Half a roasted marrowbone drifts atop the caldo de res that Diana Dávila serves on Sundays at her Chicago restaurant Mi Tocaya Antojeria. The dish, large enough to feed three or four, is a tribute to the Mexican beef stew her father made when she was growing up. It emerges from the restaurant’s kitchen as a vision of hominess — bobbing hunks of meat and chunky vegetables in a sky-blue pot, the kind of vessel that might be left over a low flame, its contents sustaining a family throughout the day. But the appearance is the only simple thing about Dávila’s version. That’s clear just by inhaling the stew’s steam, a billow of atomized spice and animal fat.
Dávila’s caldo gets its depth in part from one of her six-month-old restaurant’s early signatures, a starter called “peanut butter y lengua.” She braises beef tongue before pan-crisping the pieces and dressing them with splatters of smooth, spice-riddled peanut salsa. The braising liquid, vibrating with the flavors of clove and charred chiles, becomes the stock for the beef stew. She chucks in the same singed nobs of corn that she uses for a sculptural version of elotes, and whatever locally grown vegetables she has on hand. Customers ladle these into bowls with lobes of baby-blanket-pink short rib, cilantro leaves, a healthy squeeze of lime, and a gilding scoop of the bone marrow.
“People think the marrowbone is me being modern,” Dávila tells me over the phone. “But people have been adding those cuts of meat to the soup for generations. It’s really me being daddy’s little girl.”
Notions of family and identity and place enrich the short menu at Mi Tocaya. Above all, though, Dávila cooks with a fierce individuality. Her cooking doesn’t hew to any one particular region of Mexico, and often she tosses in references to her Midwest upbringing. Some dishes appear as artful constructs, others as laidback jumbles, but most are laborious in their technique. As one example, she reimagines fideos secos — the Mexican comfort food of thin spaghetti slicked with tomato, chiles, and chicken stock — into a wholly different creature, rumbling with the feral depth of chicken gizzards and livers, burnt tortilla (char is a steady theme in the Dávila repertoire), cumin, epazote, and smoked chicken stock. I twirled the last of these noodles feeling not so much comforted as uplifted, and also rapt by the feats of imagination on display.
Dávila’s cuisine rings through the city’s ever-growing chorus of Mexican restaurants with a gripping melody — more personal anthem than fleeting summer tune. In the thought and skill she lays out on plate after plate, I recognize the same trailblazing self-expression as chefs Daniela Soto-Innes of New York’s Cosme and Atla, Hugo Ortega in Houston, and Gabriela Camara, whose restaurants include Cala in San Francisco and Contramar in Mexico City. Whether they’re asking specifically for a Mexican restaurant recommendation or not, when friends and readers reach out wondering where they should eat in Chicago right now, I’m sending them to Mi Tocaya.
Dávila began her career working in her parents’ Mexican restaurants in the city’s southwestern suburbs. She washed dishes and manned the cash register, and by 21, in 2001, she was the executive chef of the family’s bid for higher-end dining at a place they called Hacienda Jalapenos. Local critics noted Dávila’s early talent with dishes like crab cakes over roasted red pepper sauce with a pico de gallo of pineapple, banana, and plantain. The restaurant didn’t last, but Dávila’s course was set. She went on to cook in several Chicago-area kitchens, including venerable Boka, mastered moles while studying cooking in Oaxaca, and briefly rerouted to D.C. before returning home. After a short stint in 2015 as executive chef running a restaurant called Cantina 1910 in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, she knew it was time to run a restaurant of her own.
She found a 38-seat space in Logan Square, one of the city’s key epicenters for ambitious, indie restaurants. Geometrically patterned tiles, blasts of color, and murals commissioned from local artists give the tight room a kinetic sense of motion. A shaded patio expands the restaurant in warm months. This is, at its heart, a neighborhood hangout. It serves its community with fast, spirited service; a short list of potent drink options (heavy on the cocktails and beer, light on wine); and dishes that generally channel the souls of Mexican street snack vendors.
The salsa she serves with chips acts more like a greeting card than a mindless nosh: She chars the hell out of tomatoes, blends them with serranos, pickled jalapenos, carrots, and roasted garlic oil. No herbs, no onions; just direct, acidic intensity. Among the four choices for tacos, “Chucho’s Pollo” best showcases Dávila’s knack for odd, winning combinations: smoked chicken mingles with puckery xoconostle, a fruit in the prickly pear family, and is finished with crumbly queso and threads of cabbage for crunch.
When she opened Mi Tocaya in March, Dávila served her most overt wink at the Midwest, a willowy cactus stew topped with a hill of fried cheese curds. For the summer, she went for a lighter option — a blob of burrata that melts like ice cream into the guisado. “In Mexico, farmers make some amazing cheese but they aren’t organized. When I was traveling I remember having one that was similar to burrata and asked about the name. The farmer said, ‘I don’t know, queso de rancho?’”
Home in on seafood dishes for the bewitching sauces. A traditional mole verde — twanging with tomatillo, earthy with sesame and pepita, feisty with cinnamon and oregano and black pepper — drapes red snapper or other seasonal fish. Dávila reconfigures the salsa Veracruzana of her childhood (orange, fruit-smoky guajillo chili, green olive) into a cross between a vinaigrette and a chunky gremolata: She uses it to spike beautifully crisp fried oysters.
The food isn’t all heady business. There’s a straight-up steak burrito, crowded with griddled onions and molten cheese, which I’d happily eat at the restaurant’s short bar on a weeknight while sipping a Tecate.
On Sundays, the restaurant shortens its menu of small plates but prepares several family-style meals, including the fantastic caldo de res and a faithfully, expertly rendered cochinita pibil, the Yucatan’s famous barbecued pork, here delivered in a ceramic pot lined with banana leaves. Orange, garlic, and sweet spices infuse the meat, its richness cut by pickled onions as tradition dictates. A platter of simply seasoned fried chicken arrived overcooked to dryness and accompanied by cold churros that tasted past their prime. One misstep among a series of pyrotechnic dishes barely dented my enthusiasm.
This is a kitchen that strikes me as being in a constant state of higher evolution. The Spanish phrase mi tocaya has no exact equivalent in English, but it roughly translates to “my namesake” or “my other.” It’s a poetic and fitting name for the restaurant of a chef whose cooking comes across spectacularly well as memoir — the kind that, in mining her own experiences, taps into the universal.
Mi Tocaya Antojeria: 2800 West Logan Blvd., Chicago, 872-315-3947, mitocaya.com. Open for dinner Tuesday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m., Sunday 5-9 p.m. Antojitos (snacks) $2-$14, antojos (starters) $8-$14, tacos $4, Sunday dinner family-style mains $18-32, desserts $7.