By Michael Nagrant
Geno Bahena is like the boy who cried wolf, or, more particularly, the chef who cried “mole.” Every time Bahena, the executive chef of the new Logan Square regional Mexican spot Real Tenochtitlan, opens a new restaurant, he calls up the food-gossip mafia and regales them with tales of his famous mole sauce. Then he swears up and down that his latest venture is his greatest and that he’ll stick around forever. Then he disappears.
Though he’s opened about as many lauded restaurants as Michael Phelps has Olympic gold medals, Bahena has also closed more than the Chicago Health Department in an active week. Still, he always gets another opportunity. Genius has always been given a wide berth—just ask Phelps, who escaped a 2004 DUI arrest with probation. Bahena’s less like Phelps, though, and more like Mike Tyson. As great as he was, he’s finally exhausted the leniency of the public. Now when Bahena opens a restaurant most people start the taking bets on the closing date.
We just didn’t need him anymore. While he was out planning other ventures, his mole mentor, his mom, and his brother-in-law, opened the West Side spot Sol de Mexico. They were making good mole and more importantly they’d stayed open for two years. And so I swore I wouldn’t check out Real.
But the thing is, I was one of the last true believers in Tyson; after jail, and even after he bit Holyfield’s ear. I could never quite shake the memories of watching the 19-year-old bull, the legendary Kid Dynamite-era Tyson who destroyed grown men by knockout, many in a round or less. Even today, now that I know he’s a total whack-job, some part of me wants the old Iron Mike to return. Part of the nostalgia stems from the fact that Tyson’s heir, Lennox Lewis, was a snore. Lewis bear-hugged men into submission with his expansive reach and then landed weak knockouts.
In my mind, Bahena became too much like Tyson, and old images of the glorious culinary champ obscured the wash-up he’d likely become. Sol de Mexico wasn’t exactly Lewis, but, compared with my memories of eating airy corn-perfumed sopes in the grand dining room of Chilpancingo during Bahena’s reign, Sol seemed like a quaint storefront imitator. And so, as a true believer and a sucker for legend, I didn’t last a week before I caved and checked out Real Tenochtitlan.
Real was no suffocating storefront space masquerading as a restaurant. Walking in to the soaring dining room at Real, surveying the field of wooden tables outfitted with hammered-copper charger plates, and walls lined with fierce Mexican folk art and mirrors so large they’d be at home in the Palace of Versailles, I was sure the champ was back. Just in case I doubted it, there was also a huge portrait of a young Bahena lording over the dining room.
Service-wise, our waiter spotted the cooler strapped to my back (Real is BYOB for now), brought out an ice bucket for my beer, and hooked my 17-month-old son up with a sippy-cup of water before we even asked. Another server greeted the patrons at the table next to us by name, because he’d remembered them from his time at Tepatulco.
We ordered a complement of appetizers including marlin seviche and the sopes. The sopes, especially the earthy, spicy chorizo and woodland-mushroom-topped version, were as good as I remembered. The marlin seviche was day-old funky and the lime marinade had ruined the texture of the fish, creating a sea of mush. Score one for Sol de Mexico, whose similar seviche is always fresh and firm.
The entrees, though, reminded us why we were there. The Borrego en Mole Negro, featuring succulent medium-rare lamp chops swimming in a pool of mahogany mole made of chilhuacle chiles had a deep, sweet, spice perfume. The mole at Real was more layered than the similar mole at Sol de Mexico. It was also perfectly salted, a frequent mole shortcoming. When our table ran out of fresh housemade tortillas, I used the now-bare lamb chop bones to ladle up the rest of the sauce.
Likewise the celadon-colored pumpkin-seed butter, Serrano chili, sour cream and cilantro-infused sauce splashing under plump, garlic, perfectly marinated grill-marked scallops on another dish, was subtle enough to allow the briny butteriness of the scallops through while lending a grassy spice to the dish’s finish.
Bahena was on. And when he’s on, he does it just about as a good as anyone in Chicago, including Frontera Grill. Bahena’s a real chef, a culinary-school-trained guy, who understands layering, seasoning and flavor. He’s not some recreational cook or even a sun-wrinkled grandmother who’s good at home-style cooking. Sol de Mexico is good, but Real is great. Now, Bahena just needs to keep his eye on the prize, because as any student of boxing knows, plodding as he was, Lennox Lewis eventually knocked Mike Tyson out.
Real Tenochtitlan is located at 2451 North Milwaukee, (773)227-1050.