TACOS & TIRADITOS
By Peter Michael
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBIN SUBAR
By Peter Michael
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBIN SUBAR
It’s been weeks now since we visited Que Miso, the adorably suave Mexican-Japanese mashup in downtown Hinsdale, and I still find myself beaming and drooling over two very different aspects of our experience: two chic dining rooms and one crackingly divine wisp of chicken skin.
First a confession: I’ve always had a thing for chicken skin. I once motored across state lines after hearing a rumor that the best chicken-skin tacos in the country were to be found in Louisiana rather than Texas. (Turned out to be scurrilous, dastardly lie.) You should also know that I still carefully, lovingly peel off the skin from buckets of fried chicken and save them for the conclusion of my meal, convinced that delayed pleasure of the finest things of life amplify their greatness. And, at this point in my life, a properly fired of plater of kawa (Japanese-style chicken skin skewers) is likely to appear on my “last supper” wish list.
And now, out of nowhere, arrives this beauty: One of the best dishes on Que Miso’s inaugural menu: a succulent airline-cut chicken named in honor of its creator, chef Rhea Brown.
The chicken is brined, seasoned, partially baked, and then fired to order, preserving the chicken’s moist meat, and crisping up that envy-inducing cracking of skin. It crinkles and crunches like a tortilla chip and arrives dimpled with the perfect ratio of salt, pepper, garlic, and oregano.
The result is a discovery: The answer to what might happen if you crossbred a Caribbean-style rotisserie chicken with a platter of South Side chicken Vesuvio.
Although the dish doesn’t draw direct inspiration from either Mexico or Japan, the restaurant’s two primary influences, the dish exemplifies the sophisticated yet approachable vibe that Collin Ringelstetter-Ennis, along with managing partner Greg Mizen, have brought to Que Miso.
This is, without question, a debonaire-looking taqueria. Anyone who’s ever picked up a pizza from the space’s previous tenants— recently Sauced Pizzeria and before that, Baldinelli of Hinsdale— are likely perform a double-take on the way in the front door.
Ringelstetter-Ennis, working in collaboration with local designer Courtney Casey, has pulled off a design miracle, transforming a once cramped and shadowy 26-seat pizza parlor into a light, bright space that feels like it’s been poached from a hip corner of Mexico City.
The Que Miso team made the wise, albeit expensive, decision to demo the entire middle section of the old restaurant. In years past, you’d have to maneuver through the kitchen or, worse yet, exit outside and then walk around the entire building to access the space’s expansive back room.
Now the two dining spaces are connected via a long arched hallway. While conducting research in Mexico, Ringelstetter- Ennis noticed a number of charming “split-design” concepts (casual in the front, more buttoned-up in the back) and decided to export the idea to Hinsdale.
Thus, Que Miso boasts two starkly different dining spaces. The new front room, what we’ll refer to as the “cantina,” has energy to burn. Blades of color and abstract shapes pop from the 70s-era wallpaper. It’s sheathed in pale woods and illuminated by wicker lampshades. Music plays. Big screen TVs stream sports. In short, it’s a space built for snacking, nibbling, taco tasting, and sipping wine and cocktails with abandon.
Follow the “light” (a pale white neon signs that reads “Tequila es Mi Amigo”) to the back and you’ll arrive at a more formal dining room. Silk white curtains. Exposed brick walls. And a staging station aglow with giant lanterns. It’s darker here: more romantic and roomy—clearly designed for families, intimate dates and diners seeking a TV-free experience.
The name of the restaurant, by the way, was inspired by the owners’ love of miso, the now ubiquitous fermented soybean paste, but the phrase Que Miso is a Mexican slang that, roughly translated, means “What did you do to me?”
That’s a playful touch, but I wouldn’t exactly call Que Miso a fusion restaurant. Que Miso’s inaugural menu reads more, to me, like an upscale Mexican affair with Japanese appetizers and accents.
Order the house guacamole and it won’t come spiked with furikake or rivulets of wasabi paste worked among the avocado. You’ll receive an oversized bowl of chips and a small ramekin of mildly flavored guac snowed over with cotija cheese. Chef Brown’s guacamole is undeniably chunky—huge nuggets of avocado are left unmashed amidst the crema—and almost totally devoid, for better or worse, of spice.
Que miso currently offers five different tacos—from chicken tinga and carne asada to al pastor and a vegetarian-friendly roasted miso mushroom selection—but it was the Baja fish tacos that won our hearts.
Small tender pieces of cod are encased in a thinly battered with an almost imperceptibly light shell. These fish tenders are tumbled with pickled cabbage, a mildly spicy limechipotle dressing and shaved radishes.
There’s nothing, in terms of Que Miso’s Japanese offerings, that will require you to fire up Google Translate. Que Miso doesn’t veer to far from the raw seafood apps that you’d find at an upscale sushi bar or neighborhood izakaya. We wasted no time polishing off our spicy tuna crispy rice appetizer, ultra-tender mounds of diced tuna nestled onto scorched beds of sushi rice with a hint of avocado crema. The dish, served on a stark white dish, is plated to look like a busted pinata, with tiny bits of diced pineapple, tomato and assorted tangles of micro greens bursting form the center of the plate in every direction.
The kitchen’s salmon tiradito—a Peruvian style Ceviche influenced by the country’s rich melting pot of Japanese immigrants—supplies far more of the heat you’d expect from the Mexican table. Thin slices of salmon are moistened with ponzu oil and then topped with two spicy embellishments: slivers of serrano chili and a dollop of neon-green wasabi Tobiko.
In terms of entrees, Que Miso’s 10-ounce filet is a must-order. The kitchen adds a pat of compound butter made from chipotle peppers and Mexican spices, washing the entire steak in liquified taco seasonings. Any dish—and there are many of them—that includes Que Miso’s signature miso-smothered mushrooms will inspire you to ask for the recipe. And our favorite dessert, by far, was the house churros with two different fruit coulis.
Don’t be surprised, when the weather gets cold for your server to offer guests one of the house’s free pashminas to warm them up. In some cases, small ottomans will be placed next to your table so that you can set down your purse in style and ensure that your doggy bag stays within easy reach. Servers stand at the ready, umbrellas in hand, to escort guests back to their car during inclement weather, in what Ringelstetter-Ennis describes as the restaurant’s commitment to providing five-star service.
“At the end of the day, what we want more than anything else is for people to come, enjoy the experience and spread the word as to what we’re doing here,” say Ringelstetter-Ennis. “If you leave and feel the urge to want to come back with friends or family, we’ve done our job.”
The wine list from Andrew Spence not only runs the gamut from Napa wines to Old World favorites, but it also offers a few smart by-the-bottle selections from Mexico as well.
Thyme Yuzu Tom Collins: Any spirit with a Collins genus includes some sugar, spirits, and citrus, meaning that you’re guaranteed a spiked lemonade of some variety. At Que Miso, the bar sticks with gin but opts for subtle pour of yuzu-flavored sake, which makes this an unusually clean and perfect pairing with any raw seafood appetizer.
Elderflower Watermelon Margarita: If you’re ordering tacos, you can’t beat this classic chaser, which adds sweet undercurrents of pineapple juice, watermelon, and a touch of Bitter Truth Elderflower Liquor. Imagine a watermelon aqua fresca cross-pollinated with a margarita.
Que Miso is located at 114 S Washington St. in Hinsdale. Call 630.570.0217 or visit quemiso.com.