Tierra Y Mar does chicken right

Tierra Y Mar does chicken right

By Mike Leifheit

By Mike Leifheit

Restaurant Critic

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Norte (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit, reviews locally-owned restaurants who make it “from scratch.”

It is Oct. 27th, Saturday, my birthday. I celebrated a little too much last night. I awake mildly hung over. After a couple of cups of fresh ground whole bean Colombian, extra strong, of course, I decide that I will probably not expire—well, at least not today. I actually plow through the cash settlements in pretty fair form. Everything balances pretty easily, and I fly through the payroll. I want to kick back this afternoon because I will have to cook at Norte this evening. I wouldn’t have to, it’s my birthday, but I like to cook at Norte.

Thinking about all the factors, I decide to accomplish two things. I pick Tierra Y Mar. My quest is soup, specifically chicken soup. I’ve never had chicken soup at Tierra Y Mar, but I know if they do have it, it will be good. It is just one of those things in life you know. And I can write my column. This will put me a week ahead! Frank really likes it when you’re ahead.

Tierra Y Mar is situated in the former location of the first good Mexican restaurant I ever ate at in Rockford. It was called La Mexicana, and it was owned by the aunt of Marcello and Tony. This is where I ate my first pickled jalapeno. This is where I first wrapped warm soft homemade tortillas around the most fascinating foods.

Actually, their aunt was Bolivian, and I don’t know how close the cultures are, but the restaurant was popular with the Mexican people. Later, another family went through there, and then after that, another. One of these had fabulous food; I think they were the last before the present owner, Juan Figueroa (Juan also owns the El Jalisco food store kitty corner from Maria’s.). Tierra Y Mar is a worthy successor to this tradition.

I walk in, and I feel as though I have stepped through a portal. I’m in Mexico. I love Mexico! I ask if they have Caldo de Pollo. She runs to the kitchen. They have to ask in these restaurants. They make everything fresh, and they run out. She returns, nodding happily.

I order a side of rice and beans and turn my attention to the bowl of chips and salsa she has brought. The chips are light and crunchy. Not my favorite, I prefer the crunch you get when you use Del Rey or Milagro tortillas. These are, however, very fresh and obviously homemade. I think the salsa is a Chile Juahio, but when I ask her, it is not. It is Chile Arbol, but lighter and sweeter than any Chile Arbol I have ever tasted. You could have fooled me.

The soup arrives, and it has that wonderful dark chicken in it that the Mexican people use for soups. I don’t even know where they buy it, but it is much less fatty and definitely more flavorful than the chickens we gringos buy. There are huge chunks of carrot so sweet that I first think it is sweet potato, and cabbage all cooked until it falls apart.

The most wonderful surprise comes when I open the little tortilla warmer, The corn tortillas are homemade. Thank heaven, I didn’t ask for flour. So I guess it all works out. I had a wonderful birthday lunch, and I got my column done. I cooked at Norte, we had a good night. Now I am sitting at my computer writing this story and listening to Rikie Lee Jones (Traffic From Paradise). Pretty soon the Wristers will be warming up downstairs. It’s my birthday. I’d better get down there. Just a side note to Judy Emerson. Some of us don’t get stale.

Tierra Y Mar, 2222 Cunningham St. Hours and days of operation: Sun. – Thurs. 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.: Fri., Sat. 8 a.m. to 1 a.m.: Telephone: 222-2222.

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