Chicago’s diverse Mexican community has given rise to restaurants specializing in cuisines from every region of the country. In the city’s Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods, where the Mexican food scene is centered, look for popular dishes from states like Jalisco, Michoacan, and Nuevo Leon, in addition to shops offering up countrywide staples like tortillas, as well as creative takes on everything from hot tamales to frozen, sweet helados. Here, read more about the Chicago restaurateurs keeping Mexican culinary traditions alive.
Nuevo Leon Restaurant, named for a state in northern Mexico, sets itself apart by the specialty dishes it offers from that region. This historic restaurant has been a center of community for Pilsen since its founding in 1962 by Emeterio Gutierrez, Sr. and his wife Maria. The couple and their family served up homestyle Mexican food at the original locale on 18th Street until a fire destroyed it in 2015. But they’d opened a second location on 26th Street in the Little Village neighborhood in 1976, which remains open to this day. There, current owner Emeterio Gutierrez, Jr. greets guests in a colorful dining room with strings of papel picado stretched above the tables and wall murals depicting regiomontanos — people from the northern, mountainous region of Mexico.
The family still specializes in dishes popular in their hometown of Monterrey, like carne seca (dried beef). While the beef is traditionally dried in the sun, some businesses like this one now use a dehydration machine. Having a machine on site means Nuevo Leon can process its own carne seca, allowing for housemade renditions of dishes like machacado (carne seca with eggs) and carne seca en caldillo (carne seca stew). Other northern representations include cabrito (young goat), and flour tortillas made from a recipe created by Laura Gutierrez, granddaughter of Emeterio Sr. The tortillas are made exclusively for the restaurant at a small factory nearby.
Known for mariachi and tequila, the state of Jalisco also boasts an impressive and vast cuisine. One beloved dish is carne en su jugo (meat in its own juices), the specialty of Los Gallos restaurant.
This neighborhood anchor is a no-frills Mexican eatery serving up good street food like tacos, tortas, and tostadas. Groups gather at Los Gallos after their soccer games to satisfy their carne asada cravings, whether in a taco, torta, or tostada, or to fill up on carne en su jugo. Since the kitchen is right by the entrance, customers are greeted by the irresistible smell of sizzling meat.
Salvador Hernandez opened the original Los Gallos in 1982 in a small storefront on 26th Street, naming it after the restaurant in Mexico City where he learned the business. He eventually moved into the large, bright space next door, and filled it with gallo — or rooster — themed decor. The need for the soft Mexican rolls used for his tortas also spurred him to open a bakery, which now occupies the restaurant’s original space. Today the bakery offers a wide array of traditional Mexican breads and pastries, like cochinitas, conchas, and orejas.
It’s common to find high-quality ice cream throughout Mexico, like in Tepoztlán, a town in the state of Morelos famous for its ice cream made from local ingredients, such as cactus, passion fruit, and mezcal. Bringing that tradition to Chicago, the Garcia family started off selling their frozen treats from carts on the streets of Little Village and at church festivals. Four years later, after gaining a loyal following, they were able to open Azucar, the brick-and-mortar shop where they continue to sell housemade frozen treats called helados.
Today, Azucar owner and Morelos native Victor Garcia offers original ice cream flavors in a bright, welcoming shop just off Little Village’s main drag; elote (corn on the cob), mango con chile, arroz (rice), and chocolate made with Ferrero Rocher, the iconic Italian chocolate, are community favorites.
Shops selling Mexican helados are popular in Chicago’s South Side now, but Azucar stands out because of Garcia’s dedication to detail and to his craft. Garcia studied ice cream-making in both Mexico and the United States, and draws inspiration from Mexican ingredients to create flavors like pink pine nut, which contains a rose-colored nut the chef imports.
Caminos de Michoacan is one of the few local bars that survived the 1980s and ’90s, an era marred by drugs and gang violence, and the current gentrification of Pilsen — which has forced thousands of Latino residents out of the neighborhood. Owner Salvador Torres was a bartender before he purchased the bar in 1982. He kept the name — like the previous owner, Torres had immigrated from Michoacán, in southern Mexico — but worked to change the bar culture. Like most working-class Mexican bars in the neighborhood at the time, the establishment had been closed to women and community outsiders. Today, Torres runs Caminos with his children, Sal, Jr. and Erika, and while the decor remains vintage, the atmosphere is open and welcoming. Regulars include a combination of young Latino professionals and old-timers who grew up nearby.
Offerings include a wide range of tequilas and a selection of domestic and Mexican beers. Every Friday night, Caminos turns into a karaoke/dance club, drawing an a crowd of regulars and newcomers looking to have a fun night out. Pablo Serrano, the most popular karaoke DJ on the South Side, delights bargoers with popular songs from an eclectic mix of genres: regional Mexican music and Spanish rock/pop to classic rock and R&B.
The El Milagro Taqueria and Tortilleria has been a Chicago institution since 1950. Its tortillas, easily the best-selling in Chicago supermarkets, are now sold throughout the country. Meanwhile, its cafeteria-style eatery is one of the most popular taco spots in the city; customers line up for guisados (Mexican stew) from a steam table or for meals cooked to order. Options include chiles rellenos, guisados de res (beef), pork skin in a red or green salsa, and mole, all of which can be served as a platter or as a taco. The popular steak taco is a complete meal in itself: It consists of an entire piece of grilled arrachera (hanger steak) on two tortillas, topped with rice, beans, housemade cabbage slaw, and pico de gallo.
The story of El Milagro typifies the American dream. Founder Raul Lopez learned the business of tortilla-making in Mexico from his uncle, who became his guardian when Lopez was orphaned at the age of 11. Lopez came to the United States in 1942 and opened his first tortilleria (tortilla store) in 1950, with a business partner. Since then, Lopez’s children and grandchildren have expanded to four taquerias and two tortillerias in the Chicagoland area, plus locations in Austin, TX, and Atlanta, GA. Both the Little Village and Pilsen El Milagro taquerias have adjoining tortillerias selling their house tortillas made from flour and yellow and white corn, plus everything locals might need for homemade tamales, like corn masa, corn husks, and chile peppers.
Marcelina Hernandez has been making and selling tamales since she was a child in the La Huasteca rainforest, in the state of San Luis Potosi, with her mother and grandmother. She moved to the United States as an adult and focused on her career in early childhood development. While raising her daughter, Yvonney, and caring for her sick mother she began making tamales again to supplement her income.
Tamales are typically wrapped in corn husks, but Yvolina’s uses banana leaves; tamales made this way from the area of central Mexico where the Huastec language is spoken are known as tamales huastecos. Hernandez began selling her tamales in 2010 at the Pilsen Farmers Market across the street from her current location — and she quickly became famous. Today she makes 37 different types of tamales: eggplant and cheese, mushroom and kale, chicken in green salsa, quinoa and lentil. She also makes sweet tamales filled with guava, blueberry, or chocolate chips.
Fresh vegetables for the tamales are supplied by Windy City Harvest, a youth farming apprenticeship program that Yvonney participated in. Hernandez uses olive oil instead of the traditional lard, which helps to maintain the texture and taste over a longer period of time. Today Marcelina sells her tamales out of her own small grocery store and restaurant, which she took over in 2014.