Zapatista: A Fiesta at Your Own Pace
By Chuck Sudo in Food on Oct 17, 2006 3:00PM
The South Loop Mexican cantina Zapatista is part of Mainstay Hospitality, the restaurant group that also includes the Chicago Firehouse, Grace O’Malley’s and Wabash Tap. Zapatista is situated among strong competition. Located next door to Jerry Kleiner's Opera, and across the street from both Kleiner's Gioco and “South Side Cheap Eats” favorite Howie’s, Zapatista is part of the ever-growing and diverse South Loop dining scene.
The Mainstay Hospitality folks are known for their tasty, no-nonsense food, decent prices, and impeccable service. We’ve had our share of dinners at the Chicago Firehouse in the past. While the food is above average -- we’ve never been overly wowed by their menu -- the service given to their customers, from house manager to busser, is attentive without being overbearing. They’re so good, you almost don’t know they’re there. We’ll take that over five-star food and mediocre service all the time.
From that experience, Chicagoist and our dinner date weren’t necessarily concerned about the service at Zapatista. Since it is a cantina, the atmosphere is markedly different than the white linen aura of the Chicago Firehouse. Zapatista is way more casual; you can come dressed up or down, take a seat, and dive in. The décor is all about a fiesta, with warm colors, dark woods, an inviting bar designed like a cave, ample outdoor seating for that handful of warm days left in the season, and decent lighting. So the only issue we were focused on was the quality of the food. If you care about our findings, keep reading after the jump.
Zapatista’s staff, led by Executive Chef Dudley Nieto, has placed some significant thought into the menu. Sure, you’ll find the usual cantina standbys like burritos, enchiladas, and chiles rellenos, but the entrees (ranging from $15-20) are wonderful balances of flavor, and the portions are sizable without forcing you to let out your belt after eating. Guacamole is made to order at the table, and the cocktail menu includes some inventive twists on popular drinks, like the raspberry mojito, the “bullet” (a jalapeno-infused shot of tequila), or "El Bigote" (Zapatista’s mustache), a blended cocktail containing Jose Cuervo, rum, GranGala orange liqueur, mint, lime, and coconut. Wines are also available by the glass or bottle. Zapatista carries a wide array of tequilas and mezcals. You can order a flight of tequilas, served with sangrita, for $25.
We eschewed appetizers in favor of the complimentary chips and salsa. The chips were warm, the salsa a rich, smoky chipotle teeming with flavor. From the entrée menu, Chicagoist ordered the pollo ticul, a quarter-chicken marinated in an achiote sauce, baked in banana leaves, and served with chilomate salsa and charro beans. Our dinner companion ordered one of the house specialties, the shrimp sinaloa, which was eight good-sized shrimp, served with mesclun greens, fried plantains, a creamy chipotle salsa, and Mexican rice. Both entrees were paired with a surprisingly warm and elegant petite syrah from Mexico’s Baja region. The L.A. Cetto 2003 petite syrah had the structure to complement the shrimp sinaloa, with just the right notes of spice to bring out the flavor of the achiote in the pollo ticul.
For dessert, we chose the special of the day. The nino envuelto -- a chocolate sponge cake soaked in orange liqueur, rolled in a strawberry marmalade, and served with a raspberry sauce and coffee ice cream –- was decadent. It looked like a giant Hostess Ding Dong, and tasted like anything but.
We left Zapatista sated and satisfied. The food and service were both of amazing quality for a casual restaurant. It’s no wonder that during the summer months we see nothing but full tables as we pass by. If you find yourself planning an evening in the South Loop, it’s worth a look. Zapatista is located at 1307 S. Wabash. Their hours of operation are 11:30 a.m. - 10 pm., Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon - 9 p.m. on Sundays. Reservations are accepted; the phone number is 312-435-1307, or visit their website and make a reservation online.