A Return to the Yucatan

Michael Nagrant / 03.04.08

Last year, Xni-Pec restaurant might have been the best thing to happen to Cicero since Betty Loren Maltese got locked up. Putting a regional Yucatecan restaurant in the same category as the incarceration of a multi-million-dollar embezzler might seem like hyperbole. But for most, the Yucatan is Cancun, which means most people’s conception of Yucatecan cuisine is Senor Frogs or Carlos ‘n Charlies. Any restaurant that challenged such notions had to be exceptional.

The fact that that owners Antonio and Maria Contreras worked their magic, cooking up rare regional Mexican fare like vaporcitos (yucatecan tamales) and panuchos (fried tortillas stuffed with black beans) in a brick citadel of a storefront whose exterior conjures a nondescript dive bar, was more extraordinary. Even the interior of the restaurant, filled with wood-laminate-bench-style seating that channels McDonald’s circa 1982 and an orange and yellow color palette that conjure an explosion at the Reese’s Pieces factory, didn’t promise much.

Xni-Pec was the case study of an intrepid food enthusiast’s dream: obscure ethnic cuisine for a reasonable price cooked in a homey but unexceptional environment requiring a drive through sketchy neighborhoods and beyond the city limits. Everyone from ABC’s Hungry Hound to the big dailies to the posters on LTHforum.com was rabid over Xni-Pec. I loved it, but skipped writing about it, because everyone else already had. Xni-Pec was thriving so much that people started using it as a case study for why a crowded and overpriced Frontera Grill had become irrelevant.

The little restaurant that could even garnered a “Check, Please!” appearance, with which came the “Check Please Effect.” The “Check Please Effect” is the phenomenon whereby a ton of people including those who usually equate the cost of a meal with the quality of a meal make their way to empty, under-the-radar spots that garner at least two breathless thumbs up (usually including the descriptions “to die for” and “phenomenal”) from the citizen raters on the show.

For a few weeks after an episode, the huddled masses swarm the lauded restaurant, and many complain about everything from the décor and service to the scary, exotic food options, and then go back to their four-star ways and leave the small mom-and-pop restaurants overstaffed, beaten, battered and empty.

When Xni-Pec had its turn in the culinary limelight, it weathered the storm pretty well. But the descending hordes also exposed some spotty service and an inefficient kitchen that occasionally switched from house-made to commercially made tortillas due to the increased demand.

Months later, service deficiencies kept cropping up and some folks started telling the emperor he had no clothes, suggesting the food was good, but not worthy of the adulation it had received. I hadn’t been to the restaurant in six months, so I headed back there to see what the real story was.

The emperor was stone-cold swimming in the grotto at the Playboy mansion naked.

Our server disappeared for long intervals after taking our order or delivering a course. When we ordered, we couldn’t see the specials board, so we asked if there were any specials. He shook his head and said, “No, we don’t have any.” Twenty minutes later a nearby table asked a different server the same question and he gave them two options. We asked for a refill on water and waited approximately ten minutes. We ordered pork poc-chuc (grilled meat marinated in orange juice and achiote paste) and received beef poc-chuc. Though we declined it, our server brought a second carafe of sangria to the table. I’ve had better service on a busy Friday night at Applebee’s.

Even the previously glorious food was spotty. Pescadillo, or hand-made tortillas featuring chopped marinated fish, were dominated by an ammoniac funk. Pollo pibil, or chicken marinated in achiote, fell off the bone, but tasted like a sandy muddy mess. Papadzules, or fried tortilla filled with chopped hard-boiled egg and topped with a green sauce made from toasted ground squash seeds, which had once been a study in contrasts between crispy tortillas and creamy, earthy pepita sauce and egg filling, was now a goopy mess.

The beef poc-chuc was juicy and had a smoky char from the grill and a nice zing from the rich spicy marinade. Likewise, the tacos de cochinita, filled with tangy achiote-rubbed pork studded with glistening bits of melty fat, were one of the best pork tacos I’ve had in Chicago. The house salsa or Xni-Pec, featuring the citrusy spice of habenero pepper and the tang of pickled onion, was still addictive and we required an extra batch for our table.

For months, the Contreras family has been gracious and offered to make amends for problems that have been reported on LTHforum.com. Extending such courtesies is a rare deed for a restaurateur, and an antidote to the cold anonymity at your typical free nachos and salsa joint. The Contreras family clearly aims to sate your soul as well as your stomach. It’s why I and many others have rooted for them to thrive. At some point though, genuine concern must be met with sharp execution, and for Xni-Pec, that time is now.

Xni-Pec is located at 5135 West 25th St., Cicero, IL (708)652-8680

This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Newcity