When asked to write about my favorite restaurant, I was momentarily stumped. The pandemic has changed the way we eat as a family. My attitude toward dining in these uncertain times is: It better taste good for me to put on pants. I also possess the very señora mentality of believing that I can make it better at home for a fraction of the price.
We’ve relied more heavily on takeout these last two years, which can’t even compare to sitting in a place that is not your house and watching other people exist. To think I used to take long, luxurious, solitary lunches once upon a time makes me so wistful. What a concept!
So, I had to ask myself, where do I want to return now that we have begun to eat amongst each other again? Which restaurant, in this vast city, makes me feel like I’m in a familiar kitchen? Where can I gossip loudly and cackle like the Mexican that I am? Where does the food taste like a memory I’d lost in the clouds of my mind?
The answer turned out to be 5 Rabanitos, in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. How predictable of me to pick a Mexican restaurant – but you know I rep hard for my people all day. When done with care, our dishes can be transcendent and otherworldly. There are so many complex flavors comingling, and each region has its own distinct style and swag.
People don’t often give our cuisine the recognition that it deserves. Anthony Bourdain, who I’ve been thinking about lately, was very outspoken about this throughout his career. Somehow, we’re invisible, disposable, ubiquitous, and indispensable all at once. We are both needed and rejected. Loved and hated.
Mexicans are the backbone of the food industry, and to deny that is racist. Our contributions to this country are monumental, whether the world wants to see them or not. I love us. And I love me a torta from 5 Rabanitos – the crunchy bread with the perfectly spiced meat sopping wet with a rich, dark sauce? And then those tangy pickled onions? What a beautiful juxtaposition.
I recently returned to 5 Rabanitos with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. She lives in Pilsen and is also a Mexican chick in her late 30s who wears Doc Martens. We had met there several times before because the food slaps, and we feel welcome there. We can talk freely without all the funny looks, you know?
The restaurant that evening was unpretentious as usual, with bright colors and cute Valentine’s Day decorations hanging across the room. No unnecessary pomp, which is great because that’s not what it’s about. It’s cozy but straightforward. There is a hummingbird mural outside that is very charming.
I go there when I have a gaping hole in my heart that can only be filled with a beautiful taco.
I’ve eaten there with many important people in my life because of the food and the vibe, one that encourages loud talking and joyous laughing. I’ve had many raunchy conversations at 5 Rabanitos, let me tell you. I go there when I have a gaping hole in my heart that can only be filled with a beautiful taco, when I want to talk shit to my little brother about his giant head over a bowl of pozole. And I love that it’s in the Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen; as much as the gentrifiers and developers want to shove my people out of there, we persist, loudly and boldly.
I was so happy to be with my friend again. It had been months since we’d seen each other because she’s a boss bitch and I have a baby who needs me to constantly wipe the mysterious crusts on her face. Busy broads. We talked about our families and careers. We revisited our traumas and connected them to our present realities. Heavy shit, you know?
But you know what made it better? Those camarones gratinados! And you know what else? Papas a la plaza! Those crunchy bits with that creamy sauce. I’m getting hungry as I write this, and I’m mad that I’m too far to get myself there alive right now. Plus, it’s snowing because it’s Chicago and God hates us. So, I’ll just stare out my window and think of what I will eat next: maybe a torta ahogada. Or you know what? Why not get crazy with carne en su jugo? A meat in its own juices? 5 Rabanitos always gets it right, no matter what you order. You know why? Because it’s owned by Mexicans. The best Mexican food chefs in Chicago are Mexican. Fight me.
Oh, I love supporting my community in any way I can. In this case, it means stuffing my gullet with those carefully simmered meats – and telling you all about it.