Huarache Glory

Michael Nagrant / 08.01.08

The huarache, sort of like a Mexican version of pizza, is a sandal-shaped flatbread made of corn masa. My favorite is usually from Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market, where sunbaked abuelas hand-pat big balls of corn meal with their crinkly-skinned hands, throwing their efforts on the grill until the air fills with corn perfume. Problem is, the market is only open on Sunday, so if I get a mid-week hankering for a transcendent huarache, I’m out of luck–that is, until I discovered Huaraches Dona Chio.

Located in a basement level storefront, Huaraches Dona Chio is a rock bottom affair decor-wise. There’s a big rug that says “copier” with a knit image of a photocopy machine that looks like it was stolem from the set of Office Space. (PC load letter, anyone?)

Unlike the aesthetics inside, the food is top-notch Mexican from the Distrito Federal, also known as Mexico City. From puffy corn picadillo-stuffed gorditas to slightlyfloppy corn tortilla tacos, they have it all. And the huaraches are a street food lover’s dream.

Following the cooking here is like watching a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel unfold. A woman behind the counter starts with a fresh ball of masa, pats it into an oval shape, then shoves it into a huge, green homemade wooden tortilla press. Her goal is to create a mini surfboard-shaped huarache shell. She then throws it onto the flat-top, working her spatula until the shell puffs up golden brown.

Next to her, there’s a stove featuring rickety aluminum pots, bubbling with green chili-braised pork skin (or chicharonnes), chipotle-flecked chicken tinga, and fluffy potatoes with rich beefy gravy-slathered picadillo. Little puffs of steam from the pots waft over you, bombing your brain and olfactory center into submission. Eventually, the woman ladles out your chosen topping from the pots–the smoky tinga is best–and then sprinkles a cheesy “snow” of queso fresco and Chihuahua, finishing it off with onion and cilantro bits.

Eating the thing is almost as good as watching it get made. When biting into it, the crunchy crust yields an airy interior corn crumb. Oozy cheese and pliant, melt-in-your-mouth strands of spicy chicken follow with the zing of crunchy onion flecks.

I may never have to hit the Maxwell Market again.

Huaraches Dona Chio

1547 West Elmdale Avenue, Chicago IL 60660 (map); 773-878-8470