Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Muy Bueno Mexican Food, If Not a Wholly Satisfying Visit to an Old Favorite

Wholly Frijoles
3908 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood

What I ate: Chile Relleno, Enchilada with mole Oaxaqueño, Chips & Salsa, Platanos y Mangos flameados

Mexican food is a cuisine I eat fairly frequently and there is no shortage of places to enjoy it in and around Chicago.

From Rick Bayless' snazzy Frontera Grill and Topolobampo to street corner taquerias that dot the local landscape, one can find tacos, burritos, fajitas and my favorite, chimichangas, at various levels of price and quality, with most being quite adequate in my book.

In just the last few weeks I've enjoyed savory meals at El Tipico in Skokie and Fiesta Mexicano in Uptown, as well as a cute little taco place in Northfield called Taco Nano.

I also solicited opinions on Facebook about some of my friends' favorite Mexican restaurants across Chicagoland. Among those cited were Chicago establishments The Little Mexican Cafe, El Barco, Zapatista, De Cero, El Tapatio and Pancho Pistolas, and Mago in Arlington Heights.

I trust all of these are well worth trying and I hope to do so one day.

But the restaurant I wanted to visit and spotlight for my Chicago Dining World Tour was one I had enjoyed several times, but not recently enough to immediately recall (it's likely been a couple years).

Wholly Frijoles is a single-location, family-owned establishment that occupies a double storefront on Touhy Ave. in Lincolnwood, just west of Crawford (Pulaski).

I've always found that their menu choices, food presentation and quality go well beyond standard-issue Mexican and merits Wholly Frijoles' local popularity, as both the parking lot and restaurant seem to be full anytime I visit.

Still, my friend and fellow Skokie resident, Bob, who accompanied me there last week, had never heard of the restaurant, and he's a big fan of Mexican eateries (including Taqueria el Ranchito near Clark & Wilson in Chicago).

Though we both had to find parking in the neighborhood near the restaurant (note that some of the nearby streets have parking restrictions), we were able to be seated upon arrival by a cute hostess.

Chips and salsa were brought to the table, with the chips being really good and the salsa fine but not particularly zesty.

Wholly Frijoles is BYOB--though does accept credit cards unlike some recent excursions on my dining tour--so without any margaritas to tempt us, Bob and I both opted for Diet Cokes.

We also forwent any appetizers, but our entrees both came with soup (Tortilla) or salad, and we each opted for the latter.

This was a chopped salad with a cream of cilantro dressing, and it was very tasty.

Between its regular menu and daily specials, Wholly Frijoles seems to have at least a few selections that go beyond the tried-and-true, but both Bob and I were content to explore their takes on commonplace items.

I got a combination plate with a Chile Relleno and an Enchilada with my choice of filling (Steak) and sauce (Mole Oaxaqueño). It came with a side of rice; I usually opt for no beans, but they weren't an option here.

Bob went with a Chicken Enchilada, also with the Mole Oaxaqueño sauce.

I am not being overly diplomatic nor deferential to say that we both enjoyed our meals, with Bob offering that he would gladly return.

And as you can see, the presentation at Wholly Frijoles is kind of spiffy. 

So I happily recommend it to anyone seeking out a local Mexican joint that's a cut above the norm.

But I think it only fair to note that while more than credible and edible, the Chile Relleno did not impress me quite as much as one I'd recently had at El Tipico (on Dempster near McCormick in Skokie).

More troubling were the noise level in the restaurant and the sluggish speed of service.

As I noted above, Wholly Frijoles does a high-volume business in a fairly intimate space, and that's great. But the volume of the patron conversations was ear-splitting to the point that Bob and I practically had to yell to speak with each other across the same table.

And while we weren't in a major hurry, Bob did have plans to get to a show at The Old Town School of Folk Music, and the time between our salads and entrees seemed excessively long.

I don't mean to be too disparaging about a place that I've long liked, but feel these issues were significant enough to point out.

Not reason enough to avoid an otherwise wholly satisfying meal at Wholly Frijoles, but you may wish to bring ear plugs and only go when time is not of the essence.

Fortunately, our main courses were cleared with enough time for me to forage into the dessert menu, opting for Platanos y Mangos flameados, which translates to Bananas & Mangos sautéed and flamed served with vanilla ice cream.

I can't recall ever having mangos with ice cream and I certainly didn't let any of the sweet concoction go to waste. (Bob abstained from ordering dessert and declined to try mine.) But a bit like the entire meal this night at Wholly Frijoles, the dessert wasn't quite as thrilling as I'd expected.

Nonetheless I'll happily return and was pleased to note that not only did Bob like his meal, but other patrons openly expressed how much they enjoyed theirs.

But with a number of other appealing Mexican dining options cited by friends, I look forward to trying somewhere new before likely saying 'hola' to Wholly Frijoles once again.

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