Carlos Gaytán knew critical success at his former West Town restaurant Mexique, where in 2013 he became the first Mexico-born chef to earn a Michelin star. But after he closed it in May 2018, Gaytán vowed to return to the Chicago restaurant world with a bigger and better project. The result of that promise is his River North triple threat: a la carte restaurant Tzuco, joined by the first U.S. location of all-day bakery Panango and, soon, his tasting menu room, Tales of Carlos Gaytán. The chef refers to his new business complex as “Mexique on steroids.”
Thus, many of the dishes at Tzuco have roots from Mexique. Gaytán’s mother’s cooking and advice sway many more. The chef says that 20 percent of the dishes have French influence from his classical training, which he blends with his Mexican heritage. All of these factors come together on the menus to make for one of Chicago’s most exciting restaurant openings of 2019.
Here, Eater dives into the specifics of several standout dishes from the current dinner menu. Bear in mind that items may change slightly. Weekend brunch is also now available.
Ceviche verde: Ceviches are ubiquitous dishes on Chicago restaurant menus lately, so what makes this one different? For Gaytán, it’s the cactus — how its cured and incorporated three different ways in the dish. It’s served fresh, in an aguachile, and most notably in a scoop of sorbet that balances the salt-cured cactus with sweetness, and brings down the dish’s temperature. “We don’t even cook the cactus, so it’s something that no one in Chicago is doing,” Gaytán says. “[Sorbet] helps a lot with the temperature. I believe the fish deserves to be very cold. Because when you put it in your mouth the fish has so much natural fat [the temperature] helps so much. It’s a beautiful balance.”
Pulpo enamorado: Octopus is another popular dish on local restaurant menus — and around the country — so Gaytán admits that he was hesitant to serve it at Tzuco, and he even says he tried it at Mexique but didn’t get a positive response. So after playing around with its accompaniments, he turned to a frequent inspiration for him: things his mother used to feed him when he was a child. “What my mom used to do when we would go for a field trip, she would make a tuna can salad with vegetables and it was my favorite,” he says. “We tried to duplicate something similar [at Tzuco], so what I do here is pickle all the vegetables, and instead of using regular mayonnaise I use tuna aioli to replicate what my mom used to do.” He then serves the octopus with salsa macha on the side.
Pork pibil: This hefty pork shank is another dish that employs Gaytán’s mother’s advice. The chef says he cooked a cochinita pibil for his mother, his brothers, and their wives seven months ago, but when they were eating it he “didn’t see happy faces like I normally see, and I start thinking something’s not right.” After asking for her opinion on the dish, she said she would cook her version for him the next day, and it was much better. “I cooked mine very traditional and my mother’s was way different,” he says. “The traditional way uses a sour orange as the main ingredient, and my mom makes a pineapple vinegar, with guajillo peppers as the two main ingredients. It’s when you notice that you still have a lot to learn.” Gaytán incorporates his mother’s changes into the pork at Tzuco, and the result is perhaps the restaurant’s most popular dish.
Chicharron de pescado: This whole fried fish elicits many longing stares from diners when it appears in the dining room, due to its size and creative presentation, featuring the tail curled up in the air. To make the dish, Gaytán and staff debones the fish, cuts the fillet in pieces, fries the fish and its bones separately, then serves the fish on top of the bones with tortillas, salsa veracruzana, and peanut aioli. It is meant for two people or a table to share. Here’s how Gaytán explains the presentation: “When we fry the bones in the basket, we make it the shape we want it to be. It’s very unique — I haven’t seen anything similar here in Chicago.”
Lima/guanabana/aguacate: This light dessert uses multiple unexpected ingredients — citrus-infused tapioca, guanabana sorbet, and avocado foam — to clean diners’s palates before a heavier, more sugary finish. “It’s something you don’t expect in a dessert,” Gaytán says, “kind of healthy.” The chef is also proud of the inclusion of avocado in the dish, which he says he’s been “doing since Mexique.”