One of Chicago’s finest taco makers — and one of the city’s essential restaurants — has opened a second location after 44 years of business in Pilsen. Carnitas Uruapan debuted a new restaurant that’s about three times as large as the original. Just like the Pilsen location, there were long lines — customers waited as much as an hour — over the weekend at the new location at 2813 W. 55th Street in Gage Park.
Carnitas Uruapan opened in 1975 in Pilsen. Named for the birthplace of carnitas (Uruapan is in the Mexican state of Michoacán, also known as the avocado capital of the world), founder Inocencio Carbajal has been serving delicious pork tacos for more than four decades. Recently, his son, Marcos Carbajal, has been working more closely with the business. He grew up with the rest of the family in a dwelling above the original restaurant.
The new space has room for 95 seats in about 3,800 square feet. Marcos Carbajal, armed with an MBA from Northwestern University (he earned the degree attending night classes) has goals of expanding the brand his father worked so hard creating. When the son started, the restaurant had no website or logo. His father, a Mexican immigrant, was focused on food and service. In the modern world of restaurants, there’s more to a restaurant’s success than those two vital qualities. So the younger Carbajal helped out.
With the new restaurant, the family hopes customers won’t have to wait as long for their tacos. The lines at the Gage Park location were just as long as in Pilsen, but there’s more kitchen space and staff. Customers will be served faster at the new location.
“My dad had been operating under the premise that word of mouth was all the advertising you needed to do,” Marcos Carbajal said.
The Carbajals still believe word of mouth is the most important way to attract customers. But they want to expand their base. Marcos Carbajal wants to open more locations after they get their feet under them in Gage Park. Chicago chefs have taken notice. Rick Bayless has worked with the Carbajals on getting heirloom white corn masa imported from Mexico to El Popo, a popular tortilla maker. The Pilsen location already uses El Popo shells. For years, Carnitas Uruapan has been the first stop for El Popo trucks on their delivery routes. At the new restaurant, they use heirloom corn masa to make tortillas. The Pilsen restaurant is limited by space, but they may start making tortillas there, too.
Generations of customers have eaten at Carnitas Uruapan and ownership doesn’t want to alienate them. They could add items to the menu, but authenticity remains a key part of the experience, Marcos Carbajal said. They looked at their customer’s zip code data to see where they were coming from and based on that, they picked another neighborhood with a large Mexican community to open their restaurant.
“We tried to recreate as much of the nostalgic, old-school Mexican feel as we could,” he said.
The second location of Carnitas Uruapan is now open for a new generation of Chicagoans to discover.
Carnitas Uruapan, 2813 W. 55th Street, (773) 424-7617, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.