Friday, August 6, 2010

Chilam Balam

I've made it pretty well known that I feel taking pictures of food is somewhat cumbersome, not really to me but to my eating mates and the other guests. It's kind of annoying to tell someone to wait before diving into their plate so that I can snap a quick shot. Then there's the whole thing where people see a flash and then my mom brags to them about my blog. Well this week I got to step add insult to injury by bringing along my own camera crew. That's right folks, Jeff Eats Chicago is going to the big screen (or at least youtube). A few weeks ago a couple of Northwestern journalism students approached me about being in their documentary on the Chicago food scene (I'll make sure to link it up when it comes out).

As part of the documentary they wanted to get some action shots and suggested we check out this little place in Lakeview where the chef is as interesting as the food. As I walked up to Chilam Balam, I was quickly greeted by the journalists and who I thought was a bus boy on his cigarette break. I quickly found out that I was talking to no bus boy but rather Chuy Valencia, the head chef. If you met him you might make the same mistake though. He's pretty young (24 I think) and has a very relaxed, approachable air about him (and was wearing a dish washer's shirt and apron). No matter what this book's cover tells you, Chuy has quite a bit of experience and has worked in both Adobo Grill and the Frontera kitchens. He's taken his share of lessons from these places and tossed in his fun little twists.

I read up on this place ahead of time, and assembled a little crew that I thought might properly help me contemplate my meal. I was joined by an up and coming chef and blogger Sophia Harris, my hungriest roommate Jeff Schneider (only until Ricky moves in), and my most home sick Mexican lab mate Pedro Ordonez. With empty stomachs, two bottles of wine, a camera, and a microphone boom this crack team headed on in.

You might not find Chilam Balam unless you're looking for it. It's basically in a basement right across the street from that empty lot on Broadway that's been saying "Dominick's coming soon" for the past 5 years. There's not too much room in the restaurant with seating for maybe 50 people. It really is cozy though, and we made quick friends with both tables next to ours. I think the owners have a relaxed take that transfers over into a very friendly and comfortable dining environment.

We didn't have to wait at all because we had a reservation. They take them, but you probably should make it a little bit in advance. They're only open for dinner, and only take reservations on the weekends for early seating. If you do have to wait, they take your number and tell you to go hang out in the bar upstairs, Monsignor Murphy's. Just a quick side note, a bunch of Feinberg students have been known to run the table on their pub quiz night. This also happens to be a local favorite of Renee Banakis (fellow student with me), so you shouldn't mind grabbing a cheap drink or two while you wait. There's no clear host stand or room to wait in Chilam Balam, but the staff makes a group effort to handle the host position.

Our service was impeccable. The menu is mostly small plate (like Mexican Tapas). We were a little unsure on what to order so the waiter offered to take care of our ordering for us, and said that for about $30 per person we could try most everything on the menu (which we did). These were pretty nice sized "small plates" (better than most tapas places), and you could definitely fill up for $20 a person if you wanted. Every item came quickly and with a thorough explanation as well. It's BYOB, so we brought two bottle of wine, one of which we had them turn into sangria. I don't know if I've ever seen that before. Our neighbors had the restaurant turn a bottle of tequila into margaritas which they then shared with us.

The Food
As I just said, for drinks they turned a bottle of red wine into sangria for us using their house mix, and we got to try some margaritas as well. Both were very refreshing and tasty. I wouldn't call them anything all that special, but they were good standard drinks. Plus, that's about as creative a BYOB policy as I've ever seen.

 The Sangria

Our first course came out including Blue Marlin Ceviche, Corn Masa Memelas, and Braised Mushroom Empanadas. The ceviche came with huge chunks of marlin that were nice and tender. The dish really came together when we squeezed the lime on top. It was a perfectly refreshing dish to start of with. The Empanadas had a flaky dough, and the filling was creamy and delicious. The highlight of this dish was the Pipian Verde (some kind of salsa) that was perfectly balanced with a crisp spiciness to compliment the creaminess of the empanada. The Memelas were like a corn cake covered with a smokey black bean puree, goat cheese, and a little salad. We all thought the puree could have been smokier, and the corn cake could've been crispier to give a textural difference from the creamier toppings.

 The Blue Marlin Ceviche

The Braised Mushroom Empanadas

The Corn Masa Memelas

The second course included the Guacamole, the Grilled Pork Ribs, and the Crispy Chicken Flautas. The guac came out with pickled red onions on top. It was much better than the guacamole at Frontera (which they say is the best in the city... psh). There was a great acidic presence, and the onions added a lot. The Pork Ribs were covered in a pasilla glaze that was rich and sweet with a little kick. The only criticism to this dish was that the meat didn't fall off the bone like some would have hoped. When Pedro bit into the Flauta a euphoric look came over his face and he said to me, "Now this reminds me of home." There wasn't too much complexity, just the right balance between the crispy tortilla, creamy topping, and savory chicken.

 The Grilled Pork Spare Ribs

The Crispy Chicken Flautas

The Guacamole

The third course was Pork Albondigas (meat balls), Crispy Brisket Threads, and Grilled Hanger Steak. The meatballs were our neighbors favorite and had just the right amount of juiciness without seeming greasy. They came in a casserole dish with a creamy tomato sauce. The Steak had some nice onions, fingerling potatoes, and a rich dark sauce. My friends thought it was a little lacking in tenderness, but I got the rarest piece and loved it. The Brisket was threaded and then crisped up, which I respect as a cool way of preparing a dish, but the texture didn't really agree with me, and I found it a little tough to swallow. Plus, I think we kind of lost some of the meaty character that I'd expect from brisket in the crisping process.

 The Threaded Crispy Brisket

The Pork Albondigas

The Grilled Hanger Steak

We had to get dessert, so we had the Hibiscus Flan and the Chocolate Chile Mousse. The flan had a very unique texture and kind of spread out in your mouth quickly as if it was made with carefully held together ricotta cheese. It was still very tasty and had a nice crunch provided by some candied pepitas (squash seeds). The Mousse was rich and packed a punch. There was a nice kick that was complimented well with some creamy goat cheese in the center.

 The Hibiscus Flan

The Chocolate Chile Mousse

I'd never had Mexican tapas before. Normally I have a few qualms with tapas. One is that the plates are too small to share, and the other is that an overly pungent dish will carry over through the rest of the meal. At Chilam Balam I was impressed with how balanced most dishes were so that you got an interesting taste that didn't stay in your mouth for too long. It was the perfect amount of food for four people to split each small plate. The atmosphere was really cool, and I feel like this place is a nice little secret neighborhood spot. They do a seasonal menu that changes monthly with local ingredients, and I can't wait to go back to see what's new. I feel like my quest to give Pedro a taste of home was thoroughly met by this place as well. Besides one or two dishes I was pretty blown away which is why I'm giving Chilam Balam 4.5 out of 5 Pearls.

I'd like to say thank you to Lauren and Lisa for putting together this documentary and including me. I'd also like to say that the dishes were way more complex than I described them. I didn't mention every component or thought on the food, but the post was getting very long.

Chilam Balam on Urbanspoon


  1. Hey Jeff. I added your blog to my blog list and I'll follow your RSS feed. Keep up the good eating and reviewing.


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