Dos Urban Cantina (Chicago, IL)

I first learned of Dos Urban Cantina during a meal at Topolobampo in November of 2015. Startled by the elision of Jennifer Jones’s name from the menu credits, our server confirmed that she had left to start Dos Urban Cantina with her husband, Brian Enyart (himself a longtime Rick Bayless alum.) The name struck a harsh chord; “Dos Urban” evokes the kind of cartoonish Mexican cuisine that’s all too common in this country. The phonetic proximity between “Dos Urban” and “Dos Equis” doesn’t help matters, either, and indeed, “Cantina” unwittingly positions the restaurant within the generic framework of the Mexican watering hole. How, I wondered, could a serious restaurant emerge from the silly wrapping of this woefully-misnamed venture?

That I was willing to suspend disbelief speaks to my admiration for Jennifer Jones’s talents. Having enjoyed her desserts at roughly ten different meals at Topolo, she was responsible for many of my most memorable desserts, including “Vida, Muerta, y un Tazon de Chocolate,” a chocolate offering that ranks as perhaps my all-time favorite. Even her ice creams, of both fruit and chocolate variety, resonated as exquisite examples within their category. Given these past experiences, it wasn’t hard to muster enthusiasm for this restaurant, weird name aside.

Located in Logan Square—prime hipster locus of Chicago—I was expecting a rather cramped interior. So it came as no small surprise to see a dining room with ample space between tables, not unlike what one might find at a Michelin 2- or 3-star establishment. Most of the tables were filled with families dining, and the dining room produced mixed signals: on the one hand, the sizable gulf between tables fostered the hushed seriousness of a fine dining temple; at the same time, the many children filling the dining room blunted this severity.

Apropos of my remarks on the table spacing, I should also note that Dos Urban’s dining room bears few of the other attributes associated with Mexican restaurant dining rooms. Many Mexican restaurants in Chicagoland, for example, boast macabre touches—skeletons and skulls, for example—whose exoticism complements the somewhat mysterious character of Mexican cuisine, with its hyper-saturated moles belying scores of ingredients. Meanwhile, the brick walls and chocolate-colored booths at Dos Urban feel ‘safe.’ Here it’s worth noting that the other two of the restaurant’s four owners (Enyart and Jones being the first two) have backgrounds with Lettuce Entertain You. This may be confirmation bias, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a certain LEY flavor to the space, by which I mean a ‘lite’ quality that avoids all manner of drama.

Having loosely monitored its progress over the past year, I’ve noticed an array of structural changes to the menu. The originating menu forwent the standard 3-course structure, instead adopting unusual diacritic flourishes. For example, larger menu items were listed in boldface and in a larger size than the smaller plates. These touches must have posed untenable interpretive hurdles, as the design has been overhauled to feature 3 intuitive categories: small plates (roughly appetizer size), family-style sharable dishes, and desserts.

On its website, Dos Urban trumpeted the family-style offerings, which included cochinita pibil, chicken in mole negro, and a whole sea bass. My sense, however, is that these are crowd-pleasing concessions to timid diners who were previously jaded by the less-familiar plates. For the restaurant’s more distinctive offerings, one is best advised to restrict attention to the smaller plates, and so my brother and I ordered 3 each, as well as a dessert. Our server gave our choices her vote of confidence and hinted that the small plates offered the clearest route to a memorable meal. This essay focuses exclusively on my dishes.

I began with “Roasted Winter Squash: brown butter tamarind glaze, walnut pipian, chile escabeche.” Unlike Topolo, sauces are not finished tableside, yet the clean layers—walnut pipian at bottom, then squash, then chile—still carried precision. This was a fantastic dish for those, like me, who love sauces. Others might find themselves taken aback by the surfeit of sauce, resulting in a dish that straddled the line between squash plate and squash soup. As I suffer a relatively low spice tolerance, I was pleased to find that the chiles emitted a slow heat that never overwhelmed the palate. I am aware, of course, that some might consider this to be another inauthentic concession to the timid palate—although it does irritate me that, in certain circles, “authenticity” finds itself conflated with degree of spiciness.

winter-squash-walnut-pipian

Winter Squashes: Walnut Pipian, Chile Escabeche

I then selected “Goat Albondigas: black mole, masa gnudi.” Obsessive-compulsive customers may question the curious asymmetry between meatball and gnudi, with 6 of the former and 4 of the latter. The Mexican-Italian fusion worked conceptually, although the meatballs were too tough for my liking. I understand that the intention may have been to juxtapose the albondigas against the silky dumplings, but I would have preferred softer meatballs. Perhaps using pork, beef, or veal might have paid dividends. The mole rescued the dish, but only makes me fantasize over how memorable this would have been with plusher albondigas.

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Goat Albondigas, Masa Gnudi, Mole Negro

The most substantial of my savory plates was “Grilled Mushrooms: maitake and shimeji, Oaxacan red mole, chestnut cornbread.” As with the meatballs, this has been on the menu since the restaurant’s inception and must be emerging as a signature dish. One really has to love mushrooms to appreciate it (as there wasn’t much to offset them), and as a mushroom fan I was in my comfort zone. The mole and cornbread brought a nutty accent that complemented the earthy mushrooms. I could see some people finding this dish boring or perhaps lacking a proper centerpiece, but I could not have been happier. As with the squash preparation, the generous portion of sauce brought this composition to the precipice of being a soup, and I was able to linger over the delicious flavors.

mushroom-red-mole

Grilled Mushrooms (Maitake and Hon Shimeji), Chestnut Cornbread, Oaxacan Red Mole

I finished with “Rompope Sundae: pecan polvoron, pear and jamoncillo.” This was just delicious, and the pecan polvoron, pear, and jamoncillo demonstrated Jones’s facility for integrating contrasting textures. To her credit, Jones has resisted the urge to over-experiment that currently pervades pastry programs; I’ve grown tired of the widespread attempts to incorporate herbs and other savory elements within the domain of pastry, almost invariably to the detriment of the desserts. Even so, it’s hard not to feel as if Jones is limiting herself here. Below, I’ve displayed this dessert alongside the aforementioned dessert from Topolo a few years ago, and I just don’t see that this sundae showcases the same degree of ambition. Where “Vida, Muerte, y Un Tazon de Chocolate” presented a focused study in chocolate, the sundae proffered easy pleasures that didn’t necessarily speak to the presence of a master pastry chef. I will also note that the other options (apple crisp and chocolate cake, for example) were no more ambitious.

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Rompope Sundae, Pecan Polvoron, Pear, Jamoncillo

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Vida, Muerte, Y Un Tazon de Chocolate (Topolobampo, c.2012)

Overall, three of four dishes were quite delicious, a high batting average indeed. Yet I feel that the sundae captures the spirit of this restaurant, namely the sense in which it provides delectable cuisine that never risks challenging the diner—and I say this having ordered what I’d consider to be some of the more ambitious offerings. Fans of Topolobampo, a restaurant that has upped its ambitious ante in recent years, are likely to find their hopes unrequited. I will return when I want delicious Mexican, but not when I’m looking for gastronomic challenges or want to probe deeper into Mexican cuisine. Jones and Enyart are skilled culinary artisans, but lack Bayless’s anthropological charge. I still think highly of Dos Urban Cantina, however, especially as it manages to overcome its most unsavory appellation.

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