2235 North Western Avenue Chicago, IL 60647
QISA (4, 4, 3.5, 3), $5-13, Vegetarian (Vegan-Friendly)
On a bustling street corner bordering a lower-middle class neighborhood in West Chicago sits Quesadilla La Reina Del Sur, a diminutive restaurant with noble aspirations. Q-La (please forgive my tabloid-sounding abbreviation) is an authentic Mexican restaurant that serves vegetarian food. That its name sounds more like a telenovella than a stereotyped Mexican cartoon character simply adds to its charm.
Q-La is clearly targeting a local Mexican population who’s experience with vegetarianism is limited to foreign words such as “tofu”, “hippy,” “activist,” and “kale.” By recreating traditional dishes with soy-based meat analogs instead of simply recreating the dishes themselves with beans and nuts, the restaurant is trying to convince a skeptical clientele that all of the comforts of home can come in a healthy, ethical package. The restaurant’s Website states as much in its verbiage: Our menu is designed and intended to satisfy even the most demanding expectations, using soy-based products we provide a verity of traditional Mexican meals that will fool anyone to think they were actually made with meat.
The look and feel of the establishment does a lot to set Q-La’s authenticity. Clean, brightly painted orange and green walls and a smattering of tables place you in the middle of a Mexican family kitchen. The Mexican music over the loudspeaker and the Spanish-language TV station only add to the ambience.
However, this stage is only a stage. The real show is the food itself.
I began with chips and three kinds of salsas, red, green, and chunky. The red and green had a moderate amount of heat but not much salt or sweetness. The chunky, more the consistency of salad than a puree, was clearly my favorite. It had visible pieces of jalapeno, onion, and tomato and the best balance of flavor.
I ordered a side of tamales with green salsa and soy chicken. The tamales were expertly prepared in the corn husks; masa surrounding a tasty filling. I ended up bringing one home to share with the family and discovered that love for tamales is apparently not a universal thing. Fine. I will never force my kids to eat tamales. They can give their tamales to me. All of them.
My main course was a “combo” huarache, which was a full plate of thick masa corn tortilla covered with lettuce, cilantro, onion, mushroom, refried beans, and soy chicken. Apparently, the word “huarache” is derived from the word for sandal because of its long flat shape. However, the similarity ends there. The huarache was a delicious mix of flavors and textures, and at only $5-7, was possibly the best value meal in town.
To drink, I ordered the Digestivo jugos, a thick blend of cactus, orange, mango, and papaya juices. Once again, I found my provincial U.S. palate delighted by exotic flavors. The juice started like a tropical smoothie on the tongue, but finished slightly differently, crossing nerve pathways in my taste center that could only be translated as “something new and exciting.”
I will definitely make another trip to Q-La to try their many different tacos, tortas, burritos, desajunos, and platillos. I might even bring my family along so that they too can experience a more authentic taste of Mexico in the midst of the cold Midwest. Perhaps I’ll introduce them to smoothies made with cactus juice, salsas that are a meal unto themselves, and street food that is far, far removed from the travesty known as “Taco Bell.” But I don’t plan to share my tamales with them. Because frankly, they don’t deserve them.