Masa Azul

Masa Azul in Logan Square (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye / June 19, 2012)

Masa Azul
2901 W. Diversey Ave. 773-687-0300
Rating:
!! (out of 4) Give it some time

Organic, seasonal and local produce. Another “upscale” sports bar. Small plates, small plates, small plates. There’s nothing wrong with these trends in dining, but lately, I’ve been craving something different. That’s when Masa Azul caught my attention. Promising Southwestern spice and lots of tequila, this clean-cut little storefront opened earlier this week on the border of Logan Square and Avondale. Hoping it was a hidden gem waiting to be discovered, I hopped the Blue Line and prepared to shake up my cuisine routine.

Watch out, Popeyes
Maza Azul sits on a strip of Diversey with more “for rent” signs than anything, fragranced with wafting fumes of fried chicken from the aforementioned chain. While plenty of locals might be content to go to Zacatecas down the street for cerveza-fueled Spanish karaoke or San Luis next door for cheap chorizo or lengua tacos, Masa Azul leans toward contemporary southwestern American more than traditional Mexican and gives residents a hip little hangout without having to walk all the way to the Square.

Because the name means "blue corn dough" ...
I felt obligated to try one of the appetizers featuring it. Not so excited about standard options such as the salsa or ceviche with a mix of white and blue corn chips for scooping, my dining pal and I went for the parmesan-dusted fried artichokes in a blue corn “nest” ($8). These crispy, cheesy little guys are almost as addictive as cheddar popcorn; give me a bag of them to take to the movies and I’d crunch to my heart’s content. A dish of ancho chili aioli for dipping rather than just a drizzle on the plate would make me even happier.

File this under "jobs that are cooler than yours":
Jason Lerner, who teamed up with his wife Valerie and chef friend Alvaro Chavez (of Depot Nuevo and The Noodle in the northern ’burbs) to open the restaurant, spent months researching artisanal tequilas to fill the drink menu. Unless you’re a tequila expert (I don’t claim to be), rely on your server’s recommendations from the list of 100-plus tequilas spanning its four styles: unaged blanco, slightly aged reposado, anejo (aged at least a year) and extra anejo (aged three or more years). They’re all high-quality enough for sipping, not shooting, but most diners are drinking the cocktails, which Lerner brought on Jenny Kessler (a partner and brand ambassador for Adam Seger’s Hum liqueur) to assist with. Not all are created equal, but the ones that are on point are killer. The signature Masa Azul margarita upgrade to the Don Modesto reposado tequila ($11) instead of the basic blanco ($9) was rich and zingy, one of the best I’ve had all year. The Crema de la Cosecha ($9) with Del Maguey crema mezcal, creme de violette and guava nectar and was smoky but watery, while the Hot Senorita ($10,pictured) with anejo tequila, ginger, prickly pear and papaya juice is right-on for those who shun too-sweet drinks.

Every entree looks good.
The main course list isn’t massive, but it’s full of simple, tasty-sounding choices: coffee and pepper-crusted beef medallions, chipotle scallops with poblano-blue cheese sauce, ancho chili red trout with mango salsa. The Three Amigos ($19, pictured) is the house combo platter of cornbread-stuffed quail with a sweet honey-glazed skin outside and tender meat inside, a good-enough duck tamale and a corn-and-bean-stuffed Anaheim pepper that was all heat and no other discernable flavors. A pair of shrimp corn cakes ($18) with roasted red pepper remoulade were refreshing, but the accompanying garlic rice and broccoli were kind of like the Toms of side dishes: fairly plain and not especially pretty, but you feel bad dissing them because they really mean well.

In the dessert department...
... our server gushed about the chocolate peanut butter pot de creme ($7). While pot de creme should silkily slide off your spoon and tongue, this was thick, fudgy and sticky—not bad, just not expected. I wasn’t blown away at first by the tres leches cake (Kristoffer’s in Pilsen is my measuring stick), but I did end up nearly finishing the whole massive slice (also $7). Next time, I’d try the chipotle chocolate cake or just drink my dessert in the form of the sweet yet complex Paraiso ($10) a creamy concoction of Casa Noble Crystal anejo tequila, coconut milk, lime juice, coffee and black pepper-fig syrup from local maker Jo Snow. So good.

Bottom line
When the cocktails are good, they’re very, very good, but the food we tried isn’t at showstopper level just yet. In the meanwhile, I’m happy to have Masa Azul as a fun hangout for the neighborhood that’s not yet destination-worthy like other central Logan Square faves such as Lula, Longman & Eagle and Ciao Napoli.


KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Monday

Prices: $4-$11 for appetizers, $13-$21 for entrees, $9-12 for cocktails

Reservations: Accepted, walk-ins welcome.

The bar: Seats 6. It’s too bad it’s not longer; if every stool is taken on a weeknight, we can’t imagine what it’ll be like on weekends.

Looks like: Slate floors, wood-topped tables, metallic mesh lanterns—not a hint of Southwestern kitsch anywhere

Smells like: Lilies, thanks to multiple fresh floral arrangements

Sounds like: Swishing cocktail shakers

Go with: Sig other, small group of friends, your parents

Wear: What you wore to work or the jeans and shirt you changed into after work. Servers don turquoise logo tees and jeans, but they seem to be the least dressed up in the place.