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Picante Grill: Planting New Roots In An Old Neighborhood

By Chuck Sudo on Jun 27, 2005 8:28PM

Pilsen is a neighborhood currently battling the winds of change from the neighborhoods surrounding it. With the gigantic University Village development project reaching its northern edge businesses throughout the neighborhood are undertaking minor repairs or full-on overhauls in the hope of courting new homeowners down to spend their money in the galleries, storefronts, and taquerias, while still maintaining the working-class family feeling that draws so many Mexican immigrants to settle down there and the cheap rents that appeal to the artistically inclined migrating from Wicker Park, Bucktown, and the East Village.

If you head southbound on Halsted past the ghosts of the old Maxwell Street Market and under the Metra viaduct you’ll find a new restaurant that in its short time in business aims to join longtime mainstays Nuevo Leon and Cuernavaca as a neighborhood destination while still offering affordable eats for the locals. The building that houses Picante Grill stands out among the older, weathered frame houses and storefronts with its high windows, clean brick façade, and skylight-dotted roof. Under the guiding vision of owners Ricardo Martinez and Musio Sanchez, the emphasis is on quality food that won’t break a budget and friendly, hands-on service that is remarkably free of pretension.

The interior décor of Picante Grill is a mixture of traditional and contemporary Mexican art deco styles and upscale lounge. The tiny yet quaint bar greeting customers upon entry is stocked with an impressive array of tequilas, served traditionally in brandy snifters
with a side serving of spicy tomato juice cocktail for a do-it-yourself bloody maria- no lime/salt training wheels needed. The house margarita, made with Distinguido Blanco tequila (100% de Agave with a distinct cream-flavored palate), Gran Marnier, and fresh lime juice, is a refreshing libation perfectly suited to make you forget all this hot weather.
Chef Saul Roman (who resume includes residencies at Adobo Grill and Salpicon) has conceived a menu that puts a contemporary twist on traditional Mexican dishes. Specials are rotated weekly- Saturday night the sopa de avocado, which was served cold, contained diced mangos and was topped with tortilla strips and grated cheese. From the main menu we were amazed with the smoky poblano flavor and rich adobo-colored sauce of the pollo en mole.

Our dining partner, who had fresh memories of the pato al nache (a roasted duck breast and comfit served with mushroom potatoes and a nut-and-honey salsa) to get her through Friday night’s blackout, opted Saturday for the camarones al mojo de ajo: jumbo shrimp sautéed in a light garlic butter and white wine sauce with just the slightest hint of fresh lime.

For dessert we went back to the specials and each ordered a slice of the delicia de manzana, an open-faced apple cake served with fresh strawberries and a rich Mexican caramel sauce, while a late attendee to our dining party sipped a cappuccino brewed with Lavazza Italian espresso.

If you want to see for yourself if Picante Grill is everything we just wrote, then you can head down to 1626 S. Halsted Ave. and pay them a visit. Picante Grill is open seven days, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and through midnight Friday and Saturday. Their phone number is (312) 455-8500 and reservations are accepted.