Anselmo Ramirez spent 13 years as a line cook over at Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill & Topolobampo, and the Mexican immigrant is only days away from achieving his dream. But on Thursday night, the 35 year old's eyes swelled with joy, holding back the tears while reading a tweet from his mentor, with Bayless writing that he's proud of his former star employee.
Ramirez opens Ixcateco Grill on Wednesday at 3402 W. Montrose Ave. in Albany Park, serving customers interpretations of his own family's recipes secured from the Mexican southern state of Guerrero. "I'm really excited, I can't wait to open," said Ramirez, a single dad with two daughters. "I really, really want to see when our guests start tasting the food, to see their reactions, what they think about the food and everything about the service. I hope they really like it—I hope I like it."
Ramirez developed his own methods after arriving in America at 13 years of age. He worked with his father at a Forest Park restaurant and his two brothers and sister continue to work at Bayless establishments. Ramirez began working in restaurants when he was 15 and forged relationships with powerhouses such as Bayless and Beard Award-winner Sarah Stegner, co-owner of Prairie Grass Cafe in north suburban Northbrook, as well as Tracey Vowell, the former executive chef at Topolobampo (she now co-runs Three Sisters Garden). These experiences and friendships have taught him to follow his heart and passion: you can't fake it, he said.
Over at Ixcateco, he's crafting a simple, 10-item menu that includes a version of his grandmother's black mole with chicken. He says it's easy for him to taste when a restaurant's taken a shortcut and used a pre-made mole base instead of cooking mole from scratch, something his abuela would frown upon. His mole takes about 20 hours, including seven hours on the stove actively stirring to ensure proper emulsification. There's also his ceviche which adds the acidity of lemon juice. Most places only use lime juice, which is bitter, and then they add sugar to cut that bitterness. In a kitchen experiment, Ramirez used lemon which adds that sweetness and eliminates the need for sugar. He also avoids using butter in his cooking, and he'll cook all meats — like a carne asado — on a wood-fire grill.
While there are Tex-Mex and fast-food Mexican restaurants in Albany Park, there's not a full-service one like Ixcateco, Ramirez said. They're a family-friendly place, as well as BYO with 44 seats inside. Ramirez also enjoyed success as the opening chef at Mixteco Grill, where he spent two years, and is coincidentally about a 10-minute car ride east on Montrose Avenue.
He still keeps in touch with some of his old colleagues, including Larry Butcher, a retired maître d' at Topolobampo. Butcher, the grey-haired gentlemen sometimes mistaken for Bayless' father, raves about Ramirez. Like many others who know him, Butcher roots for his friend's success.
"He's thoughtful, yet outgoing, and people respect his palate," Butcher said. "He does not only traditional stuff...he doesn't just recreate everybody else's idea about what to do with Mexican food, he has his own palate to please."