La Casa de Samuel
Exotica Guerrerensia et Ordinaria Mundana
Since moving to the so-called Tri-Taylor neighbourhood a few months ago, I've been lucky enough to make some new friends who are as passionate about cooking and eating as I am. One of the persons in question is a Mexican immigrant who hails from Guerrero and is an especially interesting figure with whom I have a fair amount in common. Indeed, we met in a local tavern where we found ourselves sitting side by side, both largely ignoring the mayhem and hijinks around us and instead doing our best to read the books we had brought along. José, who was reading Nietzsche, stopped to ask me what I was reading, which happened also to be something German, and we so struck up a conversation that started with Nietzsche, went on to Schopenhauer, proceeded thence to Cervantes and Lorca, and ended up with a long and still on-going discussion of comparative cuisine, largely (but not exclusively) revolving around analyses of the gastronomic aesthetics of Mexico and Italy. José is one of those people whom one cannot help but admire for the way in which he has educated himself to a remarkable degree while working all his life long hours in a job where German philosophy and Spanish literature are not all that relevant and likely not especially prized. He is also a man who is extraordinarily proud of his national and regional background and sees the cuisine of his native Guerrero as one of the central cultural elements of his life and something which he very much wants to share with any and all persons who might appreciate it.
It was on José's recommendation that Amata, Lucantonius and I went to La Casa de Samuel
for the first time, back on a dreary Saturday afternoon in late November. When we arrived there was only one other table occupied in the large dining room, which has booths along the western and eastern walls, tables in the middle, a full service, somewhat set-off bar in the back beside the door to the kitchen, and a cooking station in the southeastern corner, beside and fully visible from the outside through the front window and partially visible to the main dining area. A waitress quickly attended to us with a broad smile and in Spanish and, following her lead, we communicated throughout in that language. Whether she or the other waitresses at this establishment can speak much English is unknown to us, for they consistently have dealt with us in Spanish but an older waiter, Sergio, who has served us once, was rather loquacious and funny and spoke to us in English peppered jocularly with flowery phrases of politesse
in Italian and French (mais bien sûr!
With regard to food, the very first experience set a good tone: the waitress brought us fresh chips and an outstanding red salsa served in a large molcajete
which had a welcome kick to it. As we navigated our ways through the surprisingly extensive menu, we asked the waitress if she might recommend a botana
and she did, returning with the recommendation a few minutes later, a good sized portion of crispy, salty fried smelts (charales
), accompanied by a plate of lime wedges and two bottles of hot sauce (Tabasco and Tamazula); they were quite tasty and a nice way to start a meal.
For our main dishes we decided on the following: Lucantonius opted for his signature taco de carne asada sin nada
(that is to say, au naturel
); Amata ordered a huarache de carne asada
and I chose the cecina de venado
, that is, cured thin slices of venison, a specialty of the uplands of the State of Guerrero and one of the signature dishes of La Casa de Samuel
. Now, as we sat there snacking on our charales
and awaiting the main course, we discovered why there was a cooking station beside the front window of the restaurant, for an elderly woman appeared from the kitchen, strode across the dining room to that cooking station, and sat down to the task of producing a nice steaming stack of fresh, handmade tortillas for us, as well as Amata's huarache
(I'm sure though I didn't actually see her make it).
When our main dishes arrived and we had the chance to dig in, we were not disappointed. The huarache
was excellent, with the thick fried base of masa
dressed with a smear of beans, a green sauce, a generous portion of chopped steak, shredded lettuce and cheese. Lucantonius' taco was similarly richly endowed with carne asada
and presented in the homey swaddling clothes of a supremely fresh and tasty tortilla. As for my cecina de venado
, I found it absolutely delicious. The very ample portion of the cecina
came on a large platter with some lettuce, onion and tomato, simple frijoles de olla
, a nice heap of chunky guacamole with tomato, and a large stack of those freshly made tortillas. The flavour of the meat was really noteworthy, with an intense, dark aspect that stood up beautifully to the other flavours I added to the tacos I made. All in all, this is one of the best Mexican meals I've had in Chicago.
On subsequent visits to La Casa de Samuel
, Amata and I have tried a number of other items; among them were the following:
• sopa de ajo
: garlic soup, with tomato in the broth, served with slices of French bread bearing melted (presumably Mennonita
) cheese. This was very delicious and more filling than I would have expected; it's also a simple dish that in my experience rarely turns up on local restaurant menus.
• caldo de pollo estilo de Teloloapan
: a rich broth with at least a quarter of a chicken, served with a nice array of fresh condiments (chopped onion, cilantro, lime, etc.).
• gorditas estilo D.F., de queso y de carne asada
: these gorditas are really good and more to my liking than some of the smaller, thicker and usually very greasy ones that one commonly finds around town. The size is more that of a regular size tortilla and it is in form somewhat like a piece of pocket pita.
• huevos con aporreado
: eggs scrambled and served with shredded beef (that's the aporreado
, a word also apparently used sometimes for ropa vieja
) and a green sauce, served with very good refried beans and nicely moist arroz a la Mexicana
• huarache al pastor
: a huarache just as described above but with the seasoned pork al pastor
. This dish was very tasty and in general I would say that their huaraches
themselves are really good, but all in all, Amata and I agreed that the al pastor
version was not as good as the one with carne asada
, which was outstanding.
• licuado de plátano
: a very rich sweet drink flavoured with cinnamon.
According to my friend, José, the people of Guerrero are quite fond of eating a number of meats that to varying degrees may seem somewhat out of the ordinary and La Casa de Samuel
bears this claim out well. Indeed, there is definitely something of an exotic streak to this restaurant, in that it offers not only the aforementioned cecina de venado
, but also baby eels, rattle snake, alligator, quail, goat, bull's testicles, wild boar (jabalí
), and, though they don't appear on the menu, occasionally also ostrich and iguana. Check for availability.
In addition to the exotica Guerrerensia, La Casa de Samuel
, living up to its claim to offer cocina international
, also offers some dishes outside the traditional Mexican kitchen but likely presumably things that are eaten with a fair amount of frequency in restaurants in Mexico, such as spaghetti alla Bolognese
, that is, fairly ordinary international dishes.
To my knowledge, La Casa de Samuel
has not been mentioned on LTH. Some internet research did, however, bring to light a few posts by RST on the Chicago board of Planet Leff, dating back to the fall of 2002. Richard comments specifically on both the presence of international dishes on the menu as well as the exotic items. Here is a link to one of those posts with a brief but general assessment of this restaurant by him: RST on Casa de Samuel
. His overall impression of the place is not strongly negative but not very enthusiastic either: "The food is not awful, and is inexpensive enough, but it is not inspiring either, by any stretch of the imagination."
In my assessment I would respectfully disagree (and, of course, things can have changed in the past two years) and say that La Casa de Samuel
is very much worth trying. Though I suspect they may well offer some dishes (e.g. the al pastor
) that one can find made far better elsewhere, they seem to do a fine job on many basic Mexican restaurant offerings, and in addition they offer some things that they do very well and that simply aren't all that common in similar places around Chicago. All in all, I am inclined to think of this place as standing in the following analogical relationship: as Nuevo Leon
is to Norteño
cooking, La Casa de Samuel
is to Guerrerense
cooking. This place has its specialities and for my money, I can think of no better inexpensive Mexican restaurant meal than an appetizer of charales
followed by a platter of cecina de venado
with their chunky guacamole and a stack of steaming, handmade tortillas fresh off the comal. Que rico!
The location I have visited and what I believe is their main location is listed first below; the addresses of their three other locations are listed further on:
La Casa de Samuel
2834 West Cermak
Chicago, IL 60623
2047 North Milwaukee, Chicago
2753 West 55th Street, Chicago
120 North Genesee, Waukegan
Post-site-move character problems fixed (two edits).