I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, because it’s already crowded, even on a recent Tuesday night when the Cubs hadn’t yet thrown in the towel. But the truth is, you need to know about La Principal, a new full-service Mexican restaurant in Evanston.
Authentic Mexican Street Food
Located on the site of the old Lupita’s (just west of the tracks on Main Street), La Principal may be making what it bills as “Mexican Street Food,” but the results are every bit as authentic and mouthwatering as what I’ve had at (dare I say it?) Rick Bayless’ Xoco, and street parking is free after 6 p.m. Now that’s a W.
Everything is made in-house (with the exception of the crusty bolillo-style rolls, which are coming from Evanston’s own Hewn Bakery), from the masa tortillas and chicharrones (pork rinds) to the fire-roasted tomato salsa, so you can feel good about licking your plate – which you will. And it’s owned by the same guys (Derek Gaspar of Wilmette and Eric Young of Evanston) who revitalized the venerable Lucky Platter just down the street.
Belly Up to the Bar
While waiting for your table (a distinct possibility, despite two dining rooms, the front room with a hipper urban vibe, the back room more a colorful family section), you’ll want to grab a specialty cocktail ($9) at the fun and funky bar, especially if it’s the well-balanced LP Autumnal Cocktail, made with Reposado Tequila, fino sherry, chili liqueur and tamarind-ginger syrup. A little sweet, a little spice, a lot of flavor.
Surprisingly, gin drinkers have an option, unusual at a Mexican place, where it’s all about the tequila, and occasionally the rum. I loved the lightly floral Yo Tambien, made with Oppidan Gin, Hum liqueur (an infusion of hibiscus, kaffir lime, ginger and cardamom), agave syrup and fresh lime juice.
You’ll also find a well-curated list of 10 draft beers, including two proprietary brews from nearby Sketchbook Brewing, and 15 more beers in bottles and cans. The wine selection is quite abbreviated – four reds, three whites, two sparkling – but that’s not really what you’re here for. This food is meant for beer (and margaritas).
Short but Sweet
The food menu is short, too, which enables them to concentrate on making each dish shine. Don’t miss the hot and bubbly Queso Fundido ($5), a very generous portion of spicy green chorizo, Chihuahua and cream cheeses and poblano rajas all melted together and brought sizzling to the table. Wrap some up in a fresh tortilla, slap on some of the house-made salsa verde, and you are in heaven.
The Elotes ($4), another starter, make for an arresting presentation. A whole ear of corn, the husks pulled back and bundled, is grilled and served charred and “frosted” with mayo, cotija cheese, chile seasoning and lime. Eating it is like being transported to a Mexican street fair … in other words, essential consumption.
Choose a few of the six tacos on offer ($3-$4 a piece) for an entrée. Our server highly recommended both the Red Mole Short Rib Taco (savory and deep, with pickled red chiles, cilantro and cotija cheese) and the Carnitas Taco (braised pork with corn, poblano peppers, cotija cheese and pineapple relish, a taste sensation), and so do I. Vegetarians, don’t despair: both the Sweet Potato Taco and Spicy Tofu Taco will keep you in the game, and the limey, well-spiced Guacamole ($6) with fresh, hot chips is also in your wheelhouse.
You’ll find four Tortas ($10) on the menu, all served on the aforementioned Hewn bolillo roll: slow-burn Ahogado (achiote-seasoned pork with black beans, served in a deep pool of red chile broth for dipping); unctuous Short Rib (same prep as the taco above, but here with black beans, queso and salsa); spicy Pollo (chile-braised chicken, red cabbage, pepper Jack cheese and salsa de arbol – en fuego!) and the vegetarian Hongos (portabello mushrooms, cactus, goat cheese and huitlacoche, also know as “corn smut”).
Pozole lovers – and you know who you are – rejoice! There’s both a Green (pork, chile-tomatillo broth) and Red (chile-tomato broth with hominy and braised chicken) option ($12 each), a big earthenware bowl full of yummy. Opt for a side of Tomato Cumin Rice or Black Beans ($3) to round out your meal.
Dessert here is no throwaway; you’ll find a phenomenally tasty and autumnal Pumpkin Flan ($5) drizzled with salted caramel sauce and toasted pepitas, and Churros ($4) served with a dark, rich Mexican chocolate sauce. You’ll also find those churros, along with specialty coffee drinks and atole (a hot, masa-based chocolate drink), at Cafecito, the genius walk-up window around the corner on Custer Street, facing the tracks, open for commuter traffic on weekday mornings.
If Mexican street food is your jam, head over soon. With food this good and prices this reasonable, it won’t be a secret for long.
La Principal is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; walk-up coffee window Cafecito is open Monday – Friday from 6:30-10 a.m.
700 Main Street
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