Changarro may mean "small street vendor" in Spanish, but the months-old Mexican/Brazilian fusion restaurant by that name in a West Chicago storefront comes in several steps above that humble image.
Owner Ricardo Santos, who most recently worked at Bien Trucha in Geneva, following stints at several upscale Latin restaurants in Chicago, changed the concept from Mexican cantina to fusion bistro in February, when he obtained a liquor license. The native Brazilian decided to incorporate some dishes from his country into the menu, setting Changarro apart from the many Mexican restaurants scattered throughout the suburbs.
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Changarro1400 S. Neltnor Blvd., West Chicago, (630) 231-0200, changarrococina.com
Cuisine: Mexican and Brazilian
Setting: Contemporary storefront with colorful accents
Entrees: $5.95 to $7.55
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
The interior of the small 40-seat bistro is modest but tasteful, with walls painted in subdued earth tones. A few bottles of tequila and rum are displayed in the front alcove, which is a remnant from Changarro's original incarnation as a Mexican fast food restaurant.
Margarita and caipirinha fans won't mind having one of these made-from-scratch cocktails at their table instead of at an actual bar, especially once they learn that Santos is an experienced mixologist. A caipirinha is made from Brazilian cane brandy, muddled lime and sugar. A few beers and two house wines also are available.
House-made chips and salsa arrived shortly after we sat down, setting the Mexican tone at the outset. Serrano peppers and tomatoes are the main salsa ingredients, and create just the right spice level for most diners.
A look at the menu soon reveals that this is not your typical tacqueria, since quite a few dishes and ingredients are unique to Changarro. Most of them are tapas-style, or small plates, accounting for the moderate prices.
The appetizer list starts with the familiar guacamole but includes some less-common choices, such as pastel de camarao or shrimp turnovers with malagueta pepper, garlic and onion. That Brazilian pepper is quite spicy and not for the faint of heart.
I chose ceviche, one of my favorite Latin appetizers, which in this case features tilapia cured in lime juice, pico de gallo, mango, jalapeņo and cucumber. The tart mixture of finely chopped ingredients was an ideal way to begin my series of small courses.
The jicama salad was a refreshing one, made with watercress (a little too much), romaine, jicama, pear, hearts of palm, chopped Brazil nuts and cilantro balsamic vinaigrette. The dressing was on the sweet side, but the overall combination of flavors worked quite well.
Memelitas is the next section of the menu, but a definition is not included. I learned that they are oval-shaped tortillas freshly made here of masa or corn flour, served open-faced and topped with a variety of ingredients. My picadinho de carne was a hearty, stewlike combination of chopped beef sirloin, carrots, green beans, bacon and queso fresco (fresh Mexican cheese) over refried beans. Two memelitas per serving make them ideal for sharing.
Seven other choices will have to wait till another visit. Those that beg to be tried another time include nopalitos -- grilled cactus, onion, tomato and cilantro; chicharron -- pork belly braised in roasted tomatillo salsa; and camarao com chuchu -- shrimp, pear, squash and chipotle.
The tacos section lists six choices of small tacos that come three to an order. The pescado, or fish tacos, consisted of pan-seared tilapia, guacamole and cabbage slaw. This was my favorite dish of the day and ranked above many fish tacos I've had elsewhere.
There is also a tortas, or sandwiches, section that I wasn't hungry enough to sample on this visit. All tortas are served with beans, cheese, spicy onion, avocado and mayo.
Only one dessert, passion fruit mousse, was available during our visit. The creamy concoction was on the tart side, which pleased this palate and proved a perfect finish to an interesting and slightly spicy repast. The only thing missing was my usual after-dinner coffee; Changarro does not serve coffee but may add it in the future if enough demand is there.
This little gem, which can be a bit hard to find, is located in the same building as a large liquor store at routes 59 and 38. It is well-worth visiting and a welcome addition to West Chicago.