Jexal's wings, pizza, burgers and friendly confines are just what McHenry needed
The crowds waiting for a table at the new Jexal's could mean McHenry was famished for a pizza and wing palace. Or the food is pretty good and diners are returning to try more. Or, it turns out -- a combination of both.
The downtown McHenry area has been a little tired for years and one would think with the movie theater on Green Street someone would see a built-in turnout for casual pub food. Joel Lopez, Mike Dumelle and Eduardo Avila saw the opportunity and built the 150-seat restaurant from the ground up. Lopez and Dumelle formerly managed Buddy Z's down the street, and Avila ran the kitchens at Dunnhills and Marzano's in McHenry. Open since Dec. 17, 2018, Jexal's name is a mashup of Jessica and Alexa -- the names of Lopez's and Dumelle's daughters.
We stopped in on a Thursday for tavern-style pizza and drinks, and returned a week later on a Friday to taste the wings and burgers, which seem to be the triad of choices on practically every table. The restaurant was completely jammed at 6 p.m. on both days. The place buzzes with energy from buoyant diners and drinkers, friendly waitstaff and a busy cleanup crew. The bar has eight large flat-screen televisions and the entire restaurant was built with steel and reclaimed wood affording an up-to-date decor. Live entertainment on weekends includes solo and duo musicians performing easygoing tunes from the 1960s to today.
We were told it would be a 40-minute wait for a table in the restaurant, so we sat at one of two communal tables in the bar to have dinner.
Chicken wings, meaty with just the right crisp, seem to star on every table. You can get them bone-in or boneless, breaded or without breading. (Thighs, strips and ribs are also on the wings menu). We chose 10 non-breaded to get the best sense of the wing -- half with the Mucho Loco sauce (the most incendiary and the menu notes "no refunds") and the other five with Buffalo sauce on the side. Wings are tossed in sauces that range from honey barbecue and garlic Parmesan to jalapeño cilantro and Diablo. You get a choice of dipping sauces like avocado ranch or blue cheese and a side of either carrots, broccoli or celery. My dining partner liked the blazing wings (but he did take three of them to-go, ahem) and my Buffalo sauce on the side was just enough to feel the heat.
Wings make a fine entree or appetizer, but other starters include lettuce wraps, crispy calamari, nachos and cheese curds. Or you can find a few elevated items like mussels and handmade mozzarella rolled with salami, sliced and layered between tomato and basil and then drizzled with balsamic glaze.
The rest of the country is finally getting hip to Detroit pizza, which combines mozzarella and brick cheese on an airy crust that bakes in a rectangular pan resulting in a buttery, crunchy caramelized crust. If you have a hankering for Detroit pizza, this is the place to try it. We wanted to order it but thought a good Chicago-style tavern pizza would be best to determine if the kitchen had its pizza chops down. The 12-inch sausage and garlic pizza was big enough for two, had definite crisp edges, but we couldn't taste much garlic and wished there was a little more Italian sausage scattered about. Other diners were enjoying both tavern-style, deep-dish and a couple of calzones oozing cheese. Dumelle says the Detroit pizzas have been selling well.
The menu also offers New York (hand-tossed and cut into triangles perfect for folding) and double dough. Under a "Global Pizza" banner you'll find a baker's dozen from a meat-heavy "carne" to a Thai number with chicken and the argument-inducing Hawaiian laden with Canadian bacon, bacon and pineapple. There are also cauliflower and gluten-free crusts for personal-size pizzas.
Among the five burger options, we chose the classic American, an 8-ounce Black Angus patty with lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions plus cheddar cheese for an extra buck. Burgers are accompanied by your choice of seasoned fries, a garden or Caesar side salad, or upgrades like tots, waffle fries, onion petals or straws. Although I wanted the salad, we went with fries because, well, research.
The fries were perfectly cooked -- crispy on the outside and creamy within. Although the burger was sizable, it tasted like something I've made at home. When I go out for a burger, I like it chargrilled if it's a fat disc or caramelized on the griddle if it's a flat burger. We ordered it medium and it arrived medium-rare, adding to its ho-hum texture. We shared it, meaning it was substantial. Other sandwiches worth exploring would be the Rueben, pot roast and Italian beef, or a number of wraps such as a veggie or Cali Turkey with lettuce, tomato, avocado, bacon, pepper jack cheese and red chili sauce.
Next time I might go with a cauliflower salad (roasted cauliflower that's chilled with roasted red peppers, red onions, cucumbers and tomatoes all moistened with red wine dressing) and Jexal's soup, which is chili-based with sausage, bacon and beef topped with cheese. Additional scratch-made soups of the day could be chicken tortilla, fresh mushroom or sausage Florentine.
As for the beer selection, there are 20 on tap including a Jexal's Ale made by Two Brothers and a Jexal's cream ale. The 22-ounce domestic is $3.50 -- a good deal. I enjoyed a nice pour of chardonnay for $6. Dumelle says they're bringing in more wine options in the weeks to come.
Limited dessert options include a caramel apple skillet served with ice cream, chocolate layer cake from a Maywood bakery and ice cream sundaes.
Take advantage of Jexal's lunch deals from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Choose a soup or a side salad and a variety of sandwiches, five wings or a flatbread for $8.49. Not bad.
It's winter, so we could only gaze at the fire elements on the patio, which will open as soon as the weather turns. The outdoor area adds 60 seats on the main patio and 28 in the cafe patio.
One issue that needs to be addressed is parking as there is limited street parking, designated parking in the rear is for takeout orders only, and there are only 70 municipal spots behind the building. Otherwise, for a fun night out with family and friends, Jexal's Wing-Zeria offers a nice pub atmosphere with decent fare, which is just what McHenry needed.
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1260 N. Green St., McHenry, (815) 669-5000, jexals.com/
Cuisine: Solid pub fare with a variety of wings and pizza, burgers, interesting sandwiches and salads, plus elevated appetizers
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Appetizers: $6-$11; wings: $6-$21; pizza: $12-$20; specialty pizza: $15-$30; flatbread: $9; sandwiches and burgers: $8-$12; pasta $10-$12. A 22-ounce domestic beer is $3.50 every day.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.