Young chef churns out tasty Mexican dishes

December 30, 2009 (CHICAGO) Chuy Valencia may only be 23, but the boy can cook. He cut his teeth under the tutelage of Rick Bayless at Frontera, and Freddy Sanchez at Adobo Grill, so when he grills hangar steak, plates it on top of roasted potatoes and guajillo sauce, then buries it beneath burnt, fried onions and cilantro, you know he's not making it up. For the past few weeks, his tiny, subterranean Chilam Balam in Lake View has been packed, partly due to its BYOB policy.

"I started looking for something to do kind of on my own so, Soraya my partner and I, you know we looked for a place to open up a little Mexican restaurant, and here we are!" said Valencia.

But this isn't Tex-Mex; in fact, his medium and small plates resemble some of the more ambitious Mexican restaurants in town. Next to butternut squash-studded rice, for instance, he'll plate a pumpkin seed mole containing serrano chiles and fresh epazote - a rare Mexican herb; he uses fresh sunflower shoots and queso fresco as often as his co-worker produces homemade tortillas.

"Our thing is just that we like to make everything here from scratch, like our cheeses, tortillas, fresh masa everyday; our fish comes in everyday, that kind of thing, we like to keep everything fresh, it's small enough where we can do it everyday pretty much," said Valencia.

Even something as straightforward as flautas, containing beef or chicken, are given the Chuy treatment: topped with cabbage, pickled red onions, chopped carrots, rich crema, queso fresco and cilantro.. they're a study in building a dish with a depth of flavor.

As for the BYOB policy, Valencia says they're not about to change it, which will come in handy for New Year's Eve.

"They can bring in their own wine, instead of trying to gamble at picking out a crappy one at some other restaurant," said Valencia.

Reservations are a must, since there are less than 50 seats at the restaurant. They also make non-alcoholic sangria, as well as limeade, which is great if you want to make your own margaritas.

Chilam Balam
3023 N. Broadway

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