It’s not easy being Mundial . The original chef-owners, Kate and Eusevio Garcia, drew weekend crowds to Pilsen with their inventive Mediterranean-Mexican mash-ups, but post–opening buzz, the restaurant (which has a back room that, in four visits over the last year-and-a-half, I’ve never seen occupied) was often half-empty. It seemed that however accustomed Mexican-food lovers were to heading to Pilsen, those sojourns weren’t taken in search of $20 entrées.
So it’s no surprise that when the Garcias sold their stake in the restaurant to partner Mario Cota, the new owner had some changes in mind. (Meanwhile, the former owners have moved on to solo projects: In March, Eusevio relaunched Amelia’s on the Southwest Side with a menu very similar to Mundial’s, and in June, Kate opened the Algerian sandwich shop Zebda on the Northwest Side.) First, Cota brought on chef Hector Marcial, who had worked in the kitchen of KDK restaurants like Opera, Marché and Red Light. Next, he added a short menu of beer, wine and tequila and did away with the restaurant’s BYOB policy. It’s this decision (along with keeping entrée prices high) that’s most puzzling: Bringing your own booze to restaurants like Mundial or Mixteco Grill or even Terragusto on Addison is a big incentive for budget-conscious diners branching out into more expensive territory.
So for BYO lovers, the final change— Cota and Marcial’s near-total rehaul of the menu —might feel almost subtle. There’s no arguing that the menu is energetically and creatively conceived. Poached eggs, that usually-dour brunch staple, are here plated beautifully over long strips of grilled zucchini and yellow squash and set on deliciously crumbly sweet-corn patties. And the salads, like most of the dishes here, burst with colors and textures. In the Ensalada India (pictured), mesclun greens are tossed with crisp jicama, ripe mango, crunchy tortilla strips, red peppers and fresh corn. Likewise, in the Ensalada de Asada, meaty shiitakes, sweet pineapple chunks, slightly tart nopales (the flesh of prickly-pear cactus) and the bite of red onion play off one another beneath strips of skirt steak.The only way these salads could have tasted any brighter is if both hadn’t been slightly overdressed in vinaigrettes.
Which brings us to the core of the issue: The food here has a tendency to read better than it tastes. A skewer of pork kebabs paired with two pork ribs was enticing but not particularly successful: Rather than playing off each other, the two cuts’ similar spice rubs blur into one, and it didn’t help that both were chewy. The (relatively speaking) prosaic accompaniments to a bland walleye filet—tender white beans, roasted red peppers, oversize capers, a subtle green mole—rendered the dish lackluster. Moreover, problems of execution recurred through dinner: A take on a chile relleno, for instance, tasted as if it’d been cooling for ten minutes before being sent out, and its tepidness only called attention to the near-gritty toughness of the shredded pork inside the smoky poblano. As it turns out, alongside the stuffed pepper was the surprise highlight of the mains: the fluffiest rice dotted with sweet chunks of sautéed pineapple and crisp chayote.
Unfortunately, glacially slow service at both brunch and dinner in the dark dining room managed to make even these flawless parts of the meals difficult to enjoy. But nothing could spoil the moist, syrupy sponge cake with a hint of hibiscus that ended the meal. If everything here were so delicious, maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to be Mundial after all.