Arlington Hts.' Mago dazzles with Latin-kissed cuisine
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Like street performers using sleight of hand so you wrongly guess which cup hides a tiny ball, chefs in downtown Arlington Heights have switched things up. But instead of confusing diners, their aim is to dazzle them.
And dazzle they do at Mago.
115 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, (847) 253-2222, magodining.com
Cuisine: Mexican and Latin-American
Setting: Casual space with spicy color palate and soft lighting
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 10 p.m. Sunday
Entrees: $12 to $20
Beloved Arlington Heights chefs Juan Luis Gonzales (formerly of Fuego) and Ric Munoz (formerly of Grand Station) put their toques together to create Mago.
Their eatery opened in late 2010 at the entrance to the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in the former Carlos y Carlos spot (which is opening later this year in the former Pamela's/Regina's site).
Gonzales still puts in time at Fuego in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, but on both my recent visits he was in the Mago kitchen.
The menu leans heavily on Gonzales' Mexican background with an exciting array of tacos, fajitas and steaks.
The meal starts with fresh cooked blue corn chips and a trio of salsas. No tired chopped tomatoes and onions here. Smooth, piquant dips flavored with tomatillos, roasted peppers and peanuts surprise the palate.
As hard as that is to resist, don't overdo it because there's more, much more, to come.
The appetizer menu alone features made-to-order guacamole, quesadillas that could pass for a meal and a trio of ceviches that shouldn't be missed. If you can't decide between the citrus-marinated shrimp, the lime-soaked tilapia or the ahi tuna spiked with passion fruit juice, order the sampler, like we did. In a close heat the tuna served with mango and habaneros edged the others out as our favorite. Don't be scared by the chile with the five-alarm reputation; no seeds mean no (or little) heat — just lots of flavor.
Empanadas, South American turnovers, filled with seasoned beef, chicken or shrimp, squashed-stuffed tamales and refreshing salads, like one with crispy jicama flowers and tequila-soaked pears, also are available to get your fiesta underway.
Mago has a fairly priced entree menu filled with traditional and modern Latin dishes. The portions are abundant, so keep that in mind when ordering.
The shrimp, steak, chicken or veggie fajitas can be ordered classica (with onions, peppers and guac) or "estilo Mago," with roasted poblanos and asadero cheese.
Or double up with a combo platter. The fajitas sizzle all the way to the table with a healthy side of rice and tortillas.
The carne asada was one of my favorites at Fuego and I was glad to see it appear on the Mago menu. The chile marinated skirt steak came to the table tender and cooked with a thin strip of pink in the center, just how I ordered it. The roasted corn on the plate was nice, but what blew me away was the poblano-infused mashed potatoes. Not fiery hot, just bold and utterly pleasing.
The moles, complex purees of herbs, spices and savory bits, are used deftly across the menu: a sweet, rich version with grilled chicken breast, a peanutty green sauce drizzled over shrimp enchiladas.
And then, there are tacos, nine varieties to mix and match into a pick-three combo for a budget-friendly $10. The moist, slow-cooked Yucatan-style pork and the crumbly, peppery chorizo topped my list.
Dessert, if you have room for it, can be as simple as a fried ice cream or as complex as a warm chocolate cake with chipotle ice cream. Yes, you read that correctly. Homemade ice cream flecked with smokey chiles. We asked for some sans the cake and our wish was granted. It awakened our palates for sure, but don't do as we did. The ice cream certainly didn't pair well with our delicately delicious mango cheesecake, but I can see how it could complement the molten cake.
For better or worse, Mago is a bring-your-own-bottle spot: better, because it keeps the cost of a night out in check; worse, because with food this good you can just imagine how amazing the margaritas would be. Every table around us on a Saturday night knew the drill and toted in their bottles of wine and beer (and if you forget, a couple of wine shops in downtown Arlington Heights can help you out). Bring in your own tequila and I hear they'll whip up a margarita with their fresh-squeezed mixer.
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