If you read early, crowd-sourced reviews of Chiwawa online, clear your mind and start fresh. Restaurants have opening pangs and the ones that are highly anticipated are also the ones that bear the brunt of dashed, though unrealistic, expectations.
Chiwawa opened in March at Madison and Diana, in the former Chicago Pizza Factory. The restaurant space sat vacant for more than 25 years, with periodic speculation about what might eventually occupy it.
When YoLo owner Taylor Berger (along with partners) started renovation last year, folks got excited about another gem in the repolished crown known as Overton Square — and for good reason.
Chiwawa is fun and the food is good, the “Midtown is Memphis” sign is so cool, and Overton Square is just happening. People are flocking, taps are flowing, grills are sizzling.
At Chiwawa, cheese is melting.
A menu motto is “today will be better with queso.” But really, isn’t that understood? It will also improve with french fries, called papas fritas on the small plates (antojitos) portion of the menu, and while it will be best with Juan-tons, an order of chips and guacamole will brighten it, too.
French fries are hand-cut, thick, crisp on the ends, moving to soft in the middle (a good mix, not soggy). They’re salted, sprinkled with cotija cheese and served with chipotle ketchup. The appetizer order is enormous, easily split among a table of people ordering several small plates. We ordered the side of fries, which is much smaller, (remember, they’re called papas fritas when you look for them on the menu) with hot dogs, yet two of us hardly made a dent. That we’d already tackled an enormous plate of house-fried tortillas chips with spicy, velvety guacamole didn’t help.
The queso Chiwawa, a white cheese dip spicy with chorizo, poblano pepper and pico de gallo, comes with those same chips and at dinner, two of us nearly put away the whole bowl of it. No doubt we would’ve managed, had we not ordered the Juan-tons, too.
They come three to an order, beggars’ purses sitting in a pool of a smoky red and lively green sauce. The wonton is crisp; when you bite in, you’ll be met with tender, smoky shreds of chicken and chorizo in crema. It’s delicious, and an appropriate nod to our barbecue roots. I cringe when barbecue sauce or smoke is thrown on a dish willy-nilly, but here it’s natural, an organic melding of Southern and Mexican with the smoky peppers.
There are eight tacos on the menu, listed under “folded food tastes better,” and six hot dogs (or perros calientes) under “happiness is a hot dog.” When I visited, both a daily hot dog special and a Mexican special were available. We tried both.
The taquitos were good, but we preferred the tacos from the regular menu to the rolled and fried special offering; our favorite was the taco de papas, made with sweet and russet potatoes and spinach. The special hot dog, called a chicken club, was a show-stopper. A grilled all-beef dog was topped with smoked chicken, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise (I know! On a hot dog!), and a perfectly crisp and thick piece of bacon finished it. So good.
The surprise was the vegan Bianca Dawg. It’s a thick link with a heavy red pepper kick and a meatlike texture, served with cabbage slaw on a vegan pretzel bun. It was very good (the waiter’s favorite, and he sold it hard), certainly something I’d be apt to order again.
The restaurant is loud, though. The bouncing sound was worse at lunch than at dinner, even though it was more crowded at dinner. It’s not a place for quiet conversation, but it is a convivial place and people were talking among tables at dinner. Still, I’ll plan to be outside on the large patio as weather permits.
Cocktails and dessert: Plan for both. There’s a decent selection of beer, a small wine list, and a lovely collection of specialty cocktails (we were disappointed by the Chiwawa margarita, which was a bit watery, but smitten with the gingery Dark & Stormy). Sno-cones, available in lime or cherry limeade (yum), can be spiked with spirits, too.
The churros, curled lengths of fried dough, are a real treat. The large order of cinnamon-dusted pastry is served with a dark chocolate sauce and a small bowl of cinnamon gelato. From YoLo, of course.
Address: 2059 Madison
Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
Reviewer’s choice: Queso Chiwawa ($8); Juan-tons ($8); taco de papas ($3) and taco de camarones ($4); Bianca Dawg ($7); papas fritas (french fries, $5 for appetizer, $3 for side dish); churros y chocolate ($6). Prices here include tax.
Alcohol: Full bar