Carlos Gaytán isn’t the first chef to profess a close personal connection with his food, but the force behind Tzuco sports a unique genuineness behind his words. Tzuco (pronounced ZOO-coh) opens on Monday in River North, a large and cavernous restaurant giving downtown Chicago an alternative to Rick Bayless’s restaurants when it comes to upscale Mexican cuisine. Gaytán, the first Mexican-born chef with a Michelin-starred restaurant, is once again blending French and Mexican techniques. Ownership described Tzuco as “Mexique on steroids.”
Gaytán has lofty aspirations for Tzuco. He said he wants it to be the best Mexican restaurant in the world, not just in America. It’s one of three of his restaurants opening at 720 N. State Street. A bakery that will serve breads and sandwiches, Panango, should open next month. Fine dining fans then have Tales of Carlos Gaytán to look forward to in November. It’s a 16-seat restaurant with a tasting menu.
Tzuco seats 110 and every inch is meant to remind diners of Gaytán’s hometown, Huitzuco in Mexico (about 120 miles south of Mexico City). Gaytán said he quickly assembled his culinary team which includes Andy Kim, a former line cook at Avec in West Loop. Other staffers are waiting for their visas in Mexico. Gaytán takes a different philosophy at Tzuco. For example, the restaurant employs separate bakers and pastry chefs. Breads, some of which feature huitlacoche, are served in a traditional fabric tortilla warmer and come with chicken liver pate and a red cochinita pibil-style spread.
The menu, posted online, features items like a French onion soup amped up with poblanos. Appetizer highlights include pulpo enamorado — translated as “octopus in love” — served with a side of chopped-up carrots, peas, potatoes, roasted garlic aioli, and dill. The steak tartare is also a highlight, served topped with a perfect egg and pickled cauliflower, guacamole, and chipotle aioli.
Main dishes include pescado zarandedo, a spice-rubbed and fried red snapper. This dish takes inspiration from the western costal state of Nayarit, Mexico. The presentation is elaborate with the fin fashioned into a throne fit for a mini Aquaman. Gaytán said diners in Mexico are more prone to grab the fish with their hands to make sure they chew every last morsel. It’s unclear if American diners will do the same in River North. Gaytán is also taking his fan-favorite steak dish served with goat cheese fondue from Mexique and switching out the New York strip for a tomahawk ribeye.
Gaytán is setting the bar high at Tzuco, and it’s hard to imagine what he has left to offer in November when Tales of Carlos of Gaytán should open. Gaytán believes that his personal connections with food, the memories from Mexico and cooking with his mother, give his menu an edge versus other restaurants.
After Mexique closed last year in West Town, Gaytán has reloaded with a new and larger restaurant closer to downtown with an impressive design. Stay tuned for a peek inside the space. It’s one of the fall’s most anticipated openings in Chicago.