In Gladstone Park, Mom's knows best
Simple, rich dishes a worthy detour at Mom's Old Recipe Mexican
A worthy detour: Mom's Old Recipe Mexican restaurant attracts a diverse, lively crowd to its polychromatic dining room. (Taylor Glascock/Photo for the Tribune)
The acorazado is a brawny piece of work: griddled corn tortillas loaded with rice, fried steak milanesa, sometimes topped with hard-boiled eggs and pan-fried potatoes. ("Chicken-fried steak taco, y'all?") A version of this appears as the house special ($9.95) at Mom's Old Recipe Mexican in Gladstone Park, where its Morelense owners, sisters Malena Basave and Ana B. Arriaga, would eat this whenever they visited Cuernavaca as kids.
Acorazado is Spanish for battleship, and Mom's milanesa — strips of beef egg-washed, breadcrumbed and fried — look like Battleship game pieces. The steak is piled to a height that transforms the taco from hand-held food to fork-and-knife food.
Even with fried beef in the leading role, the taco could be overwhelmed by the starchy one-notedness of rice, potato and tortilla. So Mom's augments its acorazado with a honey-chipotle mayonnaise — a pastel orange sauce more apropos for a Tex-Mex restaurant at a suburban mall parking lot, but I found myself liking this Americanized add-on.
If you live near the Edens-Kennedy split, here's a fun place to kick back a margarita or three. I can name two nearby restaurants — Superdawg and Smak-Tak — and Mom's is more festive than both places combined. It's not the type of no-frills Mexican where horchata is served in Styrofoam cups — Mom's is attractive and polychromatic, with modern Mexican art hung on its orange walls and the upper-register squeals of salsa trumpets overhead. On a recent Saturday night, the diversity in the dining room resembled a Benetton ad.
At the same time, those living outside a 5-mile radius of Mom's might find that their neighborhood's Mexican restaurants already satisfy their enchilada/fajita/queso fundido needs. As is the case with these places, it comes down to a handful of dishes offering different-enough takes that warrant greater attention.
The question, then, is: How far will you drive for great salsa? At Mom's, olive oil is blended with roasted tomatoes and chile de arbol, rendering the sauce silken and creamy, with a vague linger of garlic. There's little heat, mostly a resonant smokiness that's terrific with the kettle chip-like tortillas, warm from the fryer. The salsa would be ace over tacos acorazados.
You wouldn't find molletes (spelled moyetes here) on many local menus, but Mom's features it as a starter ($4.75). That's because it's not a high-water mark of Mexican gastronomy, more a tide-you-over snack sold at fast-food joints. Here, bolillo rolls are slathered with refried beans and cheese, toasted until crunchy on the bottom and oozy on top, then finished with a cool dollop of limey pico de gallo. It's Mexican bruschetta, essentially, and an improvement over the Italians' version. Genius. Everyone at my table vowed to steal this idea for their next dinner party. Another dish seldom seen locally are huarachitos ($4, known elsewhere as sopecitos), which means "little slippers" and is formed from fried masa. The tomatillo sauce, cilantro and onions add a bright greenness to these crisp two-biters.
Mom's Old Recipe Mexican is more than a homey name; it's an operating philosophy. Basave handles the salsa, Arriaga the pickled vegetables, and regulars swear they can tell when one of the sisters takes the day off. The namesake Mom's is their mother, Elena Ocampo, who lives in Mexico but spends her summer months in Chicago. When the sisters were young, their home was the only one in town with a large patio, and they'd rent it out for parties and quinceaneras. Invariably, their mother would be hired to cook. Today, Mom's is a tribute to a mother so enthusiastic about sharing the food of her youth, she's banned from the restaurant kitchen for fear she'd never be pried away.
An example of old recipes? Ocampo loves cooking with cream sauce. The way she makes chile rellenos, Basave says, is also top-notch. Somewhere along the way, those two food memories converged, which is how Mom's chile relleno de picadillo ($9.95) came to be: A poblano pepper stuffed with ground beef, raisins and almonds, fried in a sleeping bag-soft egg batter, all blanketed with a caramelized onion cream sauce. I've never seen a preparation this indulgent in Chicago — the first 15 forkfuls are excellent, but after that you feel limbs begin to drag.
Similarly, enfrijoladas ($8.25) approach dessert-level richness. Rolled corn tortillas are stuffed with chorizos, bleeding red pork oil into the buttery refried bean sauce with every fork slice. Sharing plates is the recommended strategy at Mom's.
Survived this far? The fine dessert sopapillas ($6) are the brick wall to ensure a crashing halt — triangles of fried dough bunuelos, powdered with cinnamon and brown sugar, and arranged like solar rays where the sun is butter pecan ice cream. If you traveled to Mom's Old Recipe from far away, make sure you have a trusted friend to drive you home.
Mom's Old Recipe Mexican
5760 N. Milwaukee Ave.;773-467-1009
Recommended dishes: Molletes, chile relleno de picadillo, enchiladas mole, tacos acorazados, sopapillas
Check average for two (without alcohol, before gratuity): $40
Open: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 4-11 p.m. Saturday; 2-10 p.m. Sunday