3 Souls, 5 Rabanitos
“I am the one who knocks.”
-Walter White, Breaking Bad
It was not Walter White that day, but instead a boy in blue, ashen-skinned and dead-pupiled, back-dropped by a coroner’s van and a caravan of cop cars, their doppler-shifting alarm whines enveloping my apartment building.
The cop looked through me, his blown blue irises scanned the room behind my head like the Terminator for any evidence that I’d somehow been responsible for the calamity that lay below.
“Have you seen or heard anything unusual, sir?”
I was still in a stupor, a college senior, on the precipice of Thanksgiving break, hungover from the cheapest of gins, a brand I reviled forever after I left school until I watched The African Queen and saw that it was Bogart’s choice boat drink.
The gin was selected as shorthand that his character in the movie Charlie Allnut was a drunken louse. And yet, because they put their gin in the hands of the coolest cucumber in Hollywood at the time, Gordon’s suddenly became the “it” thing1.
I have no doubts Jose Cuervo seethed with jealousy. This is still the way with liquor: Casamigos and Clooney. Ryan Reynolds and Aviation. Or Kid Rock and Bud Light, that is until the rapper2 turned on his beloved lager with an assault rifle.
Like the beer can-murdering rock rap god, the woman who lived below me was a musician. A violinist, the piquant bright stabs of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons wafted from her bow and up through our shared floor/ceiling.
I did not know it then, but we both came to the University of Michigan from the same hometown. It took three years of school before we ended up together in the same place, again, like hobbits stacked upon each other in the burrow of this
no-tell motel apartment in Ann Arbor.
I would learn later from a friend in my English class that the weekend earlier she and the woman who lived below me had traveled with a group to Toronto on a girls’ trip. They weren’t best friends, but ran in the same circles, both game for some Phantom of the Opera and a few tall boys of Labatt’s Blue.
My friend said the woman was exuberant, had bought a pair of fancy shoes, that the two of them ducked out from the bigger group for some shopping at the Eaton Centre on Yonge street.
After procuring a pair of lacquered heels, my friend said they popped into a Chinatown dim sum parlor. She said the girl who’d lived below me was buoyant over custard buns with the news of a potential engagement with her long-term boyfriend.
A flimsy surface divided this woman and I, a floor so thin, that I could understand why the cop was currently interrogating my disbelief. A deaf rat scurrying in the boards between our domains would have felt the vibrations.
But I slept through a year of physiology and calculus II and probably a few other classes in my time as a Wolverine. Somnolence in college was frankly my primary skill, so while it didn’t make sense, that I did not hear the woman shoot her lover and then turn the gun upon herself, while remarkable, was in character.
Their bodies were soon ferried away in wagons. Night fell. I was terrified, which seems natural given the vicinity of this violence. But, also my actual childhood neighbor was a historic cemetery full of bodies last buried in the nineteenth century. There was no fence between our home and the marble markers. We often used the graves as impromptu goal posts in our childhood soccer games.
Which is to say I do not believe in ghosts because of my long childhood co-existence with the departed. Like a Cure-listening Ouija-board wielding goth, I was basically a certified medium. And no spirit ever called.
But, this night, death was close. Its proximity made me hungry, but the only way out of my apartment was down an external stairwell that took me past a window open to the decedents' living room. I sat on the couch imagining what I might see if I left to get something to eat.
A few years earlier I saw the movie Curdled about a woman whose job was to clean up messy crime scenes. I’d marveled that such an occupation existed, but now I knew, someone like that woman would soon be here, down below, erasing the last evidence of two souls.
I could have made the Domino’s or the Jimmy John’s delivery guy make the trek up those stairs, but that also seemed cruel. I opened the ice box instead to find a batch of frozen shrimp empanadas.
My roommate’s father was French, but born in Guatemala. Culturally he’d grown up as a central-American and savored those ways. He married a white European. She loved what her lover did and taught herself to make her husband’s childhood favorite pastry.
By the time my roommate and I lived together, his parents had long ago separated, but her boy also had the gene for shrimp empanada lust. The mother continued baking her affections and sent empanadas to him every month.
They were his favorite thing. I loved them as much, but they were not for me. I could usually sneak one after the nights of a few too many keg stands (just kidding – I’ve never done a keg stand). If my drunken haze made me courageous to filch more than that though, me and the roommate would have words.
Double homicide does not make you judicious, just ravenous, and so I housed the whole remaining supply that night.
I’d forgotten about these things for almost a quarter century, but grief is like a leaky faucet. You live with the drip, eventually even forgetting it’s still there. You might even assume the whole thing fixed itself, until you find yourself ankle deep in a soaked bathroom floor.
In this case, the flood occurred under garlands of papel picado, lacy Mexican paper decor hanging from the ceiling at 5 Rabanitos restaurant in Pilsen. There before me, a couple of sliced half-moon shaped golden-fried pies, topped with a fine julienne of radish, with curls of buttery shrimp spilled forth like some kind of abundant pastry cornucopia.
I am obligated to tell you a bite of these empanadas was Proustian, because that’s what food writers do. But I don’t want to lose you here, because I’m throwing out fancy French philosophy garbage, when I should be celebrating a great Mexican restaurant I want you to visit
Also, none of this is quite right anyway, as Proust ate a madeleine and was then somehow propelled to write a million words about his childhood. He was not, as far I can tell assaulted with a murderous memory.
And yet, while the 5 Rabanitos shrimp empanada certainly rekindled thoughts of the sorrow you read above, it also made me more grateful for my college roommate’s mother and her incredible contribution which helped me find some kind of sustenance and shelter again in the storm of that long ago night.
Chef Alfonso Sotelo’s shrimp empanada also cultivated a separate joy in this modern moment. It was the droid I’d been searching for. There are plenty of good empanadas in Chicago, the rotating ones at Lonesome Dove, the Irazu guava cheese pocket, but none of the shrimp ones ever gave me the feelings quite like this one.
Regular readers will know that I have always been an unapologetic pimp for franchise Tex Mex like Chi-Chi’s and Uncle Julio’s. Part of that is while I truly love and prefer regional Mexican, most of the spots I like follow the Chinese restaurant model, purveying huge menus where only a small subset of the items are great. A lot more of them are taquerias or carnitas emporiums, which while amazing, are not always full-service sit down restaurants. Mi Tocaya is an extraordinary exception.
A lot of the regional Mexican places in Chicago I’ve loved have also closed. Many of those spots were opened by former cooks from Rick Bayless’s empire, which also makes 5 Rabanitos special, because Sotelo, an alum of Bayless’s Xoco, has kept 5 Rabanitos open for eight years.
I don’t know why I hadn’t been, but for whatever reason I hadn’t until Block Club Co-Founder and Executive Editor Stephanie Lulay (she also told Sotelo’s story here) and my good friend Dave Andrews told me I should visit the restaurant within the same week.
5 Rabanitos doesn’t make a lot of “hot” lists, but I don’t know why. The fabulous comedienne and OG Gilmore Girl actor Melissa McCarthy dropped by the restaurant the week before I dined. 5 Rabanitos takes limited reservations and had at least ten patrons out on the sidewalk waiting for a table at 5 p.m. the night I visited.
Despite the demand, service was incredibly responsive, and the restaurant’s speediness was reminiscent of a Formula 1 pit crew. Because the crowd was boisterous, my server thought I ordered a caldo de res (beef soup) instead of the barbacoa de res (braised beef).
When the caldo arrived at our table and we explained that we’d ordered the barbacoa, our server registered a subtle eye roll of frustration. That was a small price to pay considering we got the replacement dish within five minutes of the miscue.
The barbacoa was silky like pot roast bathed in pasilla chili, crowned with a spiky grilled cheese tostada, and flanked by a mound of creamy poblano garlic mashed potatoes. The accompanying tortillas had a hybrid flour like suppleness and a rich corn perfume.
If there’s a better value in fresh squeezed lime juice or pineapple and Mezcal-splashed $11 margaritas in Chicago, I don’t know where that is.
French chefs have always interviewed potential cooks by asking them to make a simple omelette. I don’t know if Mexican chefs do the same with guacamole, but I can tell you guac prep is a serious litmus test for a restaurant’s consistency and quality. The number of lumpy overpriced undersalted and/or underlimed bowls of the stuff I’ve had in my life rival the number of times TV cameras cut to shots of Taylor Swift during Kansas City Chiefs’ football games these last few months.
Guac is not easy, but is perfect at 5 Rabanitos, imbued with righteous seasoning, acid, and the satisfying contrasting crunch of cool matchstick slivers of crisp radish. I kept pushing the bowl off to the side during my meal, to try and relieve the temptation of deliciousness. But, ultimately, the guac ended up like a pint of Baskin Robbins peanut butter and chocolate ice cream on movie night, completely emptied by the end of the meal, nary a dipping chip crumb left in sight.
I also killed a plate of chicken enchiladas, turgid masa skins enrobed in rusty sweet-spiced mole swizzled with crema and dusted with queso fresco. Now that Jonathan Zaragoza’s residency Čálli at Soho House has ended, 5 Rabanitos mole is now likely to inherit the mantle for my go to example when I have a regular mole jones.
Though I studied the news for weeks and months after the murder suicide in my college apartment building, I never really understood what happened, how two young people like me ended in that moment, while I was lucky enough to go on to a lifetime of moments like this meal. For that, and to 5 Rabanitos, I am grateful.
5 Rabanitos is located at 1758 W. 18th street in Chicago
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The original script for The African Queen was written for a character with a heavy cockney accent so as to hit the film audience over the head that Bogart’s Allnut was low class British scum, but Bogart refused to attempt the bit, so they illogically rewrote everything and made his character Canadian.
Imagine the shock of a time traveler from 1997 arriving in 2023 to find the author of Harry Potter and the father of Bawitadaba on the same transphobic bingo card