Out and About: Moe’s Cantina

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Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sampling new menu items from Moe’s Cantina in River North here in the Chi.  Let me tell you, I’m one lucky girl.

Now I know that some would argue that Mexican food is Mexican food is Mexican food, and to some extent, you’re right- a lot of it is the same.  However it’s how you make the same, different, and what really struck me about this particular menu was that the restaurant really made an effort to highlight the cuisine in Northern Mexico.  Since you know I’m all about the regional cuisine and spent a solid week cooking Northern Mexican food on my own, the menu at Moe’s is certainly worth a shout out.

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First, let’s recap the food of Northern Mexico.  Northern Mexico consists of an enormous area spanning dry and semi-arid regions from the Baja area on the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico and expanding southwards toward central Mexico.  The climate and conditions in this region lends itself to cattle ranching and dependence on wheat. Therefore, in this area, the food actually is the familiar: flour tortillas, meat and for this dinner, we had a lot of the latter two.

Before we could get down and dirty for some serious tasting, we needed drinks. Obviously.  And options.

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Traditional and cucumber, the latter served with a splash of tamarind water, both courtesy of Grand Mayan Tequila

To start, a guacamole buffet and some hot-off-the-press flour tortillas.

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As our host described the guac selections, he noted that at Moe’s, they only use serrano rather than jalapeno peppers because they afford more consistency in both heat and flavor. I’d never really thought about that until he said it, but it made sense.  Remember the jalapeno that almost killed me a few weeks ago?  Never before I had I experienced such jalapeno heat.  Since this guacamole was not overly heated, I may take a page out of his book and give the serrano center stage more often when cooking up tacos, salsas and…whatever at home. 

Both our host and the chef made a special point to highlight the flour tortillas.  Moe’s imports directly from Mexico, and the different between theirs and the standard Safeway variety was…astounding. As dinner began, we sampled some, sans filling, in order to appreciate the difference and their amazingness. They were quite thin, with that perfectly charred (that’s not the right word- I’m not implying in any way that they were burnt) flavor that I typically associate with the perfect naan.  You know what I’m trying to say?  Yes?  Maybe?  If not, get yourself to Moe’s and taste for yourself. 

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Up next, pachucos.  Traditionally served passed around in a coffee can, these egg roll looking bites are filled with ground beef and mashed potatoes wrapped in fried masa dough and served with serrano salsa. Again with the serranos. Again with the delicious. 

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For the main course, TACO TIME; a quartet of tacos.

Chicken mole:  whole roasted chicken, house-made mole, orange citrus slaw, sliced red onion, cilantro, sesame seeds, yellow corn tortillas.

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You know how I feel about mole, and how I think that it can taste muddy, but this mole was great. Better than mine.  The citrus added a freshness to it that, despite my best efforts, I could not achieve.

Crispy Duck: Crispy fried Sichuan peppercorn marinated whole duck, pickled red onions, habanero, radish and jalapeno slaw, hoisin sauce, yellow corn tortillas.

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Hoisin sauce!! ‘Nuff said.

Italian Brick Chicken: Roasted chicken marinated in thyme, rosemary and olive oil, pico de gallo, nopales, chilie morita sauce, heavy cream, yellow corn tortillas.

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Admittedly this was my least favorite.  While still tasty, it had a heaviness to it that the others lacked.  I blame the heavy cream.

And, saving the best for last, Tacos al Carbon: Chopped sirloin, yellow onion, cilantro, salsa tostada and imported flour tortillas.  My favorite hands down. I could have eaten 10 of them (but I didn’t). The beef was perfectly seasoned, appropriately dressed and…those flour tortillas.  Now, I’m drooling.

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Finally, let’s not forget dessert.  Chocolate churros with Grand Mayan coffee sauce (Nescafe + Tequila).  Sweet, with the sweetness cut down by the coffee.  The perfect pairing.

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So there’s my rundown of Moe’s northern Mexican spread. It was creative and took some liberties, delicious ones, but still stayed true to the cuisine of origin.  I loved that everything we had, even those fried pachucos, tasted fresh, free from the extra goopy, extra cheesy, brick-to-the-stomach-heavy that is trademark of so much Americanized Mexican fare.

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Even if you can’t make it to Chicago, I hope you learned some tips, tricks and concoctions to recreate any of these dishes at home.  I know I will be doing so.

Thanks Moe for keeping it fresh. 

And Grand Mayan for keeping me fed.

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Adios for now, and see you again soon.

Pack your culinary bags and keep up with the deliciousness!  Follow me on:

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