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Saturday, February 23

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Wow. For only being open a little more than two months, there are a hell of a lot of good things happening at Wrigleyville's Caliente. All I can say is, well, "WOW."

First, I love the name: Caliente. Anyone with a smattering of high school Spanish (and, therefore, remembers that "caliente" means "hot") can figure out what is served at this restaurant without even going there -- spicy food of the Latin variety. But the word "caliente" does more than just describe the flavor of the cuisine; it also suggests that this is a place people are really talking about -- a hot spot, if you will. And I can tell you, the name "Caliente" is more than appropriate.

If you think the name sounds ingenious, wait until you see the decor. Orange and yellow-painted walls, complimented by gorgeous deep blue stemware, brighten up the small storefront. A vibrant mural takes over the entire back wall and other well-placed folk art adorns the other two. At night, twinkling Christmas lights, tiny candles, and back-lit, star-shaped, metallic fixtures give off a warm glow. It's obvious that owner Victoria Medina-Lollino has put an enormous amount of thought into her restaurant.

But a clever name and inspiring atmosphere mean nothing if the food can't stand up on its own -- thankfully, Medina-Lollino has nailed that as well. Familiar pan-Latin offerings (tacos, empanadas, tamales, etc.) are listed on the menu, but each item has its own special twist. Whereas most customers would expect the meal to start with the usual basket of chips and salsa, instead a bowl of sliced bread spread with garlic and oil was set down, accompanied by a fresh but fiery blend of diced jicama, cucumber, and spicy red pepper.

Tacos were also more creative than what you would usually expect. Strips of chicken were marinated in lime, cilantro, and spicy red pepper, grilled, and then served with warm, palm-sized tortillas. A flavorful mixture of red and green salsa was the perfect condiment for this dish.

Although tasty and memorable, the tacos were not as inventive as some of Caliente's other options; I found the poblano chicken to be much more ambitious. A thick breast of chicken was stuffed full of melting goat cheese and spicy poblano peppers. This dish was amazing, yet a lot to handle; my mouth was on fire from the hot peppers in the chicken as well as the spicy salsa verde spooned over top. Yellow rice and a wedge of roasted sweet potato offered a cool respite in between bites of chicken. The citrus-marinated skirt steak was almost as impressive: The dousing of red, tangy sauce overtop was decent but a bit muted -- although nothing that a few extra squirts of fresh lime couldn't fix.

Some of the items, although as creative, were not as well executed. For example, the flameado queso appetizer (that's "flaming cheese" for the non-Spanish speakers) was a bit of a disappointment. Our server brought a skillet of diced green pepper, marinated portabello mushrooms, and melted cheese to the table, poured a shot of tequila overtop, lit the entire thing on fire, and immediately put it out with squirts from lime wedges. Now, I love cheese and the enormous amount of it in the pan should have been enough to make me happy, but not all of the alcohol had a chance to burn off of the mixture, providing for a few unpleasant mouthfuls of strong tequila. Until the server learns to let the dish burn a bit longer, this appetizer has some room to improve.

There were a few other bumps in my visit to Caliente. Service was slow, but the servers were so friendly it was hard to get upset at them. And while our table near the back of the place afforded a scenic view of the entire restaurant, our proximity to the kitchen unfortunately allowed us to hear the noisy goings-on of prep work (we were there very early in the evening) including a marathon session of the tenderizing of raw chicken or beef -- one of the least appetizing sounds, I have to say.

Yet if these are the only things I could find to complain about, you know this place has to be good, especially considering that it has been open such a short amount of time. And, if you visit, and, for some reason, find this place not quite up to your expectations, I suggest that you order the flourless chocolate cake for dessert. After a hunk of this sinfully chocolate wonder, all you will be able to say is "WOW."

Caliente is located at 3910 N. Sheridan. It is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Entrees are $9-$15 with most entrees priced at $12. It is BYOB.

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Comments

Naz / April 26, 2004 11:37 AM

Sounds interesting - right around the corner from me as well. I like spicy dishes so this should be quite a treat. Out of curiosity, do they have seafood and veggie options?

Kim / April 26, 2004 12:18 PM

Ah, yes, good question, Naz. I think they only have one veggie entree, enchiladas with zucchini and portabello, besides a few appetizers, soup and salad. They do have seafood -- shrimp, scallops and crab. You can find their menu at www.calientechicago.com. (Sorry, i didn't mention the link before).

Naz / April 26, 2004 12:25 PM

No worries - thanks Kim. The veggie enchiladas sound pretty good, but I'm defnitely going to have to take a look into the seafood options here...crab, scallops, yum.

ann elizabeth / April 28, 2004 3:42 PM

This place definitly sounds like a good place to check out. There's nothing like hot food, good friends, and a BYOB policy to make a resturant spiral to the top of my summer hot spot list.

 

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