The long run of opening (and quickly departing from) restaurants, including Los Moles, Real Tenochtitlan, Danzon, Tepatulco and Delicioso y Sabroso in the last six years alone, has finally caught up with chef Geno Bahena. He’s tired now. Or so he seemed both nights I visited Mitad del Mundo, the dark and dank room in Logan Square where he has set up shop this time. On both occasions I found him sitting without his trademark hat at the bar, staring at his hands. When an order would come in (and not many did), Bahena would slowly get up and walk into the kitchen to prepare the food. Soon, he’d have passed the plates off to a server and reclaimed his stool.
The food he put out matched his demeanor—it was tired and out of sorts. Enchiladas in mole rojo arrived stuffed with plasticky bites of chicken. Mushroom soup was overwrought with salt. The elements of a marlin ceviche bled into each other, forming a kind of mush. Lamb chops were gray, with rugged edges. The only triumphs were fried—foods you’d find at Chili’s, like hot beef empanadas—or sweet, like the textbook chocoflan.
Are drinks supposed to be the draw here? On one wall are a number of framed celebrity head shots, and some of them are signed for Jimmy, the bartender here. At the end of both meals, he kindly sent out drinks (he did this for other customers in the restaurant as well, when there were some). Both times this hospitable gesture featured unfortunately milky cocktails you might have found on the Love Boat. Or am I only making that connection because it was that television show’s theme song that played, over and over, during one visit here?
Anyway, the drinks are not the draw. My wine tasted stale. My margarita was the color of something you’d get from a two-liter bottle, and it had about as much sugar. Perhaps, then, it’s the moles that are the draw.As always with Bahena, the deceptively simple-looking sauces injected smoke and spice and sweetness to every plate they touched. In other Bahena spots, these have been the restaurant’s signature, its glory. But here, there is no glory. The sauces instead hint at what Bahena is capable of, and what he’s not pulling off.
By David Tamarkin