In preparation for next month’s Cinco de Mayo, we thought we’d dive into the serious foodie approach to Mexican cooking at Northbrook’s Mesa Urbana.
Stepping inside, the space is alive with south-of-the-border warmth mixed with a casual café aesthetic. Huge wall murals of desert plants cover several walls, as do simple framed black and white photos of weathered doorways and windows that recall a small Mexican town. Several place settings of silverware stand in large mason jars in the center of each table for diners to grab from course to course. A hanging garden of glowing filament Edison bulbs dangles from the ceiling by unadorned wires, filling the space with a soothing amber light.
As we sat down, we were met by a basket of warm tortilla chips, the perfect welcome mat to any Mexican meal. The table salsa is made from green tomatillos with a mild spice and an almost citrus tang.
Our first experience with Executive Chef Eusebio Garcia’s invigorating approach to traditional Mexican cuisine was from the Appetizers menu. The Empanada delivers a warm, flaky crust wrapped around fresh lobster, leeks, artichoke hearts, and cream cheese. It sits on top of a smear of zesty romesco spread, the red pepper is a fantastic counterpoint to the lobster topnote that drives every bite. The platter also features a sizable salad of mixed greens, slices of watermelon radish, beets, onion, red peppers, and lemon vinaigrette. It’s a wonderfully crisp way to reset the palate between bites.
Over the last couple years, when beet salads were en vogue, we had more than our fair share, but we’ve never had any like Mesa Urbana’s Watermelon Beet Salad. It all hinges on the unexpected way that cubes of slow roasted golden beets interact with cubes of fresh, juicy watermelon. They’re contrasting degrees of sweetness combine to fantastic effect against earthy mixed greens and the sharpness of red onion. Cubes of feta cheese bring a darker flavor and nice crumbly texture to round out the dish. All of these elements are mixed with a housemade tequila vinaigrette.
One of the highlights of the night came next, a platter of Pescado Tacos. Every taco dinner is delivered on a lovely wooden serving platter, four tacos to an order, petite tortillas laid flat with the ingredients piled high. It’s visually impactful and emphasizes Mesa Urbana’s desire to treat dishes as shareables, tapas style. The grouper inside was exemplary, pan seared for an exterior crunch over a flakey interior. The fish is topped with shredded purple cabbage, pineapple relish, avocado, and caper aioli, all of the flavors coming together to make the perfect, beach-worthy fish taco.
At first glance, the Carne Asada is very traditional. The skirt steak is thin and sliced into pieces for easy transportation into a warm tortilla. The element that really distinguishes this version from others is the nopales empapelados, wrapped up in tinfoil like a baked potato. Nopales is the common name for the Opuntia cacti, in this case shredded and combined with melted Muenster cheese, tomatillo, lime, and a Mexican herb called epazote. It brings a herbaceous citrus tang to the fajitas-style entrée. The side of beans is elevated by the zesty chunks of white onion submerged within.
The most incredible display of culinary mastery that night was the Callos De Hacha. We’ve never seen a prettier presentation of scallops. Unbelievably tender, pan-seared scallops are surrounded by slices of roasted acorn squash, both are so delicate and texturally creamy that the combination melts in the mouth. A healthy drizzle of guajillo brown butter adds a delicate saltiness in the vein of soy sauce. A side of green beans provides an earthy counter-bite and rounds out the textures on the plate. This is the dish you put in front of hard-to-impress friends.
The Capirotada de Calabaza is a Mexican bread pudding made completely in-house that’s good for any season. It has all the warm, dense, caramel qualities of classic bread pudding with a wedge of roasted Mexican pumpkin on top. Unlike it’s American counterpart, Mexican pumpkin has a much milder flavor and it’s great with the sweet bread dessert dipped in the drizzle of mixed berry coulis and pumpkin syrup paired with a scoop of caramel ice cream.
Mesa Urbana is a delectable Mexican meal as seen through the lens of an inventive chef de haute cuisine. It delivers everything you could ask for, nailing both the flavors of the food truck and the fine-cut filet.
Mesa Urbana is located at 3566 Milwaukee Avenue in Northbrook, 847-383-0700,mesaurbana.com