Long-time Chicago and New York City restaurant veteran Chef Dudley Nieto is heating up Chicago this winter with his newest project - Rojo Gusano. This casual, laid back 70-seat taqueria is inspired by the beach-side food carts and food trucks found in his native Mexico and is now open at 3830 West Lawrence, Chicago.
Many readers may not be aware that Mexican cuisine has been designated World Heritage by UNESCO so the challenge for any chef is to present authentic Mexican food, yet to grow and invent while staying true to those roots. According to Nieto, "For the foodies that have had street tacos in Mexico, I want to deliver a taco that’s even better. For first-time diners, I want to provide an experience they’ll never forget. That’s my challenge: to put authentic yet contemporary food at the table.”
Nieto manages to do just that. He takes the simple street fare of his childhood and introduces inventive ingredients drawn from a variety of world cultures. The result is a distinctive and exciting Latin-fusion style that will definitely impress even the most discerning fan of "traditional" Mexican cuisine.
I was recently invited to bring a friend to explore the cocktail and food menus. All of the cocktails have an inventive Latin flair. We sampled four:
- Mezcalita (Mezcal, sweet/sour, served with chili rim) - I am a fan of good Mezcal cocktails, and this simple drink has a perfect balance.
- Mojito (sugar, lime, Angostura, hibiscus syrup, mint, rum, club soda) - this is a rather traditional Mojito, but fresh and tangy
- Jose Alfredo Jimenez (tequila, triple sec, pineapple juice, orange & lime soda) - served in a martini glass, the presentation is lovely but the flavors are even better. As you sip, the flavor profile shifts and changes, but always excellent.
- Shogun (Mezcal, green chartreuse, ginger puree) - this was my personal favorite with a boozy, smoky, and slightly bitter flavor
The food menu contains primarily small plate items and everything is easily shareable. The tortillas are served fresh from the fryer, warm and just salty enough. You can definitely enjoy the tortillas alone, but my suggestions would be to sample some of the interesting guacamoles and salsas. The guacamole is freshly made and chunky with your choice of toppings including Spicy Pumpkin Seeds (with caramelized pineapple), Fiery Habanero (with radish and mango), or Serrano Pico de Gallo (with onion, tomato, cilantro).
The salsas are a standout item. Your best bet is to get the sample of all three which includes Charred Chile Morita (a tangy, mild tomato sauce), Thai (a medium heat sauce with roasted tomatillos, garlic, and cilantro), and the Habanero (a spicy version with roasted tomatillo and lime). Even the spiciest of the three wasn't too much for me, and I tend to be afraid of spicy hot food.
The Octopus-Shrimp Ceviche was superb! It is served with red onion, cilantro, sweet potato, toasted cancha corn, and a wonderful tamarind-based sauce. Micro-greens are sprinkled on top, and the presentation is almost as good as the flavor.
Of course, you cannot come to a beach-inspired taqueria without trying the tacos. Rojo Gusano features homemade soft tortillas. The tacos range in price from $2.50 - $3.50 each and are perfect to split in half for two people. The specific menu will shift as Chef Nieto sources seasonal ingredients, but the current list is excellent. During our meal, we sampled:
- Chicken Verde (crema, radish, farmer's cheese) - throw a little of the Thai salsa on this and it will be perfect!
- House-Made Chorizo (Yukon potatoes, farmer's cheese, cilantro, crema) - my friend jokingly called this a 'breakfast' taco, but she was right! It tastes a bit like something you would enjoy at breakfast.
- Charred Butternut Squash (kale, farmer's cheese, cascabel-tomatillo salsa) - for the vegetarians in the crowd, this is one of the best options - fresh and seasonal right now.
- Mixed Mushroom (tomatillo salsa, Oaxaca cheese) - another tasty vegetarian option with a nice mixture of different mushrooms.
- Green Curry Camaron (shrimp, Asian cabbage, radish) - this was my personal favorite, slightly spicy with a nice tangy flavor
- Korean BBQ (Kimchee marinated beef, Asian cabbage) - this was a special "chef creation" for the night, but if it is on the menu you must order it. Excellent!
Finally, if you have any room left, you must sample the Churros de la Casa served with both chocolate and raspberry sauces. These are the best churros I have tasted so far in Chicago. That is not hyperbole! They were fresh out of the fryer, lightly dusted with cinnamon and sugar, crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Both sauces are superb, but try mixing them together. You can thank me later.
Rojo Gusano is located at 3830 West Lawrence, Chicago. They are open Sun-Thur 5pm to 10pm and Fri-Sat 5pm to Midnight. For more information, visit their website, call them at 773-539-4398 or email [email protected]. Follow their social media conversations on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.