After six years of driving around Chicago, the food truck and caterer Aztec Dave’s is finally settling down into a permanent restaurant in Humboldt Park.
Owner Ramon Torres had been searching for an appropriate spot for several years, but he wanted to wait until he found the right space at the right price. He found that perfect spot, the former Bullhead Cantina space, 1143 N. California Avenue. But now he’s still waiting: although he signed the lease in February and is almost done with renovations, he doesn’t want to set an exact opening date for Aztec Dave’s Cantina until he’s fully staffed.
“Our clientele and people in the neighborhood are very anxious and have been asking us about opening,” Torre says. “I’m asking people to have patience. I didn’t want to rush for a less than 100 percent opening.”
Since debuting in 2015, Aztec Dave’s has grown from one food truck to three and its tacos and Dave’s Loaded Papas (waffle fries covered in queso, sour cream, and avocado) have won a devoted following. The menu at Aztec Dave’s Cantina will be an expanded version of the food truck menu: Torres plans to include dishes he learned how to cook from his grandmother, who immigrated from the central Mexican state of Michoacán, such as blackened guajillo shrimp, arrachera steak, pineapple devil salsa, and, especially, her mole
“Ours is not chocolatey,” says Torres. “It’s not sweet. It’s more smoky and savory, and we pair it with chicken. It’s very unique to us. I haven’t had any mole in Chicago like ours.”
He also plans to serve churros. There will also be a bar serving beer and craft cocktails, with a focus on tequila and mezcal.
The restaurant itself is 1,500 square feet, which isn’t large, but Torres has the option to buy the building, and he eventually hopes to expand Aztec Dave’s by adding an event space on the second floor. He’s decorated it in what he describes as a rustic style, with hardwood floors, a wooden bar and tables, and a mural of an Aztec serpent.
The serpent is not the original Aztec Dave; the name was originally chosen because, Torres says, “everyone knows a Dave.” Also, Aztec Dave’s sounded better than Aztec Ramon’s. Mostly, though, he wanted customers to feel comfortable. Inclusivity has always been part of the ethos of Aztec Dave’s, Torres says. “When I was growing up,” he says, “people would get the idea that Mexican food is cheap, late-night food and not the best quality. I wanted to change that.”
Despite moving into a Puerto Rican neighborhood inside a space that overlooks Humboldt Park, Torres says the menu will remain primarily Mexican. He would be open to adding a Puerto Rican or fusion item or two, he says, but there are already plenty of establishments in the area serving that kind of food, and he doesn’t want to step on anyone’s toes.
Instead, Aztec Dave’s will contribute to the community by hosting regular events, like salsa night, and including neighbors in the planning. “I hope the community will appreciate what we can put together in terms of a six-day-a-week restaurant with curated events, nice music, and a good food and drink selection,” he says. “We want to be here for a long time.”
Bullhead Cantina closed in 2018 in Humboldt Park.
Aztec Dave’s Cantina, 1143 N. California Avenue, Opening in late 2021.