Amanacer Tapatio in Joliet, Illinois
The Best Mexican Food I Have Tasted Around Here
I am gonna skip the Amanacer Tapatio back story. It's been told before. I am writing to say that in my humble opinion, AT, might be, could be, perhaps is, just maybe is the best Mexican restaurant in the area (and I have to use the term area loosely because Joliet is FAR AWAY). Now, I have been to Casa de Bayless y Casa de Bahena many a time, but I have not been to their tipy-top offerings, so I admit upfront that my sample is incomplete. And, obviously, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants around--too many to sample. Still, when I savored the carne de res entomates verde or beef stew in a green tomato gravy, I was convinced, like an epiphany, that this had to be the best Mexican food around Northern Illinois.
The other day, some foodie friends of mine were talking about a Vietnamese 7 course of beef meal they had in NYC. They remarked that in a meal that showcased beef, it failed because the quality of the beef did not pass muster. There are times that the quality of raw materials limits inexpensive dining. Then there is Amanacer Tapatio. And times that a $20 meal can be as good as anything. Amanacer Tapatio buys market produce, cheap meat, but through alchemy produce food that tastes just simply incredible. I am not sure. Is it that when they visit the vegetable wholesaler they just have a better eye than their competitors? Do the shop more often so that they maximize freshness from produce that is not that fresh to begin with (as compared to produce grown locally). I tend to think it is more to do with them knowing exactly how much to season their food, the perfect amount of chile to bring out flavor but not to overpower. I also think there is some raw power, some innate deliciousness to the ingredients that make up AT's cuisine. The stuff cannot help but be good. Good turned into great with the amount of effort, care and skill the staff of AT put into their daily offerings.
As it has been noted, you eat what they cooked that day (specials written on the board). It is like coming over to Mama's casa para comida. You nibble on chips with two table salsas, each as good as the other, both absolutely simple in recipe* while things are finished for you. The meal proper always start with fresh made guacamole and house made, fresh tortillas and then moves on to salad (which always stumps our Northern palates that seek dressing). Honestly, I really do not do much with the plain lettuce but others improvise using the green salsa. Last night, I did enjoy, like crudite, some sliced cucumbers and rose cut radishes that I gave a good hard shake of salt.
Although I doing a bit of a disservice to the guacamole to say the first real dish was the sopa, the soup, it was. We took two or three steps up in flavor, complexity and satisfaction with the soup. I did not bother the house for the soup recipe (they will explain nearly all), but it looked almost like a brothed up version of the green salsa, the soup also featuring simmered tomatillos. Inside this green potion were chunks of pork "spine" i.e., meat from the vertebrae, potatoes, string beans, and Mexican green squash (calabeza). Again, the vegetables seemed to rise from their origins. After soup it was platters of rice, beans made in house with a glorious amount of lard (whole beans and frijoles refrito), two entrees: the aforementioned beef stew, plus chicken legs mixiote or cooked in a wrapper (I'll come back to this in a sec.), plus a side dish of corn kernels, calabeza chunks, and whole jalepenos, drizzled with crema, Mexican sour cream that is plainly, richly better than "our" sour cream, and sprinkled with some fresh cheese. I clamored for a dessert to wrap this up, but that is just not the tradition.
The mixiote, mixiote is the Mexican version of cooking en parchment or steaming in a packet. Traditionally, banana leaves are used as the wrap and often fresh herbs play a big role. AT compromised with aluminum foil and dried hoja de santo. The chicken still tasted plenty infused with a licorish-y liquid from the herb. My dear, foodie daughter, loved the beef, saying it reminded her of cholent. She just finds any delicious soft beef thing to be like cholent regardless that no Bubbe would produce anything like this intense stew.
It IS a long ride to Joliet, but there are stretches along the Des Plaines River that are a lot more scenic than generally found in these parts. There is even a stretch that amounts to a bluff. Right before hitting AT, there is the now abandoned, movie-set worthy, 20 foot high wall of Joliet limestone, old Federal Pen. That alone makes the drive worthwhile. Dinner at the best Mexican restaurant in the area just makes it better.
Amanacer Tapatio 573 Collins St Joliet, IL 60432 (815) 727-4001
*Monica, Mama's daughter and our hostess, gave me the directions for the salsas. Green is made from simmering tomatillos and jalepenos in water, then blending with garlic and a bit of salt, surprisingly, no lime. The red salsa substitutes red tomatoes and chile de arbol. The chiles are not re-hydrated but sparked up on the griddle; the red tomatoes also simmered in water.