Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Trading tips with the Reader
El Chimbombo

I am pretty sure that a long ago Chowhound poster, HLing first discovered eyeball tacos at the Maxwell Street Sunday market--and you know what I mean about discovering them. Since the first postings on Chicago Chowhound, they have been a bit of a myth and a bit of an insider reference to the eyeballs. It is one of the least found foodstuffs in Chicago. At various houndly tours of Maxwell Street, there came a time when some would take up the eyeball challenge. Ultimately, no one could keep their eye off of G Wiv when he took his turn swallowing the ocular for the camera's in the Gorilla Gourmet Maxwell Street production. You would think when the Reader chose to write about the eyeball taco vendor, they would acknowledge this mania. Still, I would suggest reading the article on El Chimbombo in this week's Reader.

Me, I freely thank the Reader for sending me to the eyeball ball guys' brick and mortar stand in Berwyn (sin ojo) for some very delicious tacos. Smugly, I might suggest that I had this place, not too far from me, on my to-eat list. A much nicer than the rest of the street, painted terra-cotta facade, and signs advertising flor de calabaza (zucchini blossoms) and tortillas heco a mano (handmade tortillas), already caught my eye. With extra inspiration from the Reader, I have made two visits to El Chimbombo.

The Reader article should have done a better job of warning the eater. Not to eating there, but getting to eat there. El Chimbombo presents no English on their menu, and some of their items are going to be unfamiliar to most of the Reader's readers, and the servers also spoke limited English. The menu basically offers two types of food. First, they offer a huge series of fillings including beef cheeks, tongue, brains, rajas con queso (peppers with cheese), tripas, etc., (but no eyeballs). These fillings go in any number of containers including as tacos, quesadillas, huaraches, sopes and gorditas, The second kind of thing to get at Chimbombo is the alambre. I am not sure of the history or tradition of the this dish, but I know from other places in this part of town, that the alambre appears to be a favorite of Cicero-Berwyn. Chimbombo makes an alambre by chopping up your choice of meat(s) with cheese and pepper, and perhaps onions and bacon if you are going for the more deluxe version. The menu notes a version for hungry diners ("para muy ambrientos") where you can get three heapings of meat. The alambres come with a rich broth filled with beans and bacon, essentially the juice or jugo of carne en su jugo. On the visits, the alambres were as good as they sound.

I have also worked my way through six of the taco versions: al pastor, barbacoa de borrego (steamed lamb), cesina, cochinita pibil (a dish of baby pork steamed in banana leaf, but I highly doubt they do that here), lengua (tongue) and chuleta adobada (marinated pork). All have been far better than average with a few really standing out. The cochinita pibil lacks the traditional pickled onions, but it made up for it in other ways. The stewed meat gets re-heated on the griddle (a la plancha). It crisps up the sides while leaving the inside feathery and light. I liked this more for the texture than the out front flavors. They cut their pastor from the vertical spit, like a donor kebab or shwarma. This form of cooking leaves the meat moist from dripping fat, yet not actually that fatty. What really made the pastor, however, were its onions, onions cooked beyond carmelization but just before carbonization. Finally, I loved the meaty, soft lengua.

Besides the tacos and alambres, I have tried a few other things. There is the gooey, yummy, bring out the kid in you melted cheese dish, queso fundido, with a choice of three toppings. There is the intense, meaty broth from the making of barbacoa, consome de Canero--great but needed a couple of doses of lime to cut the fat, and there is flan. I asked if the flan was made in house. No, I was told, the owner makes it at HIS house. Like everything else at El Chimbombo, it comes more than one way. The other day, three, corn, coconut, and pecan. The one we tried, corn, tasted like someone made it in their home, a high compliment indeed. I should warn that sign or not, the tortillas are commercial. The other soft gripe, some really awful tomatoes marring a few things. On the other hand, El Chimbombo cooks up four different and distinctive table salsas. It is near impossible to settle on one.

So far, I am quite glad the Reader reminded me that what catches my eye is often worth writing about.

El Chimbombo
6725 W. Cermak
Berwyn, IL

(And Sundays selling eyeballs and other goods at Maxwell Street.)

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