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The essentials: Sol de Mexico

By Michael Nagrant, @MichaelNagrant

For RedEye

December 11, 2013

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Sol de Mexico
3018 N. Cicero Ave. 773-282-4119
Looks like: A Mexican folk art market outfitted with festive figurines, Dia de los Muertos skeletons and paper mache animal masks.
Sounds like: Owner Carlos Tello's Spanish-inflected English as he greets tables and tells tales of his ancestry. "The decorations allow me to open a conversation with people about our traditions and our past," he said.
Smells like: Roasted chilis and the perfume of corn and oil.

Carlos Tello doesn't want to talk about divine providence. The owner of Sol de Mexico in Belmont Cragin said, "When you bring up spiritual stuff, people get weird." Fine. Call the story of his success whatever makes you feel comfortable. Amazing? Maybe. The American dream? Possibly. Here are the facts.

Tello was born in the Mexican state of Michoacán, had family in Chicago, and came here as a young man. He moved around the country a lot, but the magnetic pull of the Chicago--he loved the diversity, the openness of the people and that there was so much to do here--was too much. He settled in, worked as a server and in the kitchen at a series of Italian restaurants, some now closed. He spent the most time at the downtown pasta power-lunch emporium Coco Pazzo.

Tello dreamed of opening his own Mexican restaurant, but he wasn't sure that a city awash in burritos as big as your head was ready for tortillas made from fresh masa or traditional sauces filled with chocolate and chili.

His brother-in-law, Mexican molé-making legend Geno Bahena, hired Tello to work the front of the house at the now-defunct Chilpancingo in River North. There, Bahena introduced Chicagoans to fluffy sopes topped with traditional Oaxacan sauces and Yucatecan cochinita pibil, wood-fired pork wrapped in banana leaves. Tello saw that diners loved the authentic stuff, so he came in on weekends to work in the kitchen and learn from Bahena. "That experience opened my soul. I didn't know who I was," he said. "But I got in touch with my ancestors."

Bahena left Chilpancingo, moved around, sold his skills as a consulting chef, and then decided to pursue an opportunity in Texas in 2006. Tello planned on following him, but a man who owned a failing taqueria on the 3000 block of Cicero Avenue called Tello's mother-in-law, Clementina Flores (Bahena's mother), offering the space. Flores asked Tello if he wanted it; he told her he couldn't afford it. When the owner called a few more times over the course of a month, Flores implored Tello to check it out. "I was more interested in watching TV, but this guy was so insistent," Tello said. "I went down there. It needed a lot of work, but I fell in love. I told him I didn't have the money. He said he needed to get rid of the place, that he 'was losing a lot of money,' and then told me I could make payments until I paid it off. He handed me the keys and walked away."

Two taquerias had failed in that space, but Tello wasn't interested in creating another taqueria. He recruited Flores to make her incredible moles at Sol de Mexico, like the inky black molé negro she drizzled over juicy medium rare lamb chops ($24), the ones she taught Geno to make. Flores taught Tello to make a fruity red chili sauce called manchamanteles (which translates to "tablecloth stainer," so watch your shirt) to sauce chicken ($17). The joke became that Tello didn't just marry Bahena's sister, he stole Bahena's mother, too.

Tello added the flavor of his native Michoacan in the form of tamales de elote. You have probably fallen prey to the cooler-toting tamale man at some Bucktown bar at 2 a.m., which means you know that most tamales are dense, a little slimy and often stuffed with dry meat. Tello's are fluffy like corncake and covered in green chili cream and a lacy crust of cheese. Tello said, "There's a saying in Mexico that if you're in a bad mood, the tamales will come [out] bad. Our happiness is reflected in that dish."

It's been seven years and Tello has not failed. His is one of the best Mexican restaurants in Chicago. On most Sundays, Tello, Flores and other members of the Sol de Mexico staff sit down for coffee and reflect on the past week. They discuss what's fresh at market. They invent new dishes like enchiladas de langosta ($27), tortillas stuffed with lobster, mushroom and creamy chipotle sauce. It's been a hit. Tello laughed and said, "You'd never see lobster in an enchilada in Mexico. But people love them." They do everything but rest on their laurels. Call it what you want; I call it extraordinary.

Michael Nagrant is a RedEye special contributor. redeye@tribune.com | @redeyeeatdrink