There is no shortage of decent Mexican restaurants in the western suburbs, but far too many of them play down to their audiences, falling back on the standard Mexican and even Tex-Mex dishes that everybody prepares.
Today we look at two west suburban restaurants, both less than a year old, that have broken free of the rice-and-refried-beans trope, carving distinctive identities in the process.
A Toda Madre
The name more or less translates to "all about mother," but idiomatically, "a toda madre" is slang for "awesome." And though there is a mom on duty here — Dolores Garcia-Rubio, who owns and operates the place along with her husband, Ricardo, and her son, Rodrigo Cano — the second translation is the more applicable one.
With a mere 40 seats, and a rather intimate 40 at that, A Toda Madre is no place for a sensitive conversation; the wood floors, wood-trimmed walls and other hard surfaces make for a noisy environment. But it's a terrific spot if you're looking for serious Mexican cooking.
A Toda Madre opened last April as a sequel restaurant to Bien Trucha, the next-door taqueria the family has operated for six years. Cano, who worked at two well-regarded Mexican restaurants in New York — La Palapa and Mercadito (the latter now with a Chicago outpost) — envisioned A Toda Madre as a sort of culinary laboratory to experiment with flavors. And, perhaps more important, a place to practice the sort of seasonal, locally sourced and scratch-cooking food that the family couldn't manage in high-volume Bien Trucha.
The menu, as small and compact as the restaurant itself, offers mostly small plates, hot and cold. Begin with fresh oysters with lime-Tabasco sauce, or try the baked oysters, which arrive only lightly cooked, dressed with bacon, chipotle and lime. Cheese-stuffed albondigas (meatballs) swim in a chipotle-tomato sauce so good we greedily asked for more toasted bread to sop up the extras. Steak, tomatillo, avocado and cheese atop a large huarache is like a flatbread pizza, if you could make a flatbread pizza from corn masa.
Tart and meaty tamarind-glazed shrimp are presented on a skewer, bridging a bowl of white rice. And what's billed as a burrito is the family's tongue-in-cheek joke, a burrito being one of those fake-Mex dishes serious chefs abhor; turning a negative into a positive, A Toda Madre's burrito is a flour tortilla enrobing brined and slow-roasted pork belly, along with rice and beans (a standard touch) and caramelized chipotle-seasoned onions (definitely not a standard touch).
There are but three "large format" dishes, as the menu calls its entrees. There's the day's grilled fish, which more often than not is snapper, arrives butterflied over a cabbage salad dressed with morita chile vinaigrette; a yummy but messy chicken dish with bacon and poblano peppers, under a blanket of mixed cheeses and salsa roja; and beautiful pink slices of Slagel Farm beef form a line down a long platter that ends with a tomato-avocado salad and a few toasted peppers. Whatever you choose, add a side of papas, cubed potatoes (ATM's take on Spanish papas bravas) coddled in a fiery cilantro-serrano aioli; these babies are absolutely addictive.
Desserts include pay de limon, a composition of crumbled Maria cookies, light meringue and Key lime ice cream that echoes the flavors of a good Key lime pie. Less complex but fun are the soft churros, served alongside passion fruit curd.
Beverages are a major plus, whether you're contemplating the short but very inexpensive wine list, the beer list, dominated by Midwest craft beers but finding room for a few bottles from Colorado and the East Coast; or the cocktail list, which' includes some very well-made signature drinks as well as those gotta-have-'em margaritas.
Peter Burdi isn't yet the king of west suburban dining rooms, but he sure rules over downtown Hinsdale. On a single stretch of First Street, Burdi owns the upscale-Italian Il Poggiolo and sushi bar Nabuki, and now there is CiNe, a Mexican restaurant he opened in November inside the old Hinsdale Theater.
He took some pains to honor the circa-1925 building's past, leaving the exterior untouched and incorporating the original lobby ceiling into the decor (some vestiges of the old balcony are still visible in the kitchen). Mexican movie posters on the walls play up the space's past and present.
And then Burdi tapped Yanitzin Sanchez, former chef/owner of Sabor Saveur, a onetime BYO in Wicker Park, to run the CiNe kitchen. "I hired her as a consultant," he says, "but she was so great, so creative, I said, 'You need to stay.'"
Those who remember Sanchez's Mexican-French fusion menu in Wicker Park will find the chef a bit more sparing with the Euro-influences here, though they're still evident. "I love my culture and I love my country," she says, "but I always work in some French influence."
And she always pays attention to the visuals. Her red-onion soup is a playful nod to French onion soup, though the onion and leek broth is accented with prickly-pear puree, and it's served in a wide-rimmed bowl spanned by a crispy crostini topped with melted Chihuahua cheese. Chicken breast in mole negro is nothing new, but Sanchez's presentation — the breast topped with a panko-crusted chicharron croquette and garnished with a skewered guajillo pepper — belongs on a magazine cover.
Chorizo-crusted grouper with banana peppers over white mole isn't quite as camera-ready, but it tastes great. And Sanchez dresses up her tres leches cake with a half-pipe curl of chocolate, strewn berries and grilled lime. Only an overcooked and oversalted pork milanesa disturbed the serenity of my visits here.
CiNe's menu does accommodate the less-adventurous with quesadillas, enchiladas and the like, though the former are stuffed with braised pork and guajillo in addition to cheese, and the latter, filled with shredded chicken, are bathed in a red-pepper and almond crema. Pineapple and mango give Sanchez's ceviche zing, and the guacamole is good. Soft tacos come four to a portion, and the al pastor, carnitas and skirt-steak versions are very good. Unfortunately, there's no mix-and-match option, but my party of four figured a way around that easily enough.
The beverage program is modest — a handful of wines and a dozen or so beers, mostly bottled — but prices are friendly, and the bar whips up a tasty margarita and a mezcal cocktail that more than merits its "The Bitter Truth" label.
A Toda Madre
416 W. State St., Geneva; 630-845-3015; atmrestaurant.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: Entrees $22-$24
Credit cards: DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
29 E. 1st St., Hinsdale; 630-590-5655; cinehinsdale.com
Tribune rating: Two stars
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday
Prices: Entrees $15.95-$27.95
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.