'We love to cook,' and it shows at Crystal Lake's Antigua Mexican Grill
While every fusion restaurant seems to offer a version of tacos and avocado toast, sometimes your body just compels you to fill it with the original: cochinita pibil (Yucatan-style pulled pork marinated in sweet or bitter orange juice); tortillas filled with al pastor that's seasoned with chiles and pineapple sliced hot from the gyros-like rotisserie; and rich, slowly prepared mole draped over enchiladas or chicken. You can get all this and more at Antigua Mexican Grill in Crystal Lake.
Open since November 2018, Antigua is a Mexican eatery with heart and soul. Owner Luis Rodriguez successfully transports the flavors and cookery of his hometown of Zacatecas, Mexico, to the Northwest Suburbs via family recipes. The best example on the menu is Grandma's Mole.
A great mole is a work of culinary sorcery -- a mysterious blend of dozens of ingredients from chocolate and chiles to pumpkins seeds and smoky spices. Thick and dense with flavor, mole differs among Mexican regions and families, and the labor-intensive process usually relegates it to a special occasion creation. Lucky us because we can have spectacular, made-from-scratch mole any day of the week at Antigua Mexican Grill.
Admitted mole fiends, we ordered it enveloping chicken enchiladas. Rodriguez slaves over a bubbling pot of the concoction for four to six hours, and the result is depth of flavor one rarely gets from a neighborhood taqueria. Since the three enchiladas, brimming with moist chicken, put us into an altered state of mole ecstasy, we didn't mind the fact that the accompanying refried beans and rice weren't steaming hot.
Not a mole aficionado? No problem because Rodriguez's roster of steak dishes is also enhanced by family recipes and techniques. Among the half-dozen carne asadas (all around $18 each), the El Valle features skirt steak marinated in spices and beer before being charbroiled until crisp but still tender and then served with a chile relleno, guacamole, rice, beans and tortillas.
Why go with standard appetizers like quesadillas or nachos when you can sample panuchos like I did? Three toasted tortillas are stacked with refried beans, cochinita pibil and spicy pickled red onion. My dining partner and I each noshed on one, leaving one to tote home. It made for a satisfying snack later that day. Other winning appetizers include homemade chips and guacamole prepared daily (although Rodriguez laments the current cost of avocados) and generous portions of fish or shrimp ceviche, which is marinated in lime juice and mixed with homemade pico de gallo. It's a wonderful hot-weather option. The shrimp cocktail is served in a massive goblet and makes a refreshing starter, too. If the chicken tortilla soup served with avocado, queso fresco, cilantro and sour cream, is as good as Rodriguez's other dishes, I envision returning when there's a chill in the air.
On our visit, it was a tad warm in the restaurant, which features an assortment of tables and a counter by the open grill. So we just had to have a Corona and a margarita. Antigua uses a homemade margarita mix made from scratch.
"I don't buy a sour mix like most other Mexican restaurants do," Rodriguez explained. "Our drinks are simple but great -- just my own sour mix and tequila."
It wasn't heavy with tequila but very refreshing. Stop in on Margarita Monday when the drinks are $5.
Nonalcoholic beverages include Mexican sodas and seasonal fresh fruit-flavored water.
In addition to enchiladas mole, there are versions with a green sauce or guajillo sauce, which is made with a mild dried guajillo chile that affords a complex and almost fruity flavor. We noted other diners digging into fat burritos (you can get it a la carte for $7.99 or in a dinner for $10-$12). One rarely sees a shrimp burrito on a menu, but you can try one here for $12.99 as well as chiles rellenos, taco dinners, flautas, various salads and a list of tortas (Mexican sandwiches with a choice of meats). Rodriguez says the fajitas, which arrive sizzling with veggies and steak, chicken, shrimp or a combo of all three, are hugely popular. There are three desserts, each an easy $3: fried ice cream, cinnamon nachos with ice cream and churros.
Antigua Mexican Grill's Taco Tuesday is a real bargain. Tacos (steak, chorizo, chicken, pastor and ground beef) are just $1.50 each. Rodriguez is proud of using five-inch tortillas, bigger than some of the one-bite tacos served at other eateries. If you stroll in on the first Thursday of the month, you'll be serenaded by a guitarist from 6 to 8:30 p.m.
Plus, this is a good place to bring the kids for their own quesadilla, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets.
Antigua is a little hard to find in a strip mall off of Randall Road and snaking side streets, so use the GPS to arrive at this satisfying restaurant offering big flavors, interesting options and top-notch ingredients.
"We love to cook and love to offer good service -- it's our passion," Rodriguez said.
Antigua Mexican Grill
1500 Carlemont Drive, Unit J, Crystal Lake, (815) 526-3078, antiguamexicangrill.com/
Cuisine: Traditional Mexican
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Prices: Appetizers: $5.99-$10.99; entrees: $7.99-$18.95; desserts: $3
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.