Earlier this month, chef Diana Dávila spent a rare day off from her acclaimed Logan Square restaurant reading and ruminating on how she’ll incorporate new flavors at Mi Tocaya Antojeria. Dávila is hardly content with her success since she opened her restaurant, proving to her doubters that her way of cooking could be the backbone of a creative Mexican restaurant the likes that Chicago hasn’t seen.
Since Mi Tocaya opened in March, critics — both locally and nationally — have descended upon her restaurant. She’s Eater Chicago’s Chef of the Year and Eater National’s 2018 Chef to Watch. All this is vindication for the speed bumps she overcame, whether that means disagreements with management over a restaurant’s direction in Andersonville or envious male staffers in Washington, D.C., who were confused about why a talented young woman earned a promotion before they did. Dávila’s cooking and personality have forced the industry to notice. She’s even mentoring young would-be restaurant owners who want to emulate her — who want to express themselves in the same way.
The sauces stand out at Mi Tocaya: They’re a labor of love for Dávila, who is slowly learning to better trust her staff with their preparations. Maybe one day, when she’s not as anxious about being on site, she’ll open another spot. She laments that there’s not a great place to get masa in the neighborhood — perhaps she could address that void. But she’s aware that she needs to relax. When the restaurant first opened, she said she replied to every Yelp comment and every online critic.
“My staff would say that I’m ridiculous,” Dávila said.
Dávila is a student of the game, always looking to improve. Her reading material for the day, Breve Historia de la Comida Mexicana, focuses on Mexico’s pre-Hispanic era, one of Dávila’s favorite subjects. It serves as a reminder that Mexican food is more than burritos and tacos. That’s a challenge many Mexican chefs face when educating diners or securing trust with investors.
Daniel Espinoza faced those same obstacles as former chef at Lobo Rey in the South Loop. He said he left after ownership insisted on making alterations to the menu that dumbed down the concept — they wanted the menu to be more bar-friendly: “We would joke that we went to culinary school and now we’re wrapping burritos,” he said.
Espinoza respects Dávila’s perseverance in redefining expectations and upholding the same culinary values that he shares.
“Everyone generalizes [Mexican food] as cheap,” Espinoza said. “But have you ever tried to make a tamale from scratch? Tell me you don’t think that shit isn’t laborious.”
The hope from Espinoza is that Dávila’s success will inspire young chefs and encourage investors to open more unique restaurants. One chef who has already inspired a generation is Rick Bayless, a man synonomous with Mexican cooking for much of America, and someone Dávila respects. Bayless hasn’t visited Mi Tocaya yet, but he’s aware of Dávila’s work, and values it.
“It’s thrilling to see so many chefs who’ve embraced the cuisine and celebrate its great variety and place within our contemporary restaurant culture,” Bayless wrote via email.
Last year, Dávila expressed dismay about so many would-be chefs of Mexican origin attending culinary school, where they could lose what made them unique. Dávila values what she learned on trips to Mexico, where she cooked in her family’s home. She feels it was a richer experience than what one might learn in a school setting. She wondered out loud why so many chefs would rather copy Bayless than emulate their grandmothers.
Now, about a year later, Dávila still sticks by her words, but admits that they may have come off a bit harsh. She wants to build a strong sense of community with all chefs in Chicago, including Bayless. For his part, Bayless — who spent five years in Mexico — writes that the issue is complex. He does believe that culinary school can benefit young chefs who hold deep respect for the food they grew up with — especially if it’s a school that matches that respect. A chef can learn discipline and regard for the profession. But Bayless also sees Dávila’s point.
“If the young chef enters school without that deep respect for the cuisine of his or her upbringing, Diana is right that the young chef can approach his or her cuisine as though it’s somehow inferior and needs a ‘makeover,’” Bayless wrote. “That often leads to the ‘homogenization’ and rootlessness that Diana alludes to.”
Dávila has produced a blueprint that others hope to follow, even those who don’t cook Mexican food. Jennifer Kim, the Korean-American chef who was behind Snaggletooth in Lakeview, plans on opening her own restaurant in February in Andersonvillle. Before going forward with plans for Passerotto, Kim peppered Dávila with questions about how she opened Mi Tocaya. The two chefs are collaborating with LM Restaurant Group — the company supports both projects.
It’s a tale of resilience for Dávila. When the fit didn’t work out at Cantina 1910 in Andersonville, she departed and began working on the project that became Mi Tocaya. She recalled living in Washington, D.C., where she worked at Ardeo and Jackie’s. That’s when male members of the kitchen staff froze her out after she was promoted to the fish station. They didn’t think she deserved the job.
“All the cooks got angry at the 18-year-old; the little flimsy thing was moving up,” Dávila said. “They saw it like a threat and stopped talking to me because they thought I was pretty and that the chefs wanted me.”
With those experiences behind her, Dávila wants Mi Tocaya to be a Chicago staple, and she’s mindful of how difficult it is to sustain restaurant success. She sees large restaurant groups eyeing properties around Logan Square and wonders how she will compete.
“It’s just scary — yeah, you don’t want to get lost in the shuffle, you don’t want to close,” she said.
But at the same time, she’s proud of what she’s built and her team at Mi Tocaya. Opening a restaurant was exhausting, and now she has time for more things, like reading. She reads multiple books at a time to inspire herself.
“That’s where I get the ideas for dishes,” Dávila said. “It’s an ongoing thing. I have trouble finishing a book, which is strange, but I guess it’s never wrong.”