The restaurant Sol de Mexico (“Sun of Mexico”) should really be renamed Sol de Chicago, for this Oaxacan-skewing Mexican joint in Chicago’s northwest Belmont Cragin neighborhood is truly a beacon of light brightening our fair city.
Its “foundation” — lead chef Clementina Flores — was once nanny to Chef Rick Bayless’ daughter, and mother to Chicago’s mole king Geno Bahena (of the now defunct Chilpancingo, Ixcapuzalco, and Real Tenochtitlan). She is also mother-in-law to Sol de Mexico’s owner Carlos Tello. As Bahena likes to tell it, Tello not only won over his sister, but his mother, too.
Tello, himself, works the room on any given night, stalking the area boardered by pumpkin-colored walls, pacing underneath a Dia de los Muertos skeleton. On this Friday night he stopped at the foot of my rustic highback chair and stooped below a bug-eyed portrait of Diego Rivera and asks if I liked everything. Often, this is a moment where I’m compelled to lie, to discourage conversation and protect my identity as critic, but also because rarely do I like everything. Still, I’m usually complimentary no matter the verdict, as it feels ungrateful to be otherwise, but if there is a pause before my answer, it is a telling one.
But tonight, there is no space between his query and my breathless affirmation. Though it’s been open almost seven years, Sol de Mexico, which began very well, is better than it has ever been. Taking over the neighboring storefront in the last few years, it’s almost doubled in size. It’s no longer BYOB, but a repository of one of the finer tequila lists in town. The margaritas, especially the $7 house “del Sol,” a quenching sweet/sour blend of fresh lime, triple sec and earthy tequila, is as balanced as the old Topolo margarita at the more popular Frontera Grill. Riffs on that classic, including one dashed with fresh pomegranate juice are just as refreshing. It’s the cilantro julep whose spicy herbaceous quality tempered by a drizzle of pineapple juice whose inventiveness earns the most clamor at my table.
There are few better spots for traditional Mexican mole sauce — that brew of toasted blended chilis, chocolate and nuts. There are probably as many moles as Mexican grandmothers, but the mother moles are grouped by their color: negro, verde, and my favorite, mancha manteles (which translates as tablecloth stainer) among others.
It is indeed a tablecloth or a white oxford shirt’s greatest nightmare. But at Sol de Mexico, stains are a given, for it is impossible not to rip voraciously at the juicy crosshatched, bone-in pork chop and the braised accompanying pineapple splashed with mancha manteles. There is no dainty way to sop up the beautiful cinnamon and fruity tomato-infused sauce.
The Borrego en Mole Negro, five lollipop-like, rosy-centered rare lamb chops smothered in a blackish bitter brew of chihuacle chili (and what seems like a challenge to fussy high-end chefs) 28 other ingredients isn’t quite as damaging to the garments. But it is just as tasty. The bitterness is tempered by a nectar of roasted onion and garlic. I savor it like a fine cup of black coffee.
The polar opposite to the negro is Sol de Mexico’s green pumpkin seed or pipian mole. Its hue comes from Serrano chilis and a healthy bit of coriander. It swaddles plump circles of charred, delicate, briny scallops, left just slightly rare at the center.
There is more than mole at Sol de Mexico. The wood-fired nopales, or plank of cactus, is smoky — a nice compliment for flaky tilapia swimming in a lake of creamy chipotle sauce.
Uchepos Grantinados is the very best tamale I have ever had. It is cloud-light, fluffy, punctuated with bits of farm fresh corn and smothered in green chilaca (the fresh version of a dried pasilla chili) cream. It makes me realize the sins I’ve committed indulging in those hefty lard-stuffed, gut-bomb tamales sold out of red coolers late night at Wicker Park bars. Never again!
Tortillas — colored red, green and white (to commemorate Mexican Independence I am told) — are piping-hot, fresh from the flat-top, and come with almost every entree. Still my favorite use of masa is when it’s deep fried into sturdy round “boats” for sopes and piled high with roasted sweet plantains drizzled with tangy crema and a crumble of queso fresco.
Even desserts — caramel-glistening upside-down pineapple pie of sorts with a serrated edge of roasted pecan, and pay de coco, a giant pliant macaroon pie held together with sugar and egg whites and the roasted cherry scent of almond — are magical.
A meal at Sol de Mexico, or maybe it’s the coma after eating so much, channels the kind of sensual dream state you only read about in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. And yet, on a recent Friday night, though Sol de Mexico has earned numerous accolades — a Bib Gourmand from the vaunted Michelin guide among others — there are only a few patrons. I can’t fathom why, for this restaurant could burn no brighter.
SOL DE MEXICO ★★★
3018 N. Cicero (773) 282-4119; soldemexicochicago.com
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.