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Sugar & Spice: Salpicon
by Meghan Streit
2012-08-22

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I've passed over Salpicon for many years, for no reasons other than the sheer quantity of Mexican restaurants in Chicago and my general lack of enthusiasm for the Gold Coast. However, when another social engagement brought me to Gold Coast, I decided to give Salpicon a try—and what a pleasant surprise.

The atmosphere at Salpicon is elegant, but relaxed. Modern tables and chairs give the space a sleek quality, and brightly colored artwork lends a playful element. Chef Priscila Satkoff turns out elevated Mexican dishes that are sophisticated but accessible.

Notably, Salpicon is a tequila lover's dream. When you order a margarita, you can choose to have it made with one of 100 different tequilas. My own ability to judge the quality of tequila is essentially limited to how horrible I feel the morning after drinking it. If you're similarly tequila-challenged, no worries; the knowledgeable staff can recommend the perfect tequila for you. My waiter was nothing short of a tequila expert, and he took the selection process very, very seriously. To match me with the proper tequila, he asked me a series of questions about the kinds of flavors and varietals of wine I enjoy, nodding his head knowingly all the while. His tequila-picking science worked because my margarita (ok, both of them) was smooth and delicious, and I suffered no morning-after repercussions.

Once you have a scientifically crafted margarita in hand, choose a couple of Salpicon's starters—but don't overdo it on chips, salsa and appetizers because you won't want to be too full for the excellent entrees coming your way. I recommend the ceviche, which is made with blue marlin. Lime and cilantro make it tangy and it's light enough that you won't spoil your appetite. Sopes are my favorite Mexican appetizer, and Salpicon's version is top-notch. The thick corn cakes are topped with big chunks of avocado, onions and plenty of queso fresco, and drizzled with a not-too-spicy roasted tomatillo sauce. The sopes are filling enough to stand in as a main course or a hearty starter to share with a group.

If you're looking for typical Mexican fare like tacos and enchiladas, you won't find them at Salpicon. What you will find are expertly flavored meat and fish dishes subtly infused with Mexican influences—a drizzle of mole here, some chorizo over there. The camarones al mojo de ajo was delightful. Large tiger shrimp are marinated in a sweet garlic and olive oil sauce and grilled. Fresh avocado and spicy chiles give the dish some South-of-the-border kick. The shrimp are served over simple white rice, which is really all they need because the rest of the ingredients pack plenty of flavor.

Salpicon's elevated take on carne asada is its filete de res en salsa de moritas con hongos. Aside from "filete," I don't know how that translates to English, but I can report that the meat was superb. The dish is made with juicy tenderloin in a spicy tomatillo sauce and shitake mushrooms. Melted Chihuahua cheese is the icing on the cake.

The most mouth-watering of the entrees was the pork chop. The ample bone-in chop is slathered in a zesty chile ancho mole. It's garnished with grilled pineapple, sweet potato, crispy fried plantains and a scoop of rice. I thought this pork chop struck a perfect balance between traditional Mexican comfort food and modern upscale cuisine.

Salpicon's dessert offerings venture far beyond the predictable tres leche and churros you might find at more casual Mexican restaurants. Instead, there are inventive sweets like cinnamon crepes stuffed with fresh mango and raspberries topped with caramel sauce and a spicy lime-tequila sorbet infused with Serrano chiles. As tempting as the more exotic desserts sounded, I can't resist a good tres leche, so I went ahead and ordered my old stand by. I've rarely met a slice of tres leche I didn't like, but this one was definitely a cut above. It was moist and milky, but also infused with a subtle orange flavor and topped with fresh whipped cream and raspberry sauce.

Chef Satkoff is a Topolobampo veteran, and her experience creating upscale Mexican cuisine is evident with every lovely plate presentation and scrumptious bite. So, if you're in the market a high-end Mexican meal, but don't quite have the budget for Topolobampo, I'd tell you to head down to Gold Coast and grab a table at Salpicon.

Salpicon is located at 1252 N. Wells St.; call 312-988-7811 or visit www.salpicon.com/default.asp.

Do you need some more Sugar & Spice in your life? Follow me on Twitter @SugarAndSpiceMS for inside scoop and commentary on Chicago's dining scene.


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