Some meals haunt me for years. I can remember every succulent twirl of pasta laced with garlicky pesto that I had in a tiny trattoria perched high above the choppy Amalfi Coast; I can envision each fingerlickin' tear off of a whole spit-roasted chicken I devoured while gazing up at the clouds in a tiny village in France; and I can conjure up visions of every last forkful of wild nettles I inhaled at a cozy, lesbian-run vegetarian restaurant in the mountains of Switzerland.
Meals like these follow me around the city with reckless abandon. I've come close to finding a relative of them all in Chicago (save for the wild nettles), and my most delightful new quest was matching the fresh coconut-coated jumbo shrimp of a quaint, seaside shack on the azure Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico. Where'd I find it? Practically in my own backyard, of all places.
El Nuevo Mexicano, 2914 N. Clark St., is a lovable restaurant that I've walked straight past close to a thousand times, until last week when, like a lightening bolt, I just knew it was the place to meet up with a few friends and swill some margaritas. I got there first, grabbed a warm booth and was able to down a fresh mango margarita before anyone was the wiser. When my buds did arrive, we proceeded to order a few more (the potent and perky lime version is actually best) and, of course, the camarones con coco ($14). How could I resist a possible connection to my footloose and fancy-free Baja memories?
But chips and salsa came first (a very crispy, delicious batch), along with a thick salmon pancake appetizer that tasted straight from the salty sea. When the entrees arrived (I have a habit of needing to taste everyone else's dish before mine), I sampled some fantastic carnitas (very chunky and tender to the touch) and my favorite type of corn quesadilla before diving into my own daunting platter of gargantuan, coconut-strangled shrimp perched on a big ol' pile of smoky chipolte mashed potatoes. God help me.
I was slightly timid at first, gently licking the coconut to get a feel for the flavor, but my restraint went to hell as soon as I got a taste of the fried sweetness. Every hulking, perfectly chewy bite I took flew me straight back to the lawlessness of Baja and those magical moments I spent exploring the incredible surroundings of Bahia Concepcion with my crew last year. These little shrimp nuggets were the size of golf balls and, thankfully, I was stuffed to the gills after a cool half dozen or I'd have had a real hard time sharing my fantastic find with the girls.
The Final Rave: Not that you'll have room for it, but it serves a fantastic fruit-stuffed empanada dessert served warm and topped with ice cream. Do give it a go, if you can stomach it.
Keep It Going:
Read it: Tracking Expats
Follow my crew and me in this MSNBC-sponsored blog as we head from Chicago to the tip of Baja making a TV show. Margaritas and coconut fried shrimp not included.
Drink it: Cesar's
With insanely huge margaritas, it's the perfect place to blow off work and drink yourself silly. Well, really, what place serving liquor isn't?
Eat it: La Potosi Taqueria
This colorful taco shack on a lonely stretch of Elston has great Mexican food, and if you squint hard enough, you might just mistake the blue in the White Castle sign down the street for the Sea of Cortez. Ummm, yeah, right.
Get crazy with it: Highway 1
From here to the tip of Baja it's only a mere 7k roundtripper. Call this weather a day, hop in the car and hit the road, Jack. Highway 1 (which runs from the top of Baja to the bottom of the peninsula) is loaded with dozens of stalls serving up "the best Mexican ever."
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.