White Hot kitchen

December 2021 View more

Deep in the dark heart of the pandemic, it wasn’t difficult to envision a bleak future where most restaurants didn’t survive. Especially in traditional retail/entertainment complexes like the venerable Oakbrook Center, outlets slowly ceded their free-spending clientele to the cold, impersonal expanse of the internet. Fast-forward many months to a more promising plateau in the national health situation, and while plenty of eateries and retailers did indeed succumb to the challenges of our herky-jerky march back to normalcy, many others are flourishing amid a significant rebound.

A prime example of the latter is Oakbrook Center itself, which on a balmy Saturday night in October was bustling in a way we recently thought might be a thing of the past. As hungry patrons desperate for tables spilled out of several of the high-end dining options on the complex’s east side — and flustered valets reevaluated their career choices amid bumper-to-bumper parking lot traffic — it was easy to see why Blanco Cocina + Cantina (2022 Spring Rd., 630.320.2034, blancotacostequila.com) chose this spot for the first Midwestern outlet of its Sonoran-style Mexican concept. The Illinois location joins a roster of nine others scattered among Arizona, California, Colorado, Tennessee, and Texas.

“The success the Cheesecake Factory has had at Oakbrook made it seem like a natural fit for Blanco Cocina + Cantina’s first market location in the Chicago area,” says general manager Stephanie Blakeslee. “[Proprietor] Sam Fox was excited to welcome the community to relax, sit back and enjoy some of his favorite Mexican dishes in one of his favorite cities. We want people to think of Blanco as their own personal ‘escape from reality.’ ”

That escape spans over 8,500 square feet, including a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces, with several private dining room options for corporate or personal fiestas. 

Mexican for the Masses

If, as Blakeslee notes, Blanco is looking to imitate the trajectory of the perpetually packed Cheesecake Factory, it could hardly have chosen a more opportune spot from which to do so—in the shadow of this overflowing neighbor in a building most recently occupied by RockSugar Southeast Asian Kitchen. Other than the physical footprint, however, the space has been thoroughly transformed, with the airy and open dining room, large center bar, vibrant murals, glass-walled kitchen, and hanging plants all working to convey a laid-back vibe. Diners may even imagine that gentle hum outside is originating from a nearby ocean and not a sea of idling cars.

And while there’s almost always a rush to the novel and the new when it comes to restaurants, that makes it hard to gauge long-term sustainability (especially on a busy Saturday night in Oak Brook). But the elbow-to-elbow crowd at the bar on the evening we visited— and the quoted three-hour wait time for those prospective diners who wandered in without a reservation—both suggested that Blanco made a wise choice in planting its flag here in the western burbs. 

Playing the Standards

While Blanco offers a wide-ranging menu—as well as an impressively extensive beverage slate, including dozens of tequila and margarita varieties—there isn’t much interest in a dramatic reinvention of Mexican cuisine, which is just as well when a bedrock starter like the guacamole is so well executed. Also of note in the early going (and something of a departure from the standard fare) were the half-dozen cheese crisps, which can perhaps best be described as something of a hybrid between a cracker-crust pizza and an open-faced quesadilla. These were indeed a popular selection on tables throughout the room, given the array of tantalizing topping combinations (including short rib machaca, guacamole, and charred onions) and the ease with which they can be shared. On the opposite end of the ease-of-eating spectrum is the Mexican street corn appetizer. While delicious in all the right ways, it’s served as an authentic but hard-to-handle cut-up cob, making it nearly impossible to enjoy without needing a shower afterward.

The entrées cover similarly well-trodden Mexican ground, with a cavalcade of taco, fajita, burrito, enchilada, and chimichanga options, among which the carnitas tacos and the pork verde burrito were true standouts. For dessert, the brown sugar caramel flan delivered traditional flavors, while the Mexican chocolate tiramisu—a rich mélange of chocolate mousse, crumbled cookies, dulce de leche, and candied walnuts—was more of a enticing curveball.

General manager Blakeslee describes Blanco as “a vacation right in the neighborhood,” and with food like this, it does indeed promise to be a popular destination. Plan accordingly. 

Photos courtesy Blanco Cocina Cantina