By Michael Nagrant, @MichaelNagrant
August 19, 2013
3619 W. North Ave. 773-772-8435
Looks like: The United Nations. Head over around lunch and you'll find a cross-section of Chicago, all breaking cemita bread.
Smells like: Spit-roasted garlic- and onion-spiked meat
Sounds like: The clank of spatulas dancing on a flattop grill, plus the hissing of freshly popped bottles of Mexican Coke
He drips with sweat. Customs officials rifle through his suitcase at the Mexico City airport. They're looking for contraband, drugs and weapons. All they find is a Nintendo, Air Jordans and some socks.
Tony Anteliz, the owner of Humboldt Park's celebrated Cemitas Puebla restaurant, left the house at midnight, fought his way to O'Hare through falling snow. He has a 104 degree fever. He wants to crawl in to bed, but instead, catches a plane to Mexico City at 2 a.m. (because it's the cheapest fare he can find). His suitcases are filled with packages (the Jordans, etc.) from Mexicans living in Chicago. Anteliz brings these packages to his uncle, who distributes them to the Chicago transplants' families in Mexico. In exchange, Anteliz's uncle hands him a trove of hand-made mozzarella-like string cheese, queso oaxaca from the town of Chipilo located in the state of Puebla, and leathery morita chipotle chilis from Oaxacan street markets. Anteliz turns around, returns through customs, flies back and lands in Chicago at 2 p.m..
Anteliz makes this trip every six weeks, and except for the fever and the snow, it's about the same. He said, "I wish I could find these ingredients locally. I've tried, but they never taste the same." Though Anteliz has already worked a 14-hour day, he often heads straight from the airport to the restaurant do some more work, mixing the chilis with tepache, a fermented pineapple brine, to make a thick chipotle sauce for his tacos arabe ($2.75) which feature spit-roasted pork shoulder marinated in garlic, oregano and chilaca and serrano chilis, all nestled in thick pita-like tortilla.
To make his cemita milanesa ($6.50), he sprinkles the queso oaxaca over breaded and butterflied pork chops smothered with the chipotle sauce used on the taco arabe. He layers in creamy avocado and a spicy, citrusy herb called papalo and places the whole thing in a sesame-crusted bun baked daily by a local baker. This is the Muhammad Ali of Mexican sandwiches. The fresh, crispy cemita bun kicks the wimpy, airy torta bun's ass.
Though Anteliz is a cult icon of sorts amongst Chicago's top chefs (Grace's Curtis Duffy is a regular and Anteliz cooked for the Alinea staff holiday party) and hosted Guy Fieri for a segment on "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," he's still as humble as he is dedicated to his business. With this success, he could probably raise prices, but as he said, "Few would complain, but there's still that fraction of my customers that would hurt. And I can't alienate them because they're the ones that kept me afloat for so many years before the foodies came. I can't line my pockets on their backs."
More on Tony Anteliz
The sweet smell of success: "I was about eight and had a bad year at school," said Anteliz. "I did so poorly, my parents were like, 'You're not gonna sit on the couch and play Atari all summer. We're sending you to your grandma [in Puebla] to learn something'." He and his brother would buy tacos arabes from a local stand near their grandmother's house. The tacos were wrapped in construction paper-like napkins that absorbed all the grease, meat juice and onion scent. He'd stuff the wrappers in his pocket and bring them back to Chicago. The taco smell lasted for year or so, he said, until his mom threw the napkins out. It was that memory that nagged at Anteliz and inspired him to open his own restaurant as an adult focusing on the regional delicacies of Puebla.
Tacoman's holiday: Anteliz ends up at La Pasadita around midnight craving a taco every once in a while. "Occasionally some guy in line will notice me and say, 'Hey, Cemitas, what's wrong with your tacos?'" he said. "I'm like, I'm hungry and my place is closed."
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