The Spice of Life

Jeffrey Steen |
Food And Dining

A beautiful thing about Chicago—aside from its culture, people, and history—is its tantalizing array of Latin-American restaurants. From Mexican-rooted Salpicón to Cuban-tinged Havana, you can taste centuries of flavors in a single metropolis.

Part of that Latin-American culinary legacy is tied irrevocably to spice—warming spice, heat spice, flavorful spice. Most Latin cultures boast some version of salsa, whether it be the ajis of South America or the pico de gallo of Mexico. And while meat takes center stage in many of these countries—Brazilian churrascaria, for example—rich vegetable dishes brimming with potatoes, corn, plantains, and beans tempt as well.

These blustery days, when Chicagoland shivers in a whirlwind of snow, ice, and wind, it’s good to know that there is Latin fare that will stave off the chill while offering diners a unique version of comfort food. If you’re on the prowl for Latin cuisine and need it a little spicier to keep you warm, then try some of these DiningOut picks for winter warmers.

Trust us—they’ll find a place in your heart that will carry you through to the sunny days of spring.


¡AY CHIWOWA! {311 West Chicago Avenue; 312.643.3200;}

What’s cookin’? Pork Belly Tacos with House- Aged Raisin-Almond Milagro Tequila, served with a crisp Pacifico

What’s that spice I smell? A bit of adobo here—the perfect combination of salt, garlic, oregano, pepper, turmeric, and onion powder—a bit of chile pequin there

What if I want something sweet and spicy?  Mexican Hot Chocolate is all you’ll ever need (recipe follows)


de cero taqueria. ¡HELLOTACOS! {814 West Randolph Street; 312.455.8114;}

What’s cookin’? Pollo en Molé—chicken in molé

What are those spices I’m tasting? Ground guajillo powder, paprika, black pepper, cinnamon, and garlic

I’m dying for a classic dish. Can you offer one? The Peach Barbacoa is amazing

What are some misunderstandings people have when they come into de cero for a meal? In a regular taqueria, you can see they use cilantro and onion for pretty much every taco; de cero, on the other hand, uses fresh green beans, makes homemade coleslaw, and crafts its own citrus salsas, just to name a few unique offerings


Havana Restaurant Pan-Latin Grill {412 North Clark Street; 312.644.1900;}

What’s cookin’? Havana Roasted Pulled Pork with jalapeño mashed potatoes, paired with a Jalapeño Caipirinha

Is that pepper I’m smelling? Sort of—it’s a mix of paprika, achiote seeds, pasilla pepper, and cinnamon

Pour me a drink to warm me up, would you? Take a sip of the Caffe con Leche with Frangelico or Baileys and you’ll be back up to temp in no time

Speaking of warm, what could I cook at home for a Latin warmer? Ropa Vieja is perfect, a typical Cuban dish that’s very filling, almost like a stew


Cantina Laredo {508 North State Street; 312.955.0014;}

What’s cookin’? Guiso de Filete stew, made with tenderloin tips, avocado, rice, and queso fresco—a perfect blend of acidic, creamy, and bold

How do you kick up the heat? By adding some chipotle chile purée

Are there other popular dishes I can try? The Cascabel Rib-Eye is perfect—a 16-ounce Angus cut aged 21 days and basted with a Cascabel pepper marinade

Can you give me an idea for something to cook at home? Tortilla soup is always a hit, filled with chicken and spiced with chiles and bay leaves


Tango Sur {3763 North Southport Avenue; 773.477.5466;}

What’s cookin’? For meat-lovers, the Pollo al Jamon is a great warmer—chicken marinated in a white wine-lemon sauce and served with hearty Vesuvio potatoes

What if I’m craving something vegetarian? Then dive into the Berenjena—oven-baked eggplant with spinach, Parmesan, ricotta, and a tomato cream sauce

And how about something with a kick? The adventurous but delicious Lengua a la Vinagreta—poached tongue marinated in vinegar, garlic, and peppers


Taco Joint {multiple locations;}

What’s cookin’? Red Pozole Taco (a Sunday night special) with hominy and pork shoulder

How did you spice it? With guajillo chile, Mexican oregano, bay leaves, marjoram, and thyme

What is it served with? It’s garnished with shredded cabbage, thinly-sliced radishes, avocados, cilantro, onions, and wedges of lime


Folkore Argentine Grill {2100 West Division Street; 773.292.1600;}

What’s cookin’? Mejillones con Chorizo—mussels with Spanish chorizo and a white wine sauce

How about something smaller than an entrée? Sample the Argentine Chorizo, or meat and-cheese-filled empanadas

Can you recommend a sweet and warming cocktail? Indeed—the Cure Para la Llorona, with pecan and vanilla bean-infused bourbon, Sherry, and chocolate bitters, among other ingredients


Salpicón {1252 North Wells Street; 312.988.7811;}

What’s cookin’? Braised Boneless Short Ribs glazed with spicy orange-habanero gastrique, served with a parsnip-potato purée

What’s that spice I’m tasting? There are quite a few, actually—dried chiles like ancho, pasilla, mulato, and chipotles, along with dried spices like cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and coriander seeds

Can you serve me something you’re known for? Absolutely—nothing warms better than a soup, like the Sopa de Lentejas, or Lentil Soup (recipe follows)


Libertad {7931 Lincoln Avenue, Skokie; 847.674.8100;}

What’s cookin’? Barbacoa with lamb, farro, and chayote squash

Is that spicy? It’s got some kick—from the guajillo chiles used in braising

What’s for dessert? The Pastel de Mantequilla is delicious—a butter cake with fig salsa and beer ice cream

Can I pair that with a cocktail? Try the Spiced Cider—Cognac, Port, hot cider, spiced rum, and flamed rosemary


¡AY CHIWOWA! Mexican Hot Chocolate

serves some thirsty hombres



In a saucepan over medium heat, add the milk, chocolate, butterscotch morsels, and sugar. Use a whisk to mix ingredients until completely dissolved. Once liquified, remove from heat and add tequila reposado to the hot chocolate. Use a crock pot to keep hot chocolate warm. Garnish with whipped cream and cinnamon.


Salpicón Sopa de Lentejas

serves six





In a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts water to a boil, then add 1/2 tablespoon salt and the lentils and cook for 30 minutes, or until lentils become soft. Remove from heat and cool. In a blender or food processor, blend the lentils with the cooking water. Strain and set aside. In another medium saucepan, add the remaining quart of water and tomatoes, bring to a boil, and cook for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. In a blender or food processor, blend the cooked tomatoes with cooking water, onion, and garlic. Strain. In a large saucepan, heat the oil. When hot, add the tomato purée, bring to a boil, then simmer for 8 minutes. Add the lentil purée and increase the heat to high. Add 1 teaspoon salt and boil for 5 minutes. To serve, pour the soup in a hot soup bowl. Add the pineapple in small pieces, the crumbled pasilla pepper, bacon, and the grated cheese.