Ixcateco Grill – casual but sophisticated Mexican fare

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Recently was invited to sample a complementary dinner at one of the city’s newest Mexican restaurants, Ixcateco Grill, 3402 W. Montrose. It’s a very nice place to BYOB and enjoy some casual but sophisticated Mexican cuisine. We arrived a bit ahead of their 5 pm opening, but they let us sit on a ledge by the front window until they could seat us.
Though we hadn’t requested it and it was not listed on the menu, our server apologized when he arrived at our table for not bringing us Chips and Salsa and promised he was on his way to get it then. Soon he returned with a basket of fresh, crunchy house-made tortilla chips with a small dish of their own really tasty green salsa (made with fresh tomatilloes). Excellent stuff.
Ixcateco’s Chef Anselmo Ramirez learned by working closely with Rick Bayless and other well-known culinary artists before opening his own place in Albany Park, tucked-away on Chicago’s northwest side. But he also creates with the inner wisdom imparted by years of cooking with his grandmother. The unassuming storefront opens into a simple single room that’s painted in large swaths of bright color and hung with small Mexican art works. Spare but comfortable, except at our table the intense spot lighting was almost uncomfortably bright.
The Piscaditos ($7) starter came as two corn pastry “boats” stuffed with pulled chicken and decorated with squiggles of avocado cream sauce. The pastry was tasty but fairly heavy, and we both left most of that on the plate. The roasted chicken was tender and juicy, and parts of it looked enhanced with a crunchy deep-fried crust. The meat was sparked with light spice from strips of pickled cactus. A rich and hearty appetizer.

The Ensalada de Betabel ($7), a tender red-and-gold beet salad accented with crisp strips of jicama, studded with bits of goat cheese and sprinkled with tiny bites of toasted pecans, made a lovely counterpoint to the heavier appetizer. As for entrées, the Langostinos al Ajo ($17)—several cut-in-half-the-long way, wood-grilled, fall-apart-tender prawns in a salty, creamy garlic sauce—were served with a melange of avocado, tomato, onions and garlic chives that felt just right mixed into the mound of white rice. The Carnitas Asada ($16.50) was a generous slab of skirt steak marinated in an Adobo sauce, then beautifully grilled to a dark crusty exterior and a nicely chewy rare inside. It was served with a small scoop each of black beans and guacamole and a helping of tomato/garlic/serrano chile Molcajete sauce on the side.

Desserts—also not listed on the menu—were few and simple when we asked the dining attendant. The Tres Leche cake was very light, sitting in a milky sauce and neatly capped with a layer of whipped topping. The flan was dark, roasted-tasting, thick and delicious with a thin layer of caramel on top. Ice cream was a third choice.
The fact that this place is BYOB makes it especially attractive—no bottle charge. Every table filled as we ate, and each group brought its own libations. Service was attentive until the place got busy and our server seemed to forget us. We had to wait a noticeably long time to order desserts, and then had to again petition the dining attendant before we finally received them.
The Chef says he will be regularly adding or adapting items on the limited menu to showcase the bounty of each season. Good, because judging by how busy it got on a Tuesday night, local residents are already thinking of this as a go-to dining choice; they’ll certainly want changing options on the menu. Although the location is far out-of-the-way for the average center-city dweller, folks in the neighborhood may find this a hidden gem.

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