“When I’m at a Mexican restaurant, I want to order something with Mexican ingredients!” The couple next to me at Fogon were in the midst of a Dessert Ordering Discussion, and the rhubarb-strawberry crumble was losing.
Integrating seasonal, local ingredients is part of what makes Topolobampo one of Chicago’s iconic restaurants, yet for those bending traditional Mexican without Bayless in their name, the battle is an uphill one. Fogon—Eusevio Garcia and Leo Garcia’s extension of Canaryville’s Amelia’s—is fighting the good fight full steam, with a menu that’s equal parts epazote and red wine jus. Except, that is, when it comes to dessert. The peanut butter–chocolate “terrine” is like a homemade Reese’s peanut-butter cup the size of a hockey puck. It is so unbelievably rich that one bite just about did me in. But then I tasted the tangy passion-fruit curd and, palate refreshed, headed right back into the peanut-butter cup’s grasp. Is there anything “Mexican” about it? Who could possibly care?
This terrine so far surpassed the dessert I had on my first visit (a weak chocolate tres leches cake) that it came as no surprise that the restaurant had recently brought on Leticia Zenteno (Ceres’ Table) as the consulting pastry chef. The unappetizingly soupy, barely crumbly rhubarb crisp that came out was less successful, but at least its approach—seasonal, understated—felt of-the-moment.
The same can’t really be said for the rest of the menu, which will be familiar to anyone who has followed chef Eusevio Garcia from Mundial in Pilsen to Amelia’s to this plain, high-ceilinged Noble Square spot. At all these restaurants, Garcia’s food has presented a strong and compelling interpretation of modern Mexican cuisine, but the thing is: It’s not feeling especially contemporary.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. The food at Fogon is beautiful and colorful. Appetizers and salads are full of contrasting textures and interesting flavors: The Ensalada India plays crisp tortilla chip strips against charred corn kernels and lightly dressed greens; once melons are in season, I have an inkling the Ensalada de Sandia’s combination of watermelon, mild feta and crunchy greens will take off in a way the current pallid melons can’t quite muster. Empanadas flake like crazy (the pastry steals the show from the crab stuffed inside). And the tamarind-glazed salmon (pictured) could supplant miso-glazed cod as a ubiquitous restaurant fish dish: Garcia has painted each bite of the perfectly cooked fish with layers of sweet and savory.
But when execution flags, the dishes can seem dated. The top fillet of a stacked whitefish “Napoleon” had crisp skin, but the fillet between two mushy slices of eggplant was rendered unappetizingly wet. Grilled pork tenderloin could have used more salt; tough masa detracted from the tamale.
With entrées hovering just above $20, you’re committing to a reasonably expensive meal. After two hit-and-miss dinners, it’s no surprise choosing a dessert might require some deliberation.
By Julia Kramer