The year is dead, but Sergio's is alive and tasty

Opinion: Columns

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By David Hammond

The year is dead, but Sergio's is alive and tasty

Editor's note: If it's good enough for Day of the Dead, it might be perfect for New Year's Eve: 

 Analogous to Halloween in the northern part of North America, Day of the Dead in the southern part of North America, specifically Mexico, is a celebration of life as well as a remembrance of the dead.

El Dia de los Muertos is also connected with traditional Mayan celebrations of Hanal Pixan ("Food of Souls") and the Catholic All Saints and All Souls Day. In this way, the holiday reflects Mexico's connection to both pre-Columbian culture and the soon-to-be dominant Christian religion in the region after Columbus opened up the New World.

During El Dia de los Muertos, Mexican families paint their faces with scary skull makeup and make "ofrendas," offerings to the deceased usually consisting of food. The foods that are set out, at either homes or gravesites, are those that were most beloved by those who've gone over to the other side.

I cannot think of a better date night place to celebrate Dia de los Muertos than Sergio's Place at 6966 W. North Ave., which is already done up for the holiday. Just as some Italian places keep the Christmas tree lights up all year long, Sergio's Place has permanent fixtures that recall the day when the dead are remembered with food, specifically Calaveras (the skulls and skeletons, frequently in whimsical poses), Oaxacan fantasy beasts mounted strategically, and some Frida Kahlo-type portraits that are, predictably, bizarre and cool.

Last year, driving along North Avenue, I spotted the restaurant's colorful signage, reflecting the imagery of both Dia de los Muertos and loteria (Mexican lottery). I immediately called to find out if the place was open. It wasn't open … and it wouldn't be open for some months as owner Sergio Sanchez (Twisted Lizard, Cabo Grill), worked to iron out zoning challenges. When the place finally opened last May, Sanchez called me to invite me to dinner as his guest.

The food, prepared under his direction, shows the influence of Mexico City (his hometown) in dishes like potato flautas, which delicately fried tortilla tubes holding creamed potatoes in a lightly spicy sauce, a good starter.

Tacos al pastor is one of our favorite Mexican street foods. In Mexico City, cones of spiced meat are grilled on vertical spits and sliced off to fill tacos by knife-wielding street chefs who work with surgical precision. 

"If we had a window on the street and enough traffic, we would have the trompos (vertical spits), but we don't so instead we griddle the meat before serving," said Sanchez. In another break from tradition, Sanchez tops the tacos al pastor with anejo (aged) cheese, which works very well.

Fish tacos are big in Baja California, and the version Sanchez serves is made of cod, which is less common on the Pacific coast, but it's a meatier, more flavorful fish than tilapia, which seems to be frequently used in fish tacos. The tortillas used in these tacos are made in-house, and although Chicago is home to many excellent factory-made tortillas, there is nothing that compares with fresh-made, which raise a Mexican meal to the next level of deliciousness.

The shrimp-scallop ceviche reflects fine dining attention to detail with finely slivered onion and tomatoes in a delicate lime sauce that foregrounds the seafood — firm, flavorful and marinated to just this side of "doneness." The flavors in these tacos are bright, herby and slightly peppery, good as an appetizer or as a type of palate cleanser between courses.

Our entrée included a chile relleno, delicately fried and filled with panela cheese. 

"We had these when I was a kid," said Sanchez, smiling. "Maybe because cheese is less expensive than meat." A well-done chile relleno is harder to find than one might think; the ones served at Sergio's Place are, like all menu items, made in-house and a good balance of chile heat and slightly rich cheese.

The main protein was a griddled skirt steak, a classic, and done to a perfect medium rare. Somehow having a little red meat seemed appropriate when dining beneath a picture of two Frida Kahlos connected arterially to two blood-red hearts.

Sergio's Place is an excellent place to celebrate this traditional holiday.

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