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Why You Need to Know About Diana Dávila

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Three reasons to pay attention to this Chicago chef

Diana Dávila
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Chicago has a lot of exciting restaurant openings on the horizon, but one in particular jumps out: Mi Tocaya Antojeria is the latest from chef Diana Dávila, and marks her first foray into solo restaurant ownership. Her name might be familiar to Chicago locals — she grew up in town and made a name for herself at Cantina 1910, even though her stay was brief. It might also ring a bell for the D.C. diners who enjoyed her work leading the kitchens at El Chucho and Jackie’s. But for many, her name is new to the mix.

Here’s why that won’t be the case for long:

1) Her new Chicago restaurant sounds awesome and it opens this week.

Mi Tocaya Antojeria is one of the most eagerly anticipated restaurants in Chicago this season. Eater Chicago has an early peek at the menu, and it offers everything from familiar Mexican staples like barbacoa and tacos to exciting options like peanut butter y lengua and a carne cruda.

Brace for the fideos secos, a type of Mexican noodle soup: The dark chili broth is made with goat stock and cricket powder (for earthiness), and richly flavored with onions, black pepper, dried shrimp, chicken liver, and gizzards. It will all be served with burnt tortillas. Yes, please.

2) She brings a fresh perspective to Mexican cooking.

Her last gig in Chicago was as the opening chef of Cantina 1910, where she oversaw a menu that aimed to fuse regional ingredients with Mexican cuisine. Here’s how she explained her thinking to the Chicago Reader back in 2015:

I feel like Mexican chefs are at this place of revolution where they’re embracing the possibilities of what they have within their realm. They have a great foundation of history and a foundation of techniques that are not used anywhere else. They have every ingredient possible because they have every growing region that you could possibly have. The sky is the limit of what Mexican food could be. I want to do the same thing but do it here. That’s what I mean when I say “midwest Mexican.” ...

It’s exactly who I am — I’m a midwest Mexican. I feel like this was the food I was meant to cook.

Plus, she sees her role as a woman and mother as inextricably linked to her voice in the kitchen, situating herself in a long tradition in her family (and many others) where recipes get passed down through the generations. “Mexican food is so vast, and it’s one of those things where nobody wants to learn their mother’s dish because then she’s not going to make it for you anymore,” she explains. She’s also making her restaurant work for her family, carving out physical space in the basement for her children to set up.

As she tells Eater Chicago, the gender division that plays out in Mexican home kitchen has an impact on restaurants, too. “You think these guys know how to make mole? Fuck no!” Dávila says of Mexican men who find themselves in American restaurant kitchens. “They’re kind of learning as they go, learning from their professional experience from whatever chef they’re working with. You see that in Rick Bayless’s camp — whoever works with him learns to cook exactly like him because that’s where they learn how to cook Mexican.”

Mi Tocaya is very much a Mexican restaurant, and there’s no doubt the unique perspective Dávila brings to the table as a Chicago native, as the child of Mexican immigrants, and as an expert who has dedicated much of her culinary career to Mexican cooking, both in Chicago and D.C.

3) She’s quotable AF.

Back in 2016, on her plans for Mi Tocaya: “I’m not deconstructing a fuckin’ taco.”

On the menu at Mi Tocaya: “Hopefully they trust you after the al pastor taco... Then you can give them anything you want!”

On the moment she realized she wanted to be a chef: “Everything was silent and I could hear the fucking sauce and I could see everything. It was tunnel vision. It was just, ‘I want to be a chef.’”

On who she’s not: “I’m not somebody that says ‘Everybody loves tacos, let’s make a Mexican restaurant and put Sriracha on a fuckin’ taco.’”

On priorities: “I love making food pretty, but it’s really about sharing the culture.”

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