho and pasilla, that are toasted, rehydrated and then blended with those other ingredients.
Back to those enchiladas, Benitez tops them with crumbled queso anejo and a drizzle of thick crema, topped off with tart, pickled red onions to balance that richness.
The Coloradito blankets cooked chicken, which is then sauteed and heated through; plated alongside garlicky green beans and Mexican rice. A garnish of sesame seeds echoes the ground seeds inside the slightly spicier sauce, burnished from the reddish pasilla chiles. A cinnamon-y sweet horchata is the perfect foil to some of those more assertive sauces.
“The sauces are also made by Rogelio, our chef, and every single one of them just has a different taste to them,” she said.
Reservations highly recommended since there are only 11 tables. And don’t forget, it’s BYOB, so bring your favorite wine or Mexican beer.
Here's where you can go:
4811 N. Rockwell St.