Carlos Gaytan knew his return to Chicago from Mexico had to be epic. The first Mexican chef to receive a Michelin star closed his West Town restaurant, Mexique, in 2018 after a 10-year run. Although the accolades were there, customers were harder come by in the then up-and-coming area. Gaytan decided to head back to his home country to explore and reinvigorate his craft.
Now, a full year later, he’s returned to Chicago and opened three dining concepts in one location in the Gold Coast: small-plates spot Tzuco, Mexican bakery Panango, and intimate tasting-menu restaurant, Tales of Carlos Gaytan. It’s all a love letter to his homeland.
“My daughter jokes that I love a challenge, and Chicago is an amazing but demanding city,” he says. Armed with a new perspective and all-star team from Mexico — a baker, an award-winning pastry chef, an architect, a designer, and a mixologist — he’s ready to not just face, but to totally wow Chicago again.
The 100-seat small plates spot opened in September, and there’s been nonstop buzz ever since. Everything you see in the restaurant, the first U.S. project by Mexican firm Cadena + Asociados, comes from Mexico, from the chairs to the leather to the communal bathroom sink. Meant to mimic Gaytan’s hometown, Huitzuco, it’s rustic and almost desert-like, with fossils, glass-enclosed branches, and shrubs. The neutral interior is contrasted by colorful and artfully plated dishes like the vibrant ceviche verde ($19) with raw cobia and bright green hues from cured fresh cactus, cucumber, serrano pepper, mint, cactus sorbet, and a cactus aguachile; and the trucha ($29), a whole trout wood-fired in cornhusks with a tomato-almond pesto, and a tomato and avocado salad.
Gaytan shows his playful side at this authentic Mexican bakery, a concept he thought was missing downtown. The bright and animated 20-seater pulls in pops of magenta, orange, and purple against a white tiled backdrop. Meant mostly for grab-and-go, it offers sweet pastries like chocolate orejas and conchas ($3-$4), takeaway salads and sandwiches ($8-$10), and Mexican coffee, making it a perfect stop on the way to or from work. His baker brought her Masa Madre (“mother bread”) to Chicago, churning it out daily for both the bakery and Tzuco.
TALES OF CARLOS GAYTAN
“Every chef’s dream is to have a playground,” says Gaytan. For him, it’s answered in this 12-seat spot that has just one seating a night. The menu (starting at $150) is a journey through his travels and discoveries throughout Mexico. “I went all over and spent time with local chefs in different cities to understand their cuisine,” he says. “From that understanding I came back here and created my own recipes.” A constantly changing menu will utilize what’s fresh at the farmers’ market prepared in the style of the Mexican-French fusion he became known for at Mexique and his restaurant Ha’ in Riviera Maya.
Photos by Diego Padilla