Dos Urban Cantina – the HIGHS and lows

We all desire that sense of “community” near where we live in such a large city. For me that comes by way of finding a regular neighborhood restaurant I can visit two to three times a month finding comfort and consistently good food. The restaurant learns to know more about me, while I get to know the servers and staff by name. I went to Dos Urban Cantina with these hopes and the very high expectations thanks to the Phil Vettel Review – Most Important Mexican restaurant since Topolobampo.

Throughout my three visits, I found joy and confusion. The owners have a great restaurant pedigree. I witnessed that first hand while wondering if they’re missing the smallest of details in the business of opening a popular restaurant. The space is open, warm and friendly with an outdoor patio to come. The large bar area looks in to the kitchen area and separates well from the dining room. They also make a well-balanced cocktail. Many places today open to a cavernous interior, which can make them very loud.

The service each time was hit or miss. While the staff is friendly and knowledgeable about the food, the pacing can be very slow between courses or getting a check at the end of the meal can be troubling. On my second visit, the restaurant was very busy and I gladly saw the manager and owner running food. Some restaurateurs that reach that seniority level, will often times dictate from the service area rather than roll up their sleeves and get to work. I love the awareness they had and it gave me greater patience. At the start of my third visit, the manager welcomed me back noting this was my third time in.

While some could care less about service, we all focus on the food and this was where my expectations got amped up thanks to the Vettel review – “Most Important Mexican restaurant” are BOLD words. The menu is broken in to four sections – Vegetable, Seafood, Masa and Meat. Being in bold print highlights the entrée size dishes. The menu has more of a Mexican influence by way of ingredients and technique rather than a tacos and enchiladas familiarity.

The vegetable dishes I had weren’t a place I would venture again. The Black Lentils with cous cous, while an entrée size portion, came across more like a mushy porridge that had very muted flavors considering it had rajas and jalapeno shortbread. The Buttered Chayote (squash) also lacked the zing of the Serrano chile and had little flavor from the peanut mole.

The Seafood side of the fence had a nice Octopus dish that was cooked and seasoned correctly and allowed the flavor of the squid ink and octopus to come through in it’s simplicity. The most visibly stunning dish on the menu is the Raw Scallops. The acidity from the lime and richness of the scallop and sweet potato blend well. The first two visits this dish sang above the others but on the third it arrived soupier and more tart. The one low light in the section was the smoked trout. One diner I ate with described it as “hot dog” like. I think that comes from the smoke and mustard brassica elements. I think you stretch to that but it wasn’t a dish I was coming back for.

The Masa section is the Gold medalist of the four and it should be considering the importance of masa in Mexican cuisine. The Sweet Corn Tamal is approachable to any level of diner and if you get the good smoky salsa it’s a home run. If the salsa is lacking a bit, it can be good but not great. The Tostada and Shrimp Taquitos is exactly what they should be –simple clean flavors that were consistent and delicious each visit. These are the MUST orders. The street style corn is fine but needed more zing from lime. This is a simple, traditional dish that takes simple every day ingredients and when done correctly can be a heavenly bite. At Dos Urban, the bite is ok.

Last but not least is the Meat section, and where I got the most confused. The Goat came with a nice masa gnudi but the black mole was thin and had a burnt flavor on one visit. The Carnitas are not what you would traditionally expect and each time needed salt. The Pan Roasted Chicken was the winner of the five options but only because the others had execution issues. I’m not sure I would be running back just for the chicken.

The Sweets section is a place to stop and visit but to proceed with caution. The desserts have a variety unlike most restaurants but the execution and expectation should be noted. The Piloncillo Sugar Pie is perfect if you want a sweet, SWEET dessert. It wasn’t my style but I got the dish. Some didn’t like its sugared tendencies and if the crust isn’t right this could be a disaster. The Coconut Tres Leche wasn’t soupy like the original can sometimes be but it also didn’t have a whole lot of coconut. The Plantains were just odd in presentation and flavor was kind of blah – not sweet and the occasional hint of the queso fresco with the texture of plantain. If you know me, you know I’m a pain in the ass on ice cream. The Café de Olla Ice Cream wasn’t creamy by any stretch and was falling apart. I sat confused. The Chocolate Cake on a fancy plate is just that chocolate cake. There’s no nod of any kind towards the restaurant theme. While I like, love chocolate cake, this is good but it never evoked a “black hole of deliciousness.”

Quick Note – While I never ordered wine, the list is deep for this size restaurant and carries across most budgets. If you can’t find a glass or bottle, you’re over thinking it. The beer selection is also pretty solid.

So how do I feel about Dos Urban Cantina…

I’m a little bummed it’s not my go to neighborhood spot, perhaps yet. I’ll give it another try in a few months and hope they’ve found their stride. It’s not easy to be anointed the ”Best Mexican since Topolobampo” nor is it fair. The comment is myopic and dumb. If you’re a true die-hard eater, you have to wonder how someone could discount Pilsen with such a blanket statement. This also sets up Dos Urban Cantina for a certain level of failure because of the expectation people walk in to the restaurant having. I believe this restaurant has potential more than some I’ve dined in with a similar experience level, which is why I’ll head back.

Oh, and if you’re wondering where I think the Best Mexican restaurant is since Topolobampo, at that level and expectation – Cosme in New York City.

Joe Campagna is the Chicago Food Snob. A former restaurant General Manager, Server and Chef you can find him on twitter or instagram @chifoodsnob. You can reach him through email at joe@chicagofoodsnob.com

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