Forget what you know about Mexican food, because Red O will surprise you.
Well-known Chicago chef Rick Bayless' modern Mexican restaurant is a must for diners who prefer their surroundings to be as enticing as the food on their plates.
Bayless is known in the foodie world as the man who drastically changed America's notion of Mexican cuisine. He studied food for six years in Mexico, he owns three restaurants in the Windy City, he's the author of several cookbooks and the host of the 26-part PBS series Cooking Mexican. In short, the man knows his stuff.
My dining partner and I hadn't made a reservation but we were lucky enough to get on the good side of the maitre'd and were led through a glowing hallway of tequila bottles to a small table within the adobe hut-like tequila lounge.
The small room is in sharp contrast to the airy main dining area, with its intimate nooks and stone-tiled floors. The dining rooms are awash in warm earth tones of wood and ivory and a retractable roof mimics open-air dining.
I decided on the Alacran Margarita, also known as 'the scorpion.' Served on the rocks or straight up, the Alacran comes rimmed with chili-lime salt and inside the glass float two small slices of jalapeno. The house-made syrup eliminated that too-tart aftertaste that most margaritas leave behind, and the spice of the salt and jalapenos was a perfect complement to the sweetness of the drink. It was one of the best margaritas I've ever had.
The food menu features traditional regional dishes but also highly Californicated versions of items such as ceviche, tacos and tamales. We opted for the halibut ceviche ($15), which, while fresh and buttery in texture, came covered in pureed avocado.
The strange presentation prompted us to hesitate, thinking we had been served the guacamole instead. It turned out to be delicious, but I would have appreciated a more apt description of the dish. Like I said, forget what you know about Mexican food.
Next was the savory beef short rib tamale ($12), which expertly blended the bite of the smoked chipotle chilies with the tender beef. The masa was near-perfect texture and surprisingly moist for a cheeseless tamale, which can easily become too dry.
The roasted garlic mushroom cazuela ($13), a kind of Spanish soup, came bubbling in a shallow caldron with spinach, accompanied by handmade corn tortillas. The cazuela would be a great selection for formerly carnivorous vegetarians who crave a meat-like texture or taste.
The true star of the meal came from the menu section titled "Mexico's Celebrated Seven," which includes items such as the traditional Yucatan dish conchinita pibil and the Veracruz-born chilpachole.
After much deliberation, we decided on tinga poblana ($27), a dish that originates in the central Mexican town of Puebla de Los Angeles. Beautifully plated and smothered in a spicy chipotle sauce, the tinga poblana consists of braised Gleason Ranch pork shoulder and belly, lightly dusted with a homemade chorizo. The meat is so masterfully seasoned and slow-cooked there's no need to make use of a knife.
The tinga poblana left no room for dessert, but a quick glance at the menu was enough to persuade me to come back, especially to try the creamy goat cheese cheesecake.