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Rockit Ranch Partner Arturo Gomez Chats About Ay Chiwowa's First Year

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

[Photos: Marc Much]

Rockit Ranch partner Arturo Gomez calls Ay Chiwowa "a labor of love." The nostalgic party spot in the site of partner Billy Dec's last job as an employee, Martini Ranch, is also a cantina concept rooted in Gomez's Mexican heritage.

Gomez talked about the first year in business, the types of customers at Ay Chiwowa, what he learned from the experience, and what's coming next before he embarks on another trip to Mexico.

What are you doing in Mexico?
I'm going see my family and get a little R&R. My entire dad's side is down there. When he came to the states he was the only one on that side that was here. Every year I spend a good amount of time down there.

How much of the concept comes from your heritage?
The menu was done with me and my dad. All of the food. Honestly it's one of the most fun things I've gotten to do in this business because he retired two years ago and at the time we took over the space, I told him, "Let's go to Mexico. I have this project coming up." My dad is a tremendous cook. The majority of the menu is from the specific region of Mexico where we're from (Leon, Guanajuato).

At the time a lot of the Mexican places that were opening were about tacos with a twist. What we set out to do was provide a really authentic flavor and create exactly what our experiences were built from.

Do you feel like that has come through so far?
From the food side, 100 percent. When you walk in and you're listening to 80's R&B and hip hop, that's not what you'd expect in a Mexican environment, but my dream situation of going in, sitting down, eating Mexican food and listening to music that I grew up with (has come through). There was also a certain amount of playfulness that I wanted to bring to the space because to me, Mexican culture has always been very playful.

What dishes have been most authentic?
The pastor taco, a lot of the other tacos, certainly from a flavor profile and ingredient standpoint. I've also never found a torta bread as authentic as the torta bread we use. Also the quesadillas. Those tortillas are all handmade in-house.

Do you feel like people are appreciating the food how you'd like or do they mostly come to party?
The food component, for me, has been a continuing progression. After a year, guests that are coming back religiously for the food are at an all-time high. We have a great 5-7 (p.m.) business, and then there are people that come just to party and have margaritas and happen to get food while they're there. We put ourselves on Open Table about four months ago and that's something that helped us turn the corner from a food standpoint.

Does the evolution of Ay Chiwowa dining mimic the evolution of Rockit Ranch as a whole?
In the early stage of Rockit Ranch that was a barrier we wanted to cross; to let people know we were serious about the food. But we continue to evolve on the nightlife side too, Underground just reopened and to extreme success. We're evolving as a company altogether.


Has Ay Chiwowa filled a certain niche for Rockit Ranch?
We always envisioned having a Mexican concept, and there may be more down the road. With Ay Chiwowa, you have the entertainment aspect that meets the culinary side. It's open until 4 in the morning, there's a DJ booth, a dance floor, there's a very prominent bar situation. On any given night it's broken into three segments: You have a 5-7 or 8 period, an 8-11 period, and an 11 to close. They're all different consumers and different demographics.

What are the demographics?
From 5-7 or 8 you get after work business individuals. There are 8000 employees in the building, they're coming for one or two drinks and really coming to eat. After that you have people coming for a late dinner, a couple drinks, but people (who live) in the area. Late night you're getting people from everywhere that are revelers coming for the music and to drink. It becomes more of a destination spot after 8 p.m.

Is that what you envisioned?
It's taken a little more time to let people know that we're there. We put a tremendous amount into our digital and our events departments. Our managers spent a lot of time building relationships in the area.

What lessons have you learned?
Be patient and stick to your guns in terms of what you're passionate about. Be receptive, have an open mind and listen to what your customers are saying. We're getting ready to expand our hours because of all the requests we've had from people to open on Mondays.

What are you most proud of in the first year?
Doing the project with my father and putting together what I truly believe is a quality Mexican street fare menu was something of real happiness.

When it comes to more Mexican restaurants, what are you thinking of doing?
Right now it's open. There are other aspects of Mexican cuisine that we really love. There are opportunities for Ay Chiwowa to expand but right now we're happy with where we're at and keeping an open mind.

What else do you have on the horizon?
We're always looking to continue to grow. We're excited that Bottlefork just opened and right now we're focused on our current venues. We have some amazing individuals in our company and that gives us a lot of faith to continue to try to grow.
· All Ay Chiwowa Coverage [-ECHI-]
· Ay Chiwowa [Official Site]

¡Ay Chiwowa!

311 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60654 312-643-3200 Visit Website