Published On: Sun, May 29th, 2016

Chicago’s “Leña Brava” shows a different side of Mexican Cuisine

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Joseph Hernandez, Food & Dining Reporter for The Chicago Tribune, who describes himself on Twitter as a woke bae (and does not like to be called “Joe”), published an interesting post on The Tribune Thursday May 26,  describing “Leña Brava” as a Baja Style new spot in the Mexican food scene of the windy city. 

For nearly 30 years, husband-and-wife team Rick and Deann Bayless have been among Chicago’s loudest champions of Mexican food, bringing the flavors of central and southern Mexico to River North, first at genre-defining Frontera Grill (1987) and fine-dining counterpart Topolobampo (1989); later, at contemporary, fast-casual Xoco (2010) and its spinoffs at O’Hare and in Wicker Park.

Now, the Baylesses are singing a different tune: a song of fire and ice. Meaning “ferocious wood,” Lena Brava — the pair’s new West Loop restaurant, attached to also-new brewery and taqueria Cruz Blanca — is a celebration of Baja California Norte, the Mexican state just south of California that’s home to a style of cooking “we’ve fallen in love with,” said Deann.

Lanie, from left, Deann and Rick Bayless at Lena Brava. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Lanie, from left, Deann and Rick Bayless at Lena Brava. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

While central and southern Mexican cuisine is known for its rich, complex moles, the main hallmarks of Baja cuisine are its focus on seafood and its, well, ferocious wood — wood-fired hearths are central to many regional chefs’ kitchens.

The region is influenced by a number of immigrant groups, which have defined the cuisine with varied touches. “Italians, Russians, Chinese, Japanese. … Baja has an interesting mix of flavors, and its chefs are all really comfortable using those influences in the kitchen,” said Rick. “It shows a different side of Mexican cuisine I’m really excited about.”

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