Sometimes, what we’re all really looking for after a long day or tense week is something to smile about—a little infusion of color and flavor to gloss over an otherwise drab and stressful stretch.
Which may explain why everyone seems so happy inside Mago Grill & Cantina in South Barrington. It’s like enjoying supper inside the heart of a giant piñata. There’s eye candy galore in this place—a giant wall filled with Technicolor-bright Lucha libre wrestling masks, star-shaped light fixtures twinkling over the bar, and big strips of wood painted mango orange, lime green, and raspberry red.
The restaurant’s centerpiece is a smile-inducing work of art: a giant Day of the Dead-inspired plastic skull—roughly the size of your typical Smart car that’s been decorated by Mago’s employees with such verve that it deserves a cameo in Disney’s next Coco sequel.
Mago is the sort of place that’s built for a summertime dinner date, whether you eat al fresco on the patio or in the main dining room, which bejewels every ray of early-evening sunlight that cascades through the windows.
To call this a “cantina” is a bit of a misnomer. Although you can enjoy tacos and cervezas, the soul of the menu belongs to owner/executive chef Juan Luis Gonzalez’s impressive array of Mexican and Latin American small plates and entrees.
When the menu indicates a dish was inspired by Grandma Paula, it’s no marketing gimmick. Chef Gonzalez developed many of Mago’s dishes by sitting at the feet of his grandmother Paula.
Mago’s can’t-miss tableside guacamole preparation is an homage to those youthful interactions. One of Mago’s chefs will wheel a giant cart to your table, ask whether you like your guacamole mild, medium or spicy and get to work. Fresh avocados are sliced open and mortared together with cilantro, tomatoes, garlic, onions and chilies in a stone mulcajete, just like they do it in Gonzalez’s native Mexico City.
The results are ultra creamy, perfectly spiced, and plentiful enough to frost over a whole bowl of the house’s excellent gluten-free tortilla chips.
Equally impressive is the empanadas sampler. Diners get their choice of two blistered turnovers, the best of which is a ground beef picadillo served with an Argentinian-inspired chimichurri. It’s the Mexican equivalent of a forcemeat pasty: the tomato-rich picadillo stew is studded with potatoes and pairs perfectly with the vinegar-licked chimichurri.
In terms of value, Mago’s salads are a bargain. The house’s signature Mago salad, for instance, is big enough to be a summertime entrée thanks its colorful bursts of romaine, red tortilla strips, dark purple beans, sliced radishes, pico de gallo, and avocado, all of which is tossed in a honey-lime vinaigrette.
But in the end, it’s the quality of Mago’s moles that have made it such a hit. Gonzalez whips up five different moles every day—including a pistachio crema for those who have an aversion to heat.
Keep your eyes peeled for the coconut mole. The florescent green sauce, which leverages the same sweet-spicy flavor profile of a Thai curry, is draped over a plank of grilled salmon and paired with perfectly cooked adobe-grilled asparagus.
Steak eaters should zero in on the filette churrasco: a charbroiled flat-iron steak topped with a chile de arbol-chimichurri compound butter and set in an chile borracha. The heat from the grill melts the butter into all the nooks and crevices of the steak, infusing it with smoky notes, while the surrounding borracha, which bursts with Chile Pasilla and Chile Ancho, acts as full-bodied reduction.
Perhaps the only richer dish on the menu is the house fajitas, which arrive in a bubbling mulcajete filled with a blood-red sulsa puya layered with grilled onions and poblano peppers. You can choose from shrimp, sirloin steak, or simply veggies, but the grilled chicken breast is the best choice—especially when you dip them into the bubbling cauldron of chili broth, which is the ultimate Mexican au jus.
Consider capping the meal with one of Mago’s cream-topped flans. You’re guaranteed a potent sugar rush, so much so that you might be tempted to grab one of those Lucha libre masks off the wall and head toward the nearest wrestling ring. Even if discretion proves to be the better part of valor, one thing is for certain: You’ll walk out the door beaming an even wider colorful smile than the one you had walking in.
You’ll find a traditional selection of Latin American favorites at Mago Grill, including some classic Maragaritas, caiprinia and pisco sours. Chances are you already know what you like, but for something a bit more off-beat, turn your attention to the house’s mezcal cocktail list.
The use of mezcal, instead of tequila, in this riff on a traditional margarita amps up the smoke flavor, which is artfully cooled off by slurry of lime-drenched cucumbers.
A Manhattan like no other that brings bold undercurrents of spice—thanks to the infusion of guajillo peppers in the simple syrup—and a soothing sprinkle of citrusy orange bitters.
Mago Grill & Cantina, Aboretum,100 W. Higgins Road, M-05, South Barrington, 847-844-4400, magogrill.com