Nuevo Latino: May Street Café puts a fresh twist on Latin American cuisine

Wild salmon with a tequila lemon butter chipotle cream sauce at the May Street Café; Elly Fishman

Wild salmon with a tequila lemon butter chipotle cream sauce at the May Street Café; Elly Fishman

“Right here!” Guadalupe Aguilar yells as she waves cars into the crowded parking lot behind her restaurant, May Street Café. Once they’ve parked, Aguilar, clad in her white chef coat and black pants, greets her customers before returning to the kitchen, where she serves as a partner chef along with Mario Santiago. Aguilar’s convivial greeting is true to the general atmosphere at May Street Café.

May Street Café is a lime green building standing on a traffic-heavy, pedestrian-light stretch of Cermak Road. Just as the vibrant building and painting slogan, “Organic Eclectic Latino Food,” warms the block’s aesthetic, so too does the interior serve as a comfortable, welcoming space. Inside, the walls are furnished with colorful canvases which offset the dark lacquer tables and brown oak chairs. The space can hold 50 to 60 customers, and also has a few outdoor tables canopied by a wicker roof strung with ivy.

The restaurant, which is relatively crowded on weekdays and requires reservations on the weekends, is filled with the sounds of lively customers and the fleeting spicy aroma of dishes being carried from the kitchen to tables. The waitstaff is helpful and friendly, and both Aguilar and Santiago make rounds during dinner to ensure that dining customers are satisfied with their meals.

The May Street Café menu is defined as Nuevo Latino food. Dishes are a mix of flavors from traditional Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and contemporary American food. The list of hors d’oeuvres includes dishes such as the French double cream brie and pear quesadillas, grilled shrimp with chipotle sauce, and crab cakes with jalapeño sauce. While the array of flavors is a good introduction to the entrees that follow, the plain guacamole, particularly when combined with the complementary corn chips and salsa, is an equally palatable choice. The entree list covers three pages, including one page of specials, and has a wide variety of meats and seafood, with a limited selection of pasta and vegetarian dishes.
One of the most popular entrees is the 16-ounce New York strip steak. An Allen Brothers cut, it is hand-rubbed in peppercorns, and served with herb-roasted red new potatoes, sautéed portobello mushrooms, asparagus, and cranberry butter. The dish itself is a well-crafted balance of piquant ingredients, and the presentation is an intricately designed display. Sitting on a rectangular ceramic plate, the steak is placed on top of a grilled slice of pineapple and flanked by mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, and cherry tomatoes. Finally, garnishing the meat itself are grilled pomegranate seeds and a thin, crispy slice of fried plantain.

For those who prefer fish to meat, the wild salmon is a popular choice. The wild salmon comes with a tequila lemon butter chipotle cream sauce served with Spanish rice and black beans and sautéed seasonal vegetable. While the fish is lighter than the steak, the heavy cream sauce is extremely rich and filling, leaving little appetite for the sides accompanying it.

Unlike the taquerías which mark most Pilsen corners, where an entire meal costs under five dollars and can be consumed in under five minutes, May Street Café takes more out of both one’s wallet and evening. The restaurant, which is BYOB, has an atmosphere conducive to long conversations over a bottle or two of wine, not a meal to be squeezed between two events. For those squeezed for money and time, May Street Café is not an ideal destination, but for people who prefer to lounge while their food digests and let conversations unfurl, an evening spent at May Street Café is well worth the while.
May Street Café, 1146 W. Cermak Rd. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5-11pm; Sunday, 5-9pm. (312)421-4442.