Like most major cities, Chicago has a lot of super-hyped restaurants. You want a loud, crowded spot with a celebrity chef in the kitchen and great food? We have plenty of those. They’re usually in downtown neighborhoods and run by former Top Chef contestants. Tzuco, a Mexican restaurant in River North, is both. But in a city where there are already excellent versions of this, there’s no compelling reason to eat here.
Tzuco is expensive and upscale, but during each of our five visits, we’ve felt like we’re being taken care of by a hospitality J.V. squad. Every dinner has started with hosts having a long, awkward conversation about where to seat us, followed by a brisk escort through the large, crowded dining room full of hundreds of glass boxes filled with dead leaves and twigs. It feels a lot like being at the Field Museum with your parents - which could be fun if the food was better.
While you’re here, you’ll know you’re in a busy, high-volume restaurant, with little attention given to each table’s experience - plates arrive quickly after ordering, all at once, whether you want French onion soup with your chicken tinga or not. The food is Mexican with some French twists thrown in, and everything we’ve eaten is overpriced and disappointing. Take, for example, the corn esquites - a Mexican snack dish that’s made with toasted corn. Here, it’s inexplicably presented in a smoke-filled mason jar and dumped unceremoniously into a bowl at the table, where it has the same curb appeal of canned corn. Out of the 10 ingredients in the tatemado (a tuna ceviche), the only detectable one is a salty tomatillo juice that’s marinated the flavor of the fish into non-existence. The meat in the steak tartare tastes OK, but sits on bland guacamole and is covered by a gelatinous egg. And for some reason, this $19 appetizer only comes with a single piece of bread, which makes it very hard to share.
Not everything here is a complete miss. The short ribs are tender, for example, and same with the pork pibil - the meat falls off the bone. But the pork shank is served with dry tortillas and a meaningless smear of salty black beans, and the $38 beef dish is on top of a bland parsnip puree. It’s hard to justify these types of flaws at that kind of price - especially when there are plenty of other fantastic Mexican restaurants in Chicago.
Tzuco is just one part of what feels like a hardcore attempt at being a restaurant brand. Next door is this place’s grab-and-go shop, with things like pre-made ceviche, yogurt parfaits, and cellophane-wrapped sandwiches. And coming soon is Tales of Carlos Gaytan - a separate tasting menu restaurant that will be located right inside Tzuco. Brands are fine - lots of Chicago restaurants, like the inescapable Girl & the Goat empire, do them well. But you have to have delicious food to back it up, and this place doesn’t.
We like the bread at Tzuco. The assortment can vary, with small loaves like blue corn or chipotle, and comes with spreads like pepita butter and marmalade.
This, however, is bad. The $15 bowl of cold, bland guacamole tastes like it came straight from the fridge and comes with about nine chips. Not even the fried grasshoppers on top can make this interesting.
All the ingredients listed in this tuna ceviche (including onion, garlic, serrano peppers, cilantro, cucumber, and avocado) made us believe it would be a flavorful dish. But everything is swimming in a salty tomatillo juice, and that’s all you can taste.
The corn comes out in a gimmicky, smoke-filled mason jar, which is dumped into a bowl in front of you. If you’ve ever simultaneously opened a can of corn and inhaled a bonfire, this is a similar experience.
The tetela at Tzuco is triangle-shaped fried masa filled with beans, and also comes with a pile of salty shredded chicken. It’s surrounded by a ring of chipotle and enough sour cream to make you forget everything else about this dish.
The chili-oil spiced tentacle sits next to potato salad made with carrots, peas, and tuna aioli. Everything on the plate is actually tasty, but none of these ingredients taste like they belong together.
This is described as having a “perfect” egg, but every time we’ve ordered it the white has been undercooked. Plus, the finely-chopped meat sits on bland guacamole - it’s all very soft. Too soft.
The soup is sickly sweet, and is supposed to have poblanos - but we couldn’t detect any. Plus the impenetrable layer of gruyere and chihuahua make this hard to eat.
The pork shank falls off the bone. Unfortunately, it comes with dry tortillas and salty beans, and the meat isn’t interesting enough to carry the dish on its own.
Like the pork, these braised short ribs are tender. But it’s not a big portion of meat and only comes with a shallow smear of parsnip purée. So, better order some of that bread.