I’ve been lucky enough to stumble upon great food in the unlikeliest of places—in the shadow of a highway overpass, a ring toss away from a methed-up carnie, along a trash-filled alley in Beijing that most definitely was not on the Olympic Committee tour. While finding a diamond in the rough is nothing new for intrepid diners, finding a gem with character in a Helzberg is something different entirely. Chains have been known to zap the soul right out of an experience, and while the new Logan Square outpost of the Arlington Heights–based Fuego Mexican Grill is only the second location for the restaurant group, there’s a polish and scale that screams “Move over, On the Border.”
It’s not cozy—with two dining rooms, a downstairs lounge and a top-floor music venue, the building capacity rivals Wrigley Field. It’s not subtle—every square inch of wall is muraled or covered in perfectly worn vintage photos of Mexican scenes. And it’s no mom-and-pop—servers seem fresh off a four-week training that likely involved a proprietary confidentiality agreement and videos on the risks of overserving drunkards. But what Fuego is is satisfying. The beans are refried, the rice is red, there are fajitas, a big bowl of gooey “queso fundido,” a kids’ menu and fried ice cream. But there are also delicious margaritas, carefully mixed from a lengthy list of quality tequilas, fresh-squeezed lime juice and the occasional addition of fruit or liqueur. And there are dishes like the taquitos de borrego, crispy corn tortillas filled with rich braised lamb meat and topped with a mound of fuschia pickled onions, and the arrachera Chalco, a juicy pile of caramelized onions, roasted poblanos and tender cactus paddle strips covering a grilled skirt steak fit for a ranch hand. And then there are the tamalitos surtidos, pillow-soft tamales filled with tender shredded chicken and a mix of earthy mushrooms. One half of the dish is smothered in a guajillo-based mole Amarillo with just enough heat, the other half in a chocolatey mole poblano, black as tar and nearly as thick. That mole poblano tasted even better in the same bite as hunks of falling-off-the-bone roasted chicken (pictured). Questions about the five moles prompted an attentive server to bring out small samples of each, and every one turned out to be unique, complex and completely lappable. More importantly, as I searched for more tortillas, steak, chips, chicken, anything to sop up the sauces with, it no longer mattered that a dozen sombreros were inexplicably resting against a wall or that “Todd” the server likely had Cancun as his Mexican point of reference. Someone in the kitchen had a few gems up his or her sleeve just the same.