In Pilsen, a lonely steward of Restaurant Week is wedged between a spooky warehouse and a 24-hour diner named Steak n’ Egger, a half-hearted play on the egg dish. It sits directly beneath not one but two gigantic billboards. It’s across the road from some seemingly forsaken train tracks. It’s in a tiny green building on Cermak Road, under an awning that reads May St. Cafe.
If you’ve ever had your heart warmed by perfectly crispy skin on the succulent thigh of a chicken, by the soothing cinnamon aroma of a fresh apple pie, by the luxurious creaminess of a sliver of brie, then you probably know all about Restaurant Week. If you haven’t, then take note: until February 26 over 200 restaurants around the city are offering prix fixe menus ($22 for lunch and $33 for dinner) comprised of an appetizer, entree, and dessert, which will give you a precious chance to hit up some of Chicago’s culinary A-listers.
Now in its fourth year as a citywide event, Chicago Restaurant Week has added over two dozen first-time participants to its list of gastronomic giants, and some stars are rising in unexpected locations. Of the 200 plus restaurants, eight are south of Roosevelt Road. Pilsen’s May St. Cafe leads the octet with a stellar reputation and the Latin flare to back it up. On the website, May St. is described as a fusion of “Puerto Rican, Mexican, contemporary American, and Nuevo Latino cuisines.” In other words, it’s the food your Mexican grandmother would serve you if she were trapped inside the body of a trained professional chef.
May St.’s interior is a dimly lit space characterized by a refined quaintness. The luxurious dark-mahogany tables, the plush benches lining the walls, and the napkins that look and feel a lot like satin are lightened up with a charming portrait of a colossal blue fish, bundles of daisies on the tables, and the quiet buzz of families, lovers, and friends sharing dinner.
Decked out in chef-whites and a smile that could light up a black hole, owner Mario Santiago makes his way from table to table like the gracious host that he is. To the Puerto Rican chef born in Lincoln Park, Restaurant Week is about more than just pumping dollars into the economy–it’s about giving people the chance to experience something new (i.e. a $120-plus meal for a fraction of the price). “Monday is my day off,” he tells us with a look of anticipation in his eyes, “I’m gonna check out some places…”
Santiago’s special Restaurant Week menu is expertly constructed and gives the diner a chance to experience the essence of May St.’s everyday fare.
To start off, you’re given the choice of a fresh, zesty salad starring jicama, or a plate of ooey-gooey-awesome enchiladas that our kind waitress described as “Believe me, very, very good.” Sure, these enchiladas fulfill the canonical requirements of tenderness, warmth, and sharp cheese. It’s the 4-day-in-the-making mole sauce, however, that renders them exceptional. This intensely colored elixir of flavor is simultaneously fruity, nutty, and smoky, and is a product of love and family tradition–Lupe, May St.’s other chef, attributes the recipe to her dear Abuela Ines.
As an entree you’ll either enjoy the juicy chicken Milanese, a breaded and lightly fried beauty Santiago created specially for this week, or one of May St.’s masterfully-executed crowd-pleasers, the lechÃ³n asado. This dish involves flavoring pork with a garlic-citrus marinade and then slow-roasting it for roughly the length of a Super Bowl. The result is pork’s textural answer to the Turkish delight: a bowl of juicy, fall-apart tender, flavorful pork that sends your tastebuds into a tizzy.
For dessert, you cannot leave without trying the White Chocolate Flan. There’s a reason Chicago chef—royalty Art Smith picked it as his favorite chocolate dish on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Quite simply, it is exquisite–both creamy and rich, this modern twist on a traditional closer balances the joyful sweetness of white chocolate with the natural tartness of mixed berries.
There do exist paths to gustatory disappointment at May St. Cafe–the guacamole, for example, foregoes taste for creaminess and the pastel tres leches lacks a vital moistness–but the route mapped out by the Restaurant Week menu is pretty much guaranteed to please.
Restaurant Week ends this Saturday and with it the prix fixe menus and many of the specially designed selections. What endures, however, is Restaurant Week’s underlying message: Chi-town can eat, and it can eat well.
May St. Cafe, 1146 W Cermak Rd. Tuesday-Thursday, 5pm-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5pm-11pm; Sunday, 5pm-9pm. (312)421-4442. maystcafe.com