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Wednesday, November 20

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Airbags

I have major issues with flan.

In fact, it is my third least favorite food -- only water chestnuts and sun-dried tomatoes disgust me more. And even when the jovial waitress at Riques Regional Mexican Food declared that they serve the best flan around, I still couldn't bring myself to order it. I'm convinced that no chef on earth could make that revolting, wobbly-excuse-for-a-dessert palatable.

But if I, for some reason, had no choice but to be force-fed flan, I would want it to come from Riques.

This scrappy joint on Sheridan Road in Uptown has a way with food that encourages serious overeating. The chef experiments with a whirlwind of enticing flavors (most from the Yucatan peninsula), but never too many to blow you off course and make you forget that you are consuming Mexican food.

The feeding frenzy begins with a basket of fresh tortilla chips and mild, chunky black-bean dip. This complimentary starter is not, however, an excuse to skip over the appetizer section on the menu. You would be doing yourself a severe disservice if you missed out on the de la casa (house dip with refried beans, salsa, sour cream, guac, and panela cheese), for example, or the queso con chorizo (Chihuahua cheese with sausage, onions, and jalapenos).

If you find yourself craving an appetizer a bit more inspiring than the usual Mexican eats, Riques has plenty of options. One of the oddest dishes I sampled was the Pico de Gallo, which I expected to be of the diced tomato and onion persuasion served atop chips. Instead, long slices of mango, jicama, and cucumber were doused in lemon/lime juices and a dangerous amount of chili powder and delivered to the table as a lip-puckering fruit salad. The menu describes this particular dish as "perfect for hangovers," but unless you enjoy swallowing a mouthful of fire the morning after a long night of drinking, I would steer clear of this one.

If you pause from the gorging fest and look up from your plate, you will have a chance to take in the surroundings. Riques makes the most of an inauspicious space; brightly painted walls and work by local artists distract eyes from the grungy red floor. At night the fluorescent lighting is dimmed, and when the waitress lights the candle as you sit down at your table, the atmosphere feels downright homey.

It is fortunate the owners have been able to create such a cozy space -- because you're going to be there for a while. Service is slow and haphazard and one time my waitress forgot to give me back my credit card, but you find yourself able to overlook these annoyances because the staff is just so damn endearing; every time my server approached the table with another dish I was greeted with a big smile.

Eating resumes when the entrees are brought to the table with flourish. I devoured the achiote-marinated grilled chicken with tomatillo and pumpkin seed sauce within minutes. Long after the plates had been cleared, I found myself still intrigued with the unusual composition of the sauce; how genius of the chef to use the earthy flavor of the pumpkin seeds to mute the spicy tomatillo?

I have also enjoyed the tinga -- shredded chicken is slow-cooked with oregano and onions in a smoky chipotle sauce and served with spicy Mexican rice and steaming corn tortillas. And, on those visits when I have felt less experimental, a variety of tacos, burritos, tortas, etc. have done an exceptional job of filling me up as well.

On many instances, before I could throw in the towel and announce my satiation, I was encouraged by my server to order dessert, and thus presented with the flan dilemma described above. I always opt for the creamy vanilla ice cream served in a martini glass sitting in a bowl filled with piping hot flour tortilla triangles coated in cinnamon and brown sugar -- a decision I have yet to regret. In fact, I am determined to return to Riques one day and order this deliciousness for appetizer, entrée, and dessert.

I embarrassed by how completely American it is of me to refuse the flan and wax on about the ice cream, but I cannot explain the whims of my stomach. I invite you, dear readers, to visit Riques for yourself to try this and other Mexican specialties -- I believe you will not be disappointed.

Flan and other Riques' offerings can be ordered at 5004 N. Sheridan Road. The restaurant is BYOB and I have actually seen people bring in margarita mix and ask for glasses with ice.

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Comments

Ramsin / December 8, 2003 8:41 PM

Flan is weird. It reminds of the McDonald's character Grimace. Kind of formless, you're not sure what the hell it is. This place is a little out of my range, but if I'm up there I'll definitely give it a try. Thanks for the review, Kim!

amyc / December 9, 2003 8:37 AM

Great review -- I can't wait to try this place now.

As for the flan, I'm with you. I just can't get into it most of the time. Except at New Rebozo in Oak Park -- instead of just a rubbery goo with caramel on top, the whole flan is caramel-y and creamy. The food there is great, too.

Craig / December 9, 2003 9:48 AM

I absolutely adore flan. What's not to like? Call it caramel custard and it won't be so scary...

Naz / December 9, 2003 1:33 PM

But Amy, Jim makes a mean flan!

amyc / December 9, 2003 3:22 PM

That's true -- that boy can bake! OK, so Jim's flan and New Rebozo's flan.

ed / August 19, 2004 10:26 AM

I had two lousy experience with Riques. Last Christmas, I had my food catered from this restaurant. I asked the owner if he knew how to make green Mexican rice. He said yes. What I got was white rice with cilantro on top. The rice itself was supposed to be green. I later gave him a recipe. About a month ago, I went with a friend only to find that his prices have really gone up. The portions are relatively small. I ordered a pozole stew. It was all bones. My friend said that we should have gone elsewhere. Most dissappointing.

 

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