Quentin Tarantino is a movie genius. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained - all f*cking awesome. He’s been blowing our minds with unhinged characters, plot twists, and sweet shootout scenes with lots of blood and hardcore Rick Ross songs since the early '90s. But not every movie can be his best. Take, for example, The Hateful Eight. It's very good compared to many other movies, but it's not Tarantino's best.
Rick Bayless is like Tarantino in the Chicago restaurant world - everything he does is great, and comes with high expectations. And while Leña Brava is no doubt good and more enjoyable than most spots, it falls short of his greatest work.
Leña Brava focuses on food from the Baja California region of Mexico, and the menu is split into two distinct sections, “fire" and "ice.” Everything from the fire side is mostly mains cooked on the open flame, and the ice side of things is made up of smaller and more delicate ceviches and other raw fish. In an ironic twist of fate, the ice section of the menu is straight fire, while we’re more willing to give the cold shoulder to dishes from the open flame.
The key to having a great meal at Leña Brava is to stick to the seafood, most of which is in the ice section. This approach will inevitably leave you with a more expensive meal, but it's worth it. On the flip side, the hot entrees like pork and shrimp meatballs, short rib, and wood-roasted chicken are all good - not great.
But don't take that as a sign you shouldn't eat at Leña Brava. The cool West Loop space makes it a guaranteed fun night out over kind of fancy Mexican food, and it's great for date night, dinner with friends or coworkers, and even parents if they're in town. We'd still eat here over most places given the opportunity, just like we'll still take Kill Bill: Vol. 2 over pretty much anything else you'd find on network television.
There are a few aguachiles on the menu, which are similar to ceviches in the sense they are raw fish marinated in citrus, but they're served more like a plated Mexican sashimi dish. The shrimp option is great and comes in a sort of tomato, lime, yuzu, chile sauce with onions, toasted sunflower seeds, and pink peppercorn.
This verde ceviche with yellowtail, green chile, radish, cucumber, shaved fennel, and creamy avocado is our favorite of the bunch. It's excellent, especially when grabbed with the chip/crackers that come with it.
Slices of avocado come sashimi-style with ginger-infused jicama, habanero chiles, grapefruit, black pepper, and more. It's a crazy good combination of flavors in a simple form.
Ceviche Maki Roll
The ceviche maki roll is like a blended Mexican sushi roll. It's super interesting and really great with sushi rice, tuna ceviche, avocado, jalapeño, and a leche de tigre sauce. Definitely give it a try.
Slow-cooked octopus with lime-pickled onion and warm bacon dressing. Not bad, but we could do without.
Black Cod Al Pastor
Our favorte of the fire section of the menu. Wood-roasted black cod is simple and well done, and the sweet and sour pineapple salsa that comes with it adds a but of citrus and heat.
Chicken A La Leña
Oven-roasted chicken, which you can get in a half or whole portion. It comes with grilled onions and some creamy jalapeño garlic salsa on the side. We had high hopes for the chicken, but it was dry - you can do without.
A shrimp and pork combo meatball that comes in a roasted tomato-chipotle sauce. You can definitely taste both the shrimp and pork in these meatballs, which makes it interesting. We suggest making a messy taco with the tortilla they'll give you and covering it in the sauce.
A big ol' piece of braised short rib with cauliflower mashed potatoes and salsa. We like this, and the meat is so tender it falls off the bone.
Rule of life: always get a side of plantains if available. Always.
We've had great dessert experiences here. Both the wood-oven tart and the "banana" split with plantains are huge and excellent and great for sharing.