Diana Dávila has been cooking for “so fucking long,” she says. The Chicago native started out at her parents’ Mexican restaurants in Chicago’s southwestern suburbs, before stints cooking at Boka and Cantina 1910 in Chicago and at Ardeo and Jackie’s in Washington, D.C. But, at Mi Tocaya Antojería, the first restaurant that is entirely hers, Dávila shines — and the food world has taken note.
Since Mi Tocaya opened in March in Chicago’s Logan Square, it has become something of a critical darling. Eater restaurant editor Bill Addison declared it one of the 38 essential restaurants in the Midwest and noted in a review that Dávila cooks with a “fierce individuality.” That singular approach merits national attention.
Dávila, who studied cooking in Oaxaca, has dubbed her particular style “midwest Mexican.” Her food doesn’t adhere to any one region in Mexico, and dishes like a cactus stew topped with fried cheese curds and braised beef tongue with peanut butter salsa (she calls it peanut butter y lengua) reference her midwestern upbringing. But, Dávila isn’t cooking to please American palates, and Mi Tocaya Antojería is far from the dime-a-dozen taquerias that Dávila likens to Americanized Chinese food. “All these taquerias have the same thing on the menu and there’s a reason for that,” she says. “It’s just like Chinese food. If you think the Chinese food that everybody’s eating here is a good representation of what Chinese food is, you’re sadly mistaken.”
With Mi Tocaya, Dávila aims to change the way people see Mexican food. “I feel like Mexican food is super, super complex, and very taken advantage of here in the United States,” she says. For starters, Dávila wants everyone to understand that Mexican food isn’t easy or cheap to make. “People seriously think that Mexican food should be cheap. And that bothers me — enrages me — ridiculously,” Dávila says. “It’s racist! It's racist to think that.”
And the perceived cost of Mexican food isn’t the only subject that inspires passionate anger. Mexican food in America has been exploited, Dávila says, and represented by the wrong people. “In Mexico it’s women who cook. You can’t argue that in 90 to 95 percent of households in Mexico, women are the ones doing the cooking, for generations upon generations upon generations.” In this way, Mi Tocaya is traditional. The restaurant serves food “made by a real Mexican mom, not some guy who maybe went on a trip because his investors told him his next place was going to be a Mexican joint.”
To Dávila, food is personal. She says that at a restaurant, “everything should be a representation of who you are and what you believe in,” and at Mi Tocaya, she’s also directly educating restaurant guests about Mexican cooking. With menus that are, at times, entirely in Spanish, she hopes to improve diners’ vocabulary of Mexican ingredients.
The reviews and media mentions have helped keep the 40-seat restaurant busy and introduce Chicagoans and visitors to Dávila’s brand of Mexican food. But she says a recent local nomination for “rising star chef” stung a bit. Dávila is not a “rising star” chef: People are just starting to paying attention.