Abuelo’s neon-bright exterior appeared across the street from the Damen Pink Line stop over the summer, and since then, brothers Angel and Hugo Gomez have kept up the heat even as the temperature drops outside. The two owners, who hail from Cuernavaca, Mexico, have given their restaurant a bright, friendly dÃ©cor: the walls are papered with National Geographic covers and record jackets from Latin American bands. A deli-style counter hosts an array of tres leches variations, including chocolate, mocha, and pineapple, and a large chalkboard proudly announces the consistent weekend specials: pozole and ceviche. One recent evening, Angel was entertaining the staff and his guests, which included about thirty trick-or-treaters. Even as he balanced plates and hosting duties, he welcomed our group with a joke or two as we sat down to order.
Several initial moments alerted us to the fact that Abuelo’s was perhaps a notch above other Mexican restaurants in Pilsen. The salsa and chips starter may be a common sight, but Abuelo’s variation is homemade, fresh, and intensely flavorful. However, it’s really after sampling the agua de perejil that one realizes this isn’t your average taquerÃa. Literally translated as “parsley water,” this surprisingly refreshing drink was infused with basil and lemon and complemented the meal’s spice factor nicely.
The menu lists a wide variety of single-serving tacos, tortas, tostadas, and burritos, as well as a selection of dinner plates. The quesadilla dinner, for example, comes with the expected spread of refried beans (black), rice, and guacamole, but it’s the salad that stands out among these sides. A medley of apples, pears, and beets is drizzled with a homemade “secret-recipe” dressing that packs a slight kick, and topped with a crumbly goat cheese. For the filling, we tried the tinga, a stew-like concoction of chopped chicken, tomatoes, and peppers, in a thick and smoky chipotle sauce.
Weekend specials are not served on Fridays, so we decided to take advantage of our Saturday escapade and order a ceviche tostada, though the pozole looked and smelled tempting. A large vat sat on the deli counter, and Angel spooned out piping hot bowls of this corn and meat stew. Meanwhile, the ceviche proceeded to exceed all expectations. The crisp tostada was merely a vehicle for the towering mound of chilled tilapia, tossed with a salad of mango, onion, tomato, red and white cabbage, cilantro, and dressed with a healthy splash of citrus. Angel explained that a good ceviche is the result of a 24-hour marinating process. He spoke highly of his recipe’s quality and quantity: “Ceviche and a beer… that’s all you need,” he smiled. Abuelo’s, like many Chicago restaurants, is BYOB.
Despite Abuelo’s recent appearance on the Pilsen scene, it has already become known for its tortas, of which it has seven varieties. We sampled La Morena, basically a Mexican steak sandwich, piled high with morrÃ³n peppers, onions grilled to perfection, lettuce, cheese, and guacamole. The homemade bread was soft and almost fluffy, quickly absorbing the flavors of the sandwich. Vegetarian choices abound, and are loaded with vegetables including portobello mushrooms and squash.
Abuelo’s burrito and taco selection was equally impressive. The tasty tinga is a recurring option, but the pulled pork burrito took things in a different direction. Very subtly spiced, the smoky pork was present without overpowering the other, equally important components of the burrito. The fish taco was small but filling: fried tilapia served in a soft corn tortilla with red and white cabbage and three generous dollops of tartar sauce drizzled with chipotle–a veritable flavor explosion.
All of the tres leches creations looked delicious, but eventually we chose the only one that didn’t come in a cup. This monster cross-section of a rolled cake featured tres leches and a chocolate, nougat-y icing intertwined in a dizzying spiral. It was a sweet end to a savory evening.
Abuelo’s Mexican Grill, 2007 S. Damen Ave. Monday-Saturday, 7am-9:30pm. (312)733-0329