More than six months have passed since Tecalitlan, a cherished Mexican restaurant that served hoards of fans in West Town for nearly half a century, has settled into its new digs in Lincoln Park. Tucked inside a more modern space at 1538 N. Clybourn Avenue in the massive NewCity development, Tecalitlan and its second-generation owners, siblings Karla Garcia and chef Juan Carlos Garcia Jr., have forged through pandemic challenges and turned to a new chapter in the restaurant’s story.
That transition means stretching themselves and expanding their repertoire. For example, the Garcias have a bar and are trying to lure more customers to try their new cocktails. They’ve also realized that pursuit with Sabores de Mexico, a new series of ticketed events designed to showcase the breath and diversity of Mexican cuisine.
This is far cry from the West Town operation as each month, Tecalitlan will feature a rotating three- to four-course menu with dishes from a different Mexican state, plus cocktail and beer pairings. The series kicked off earlier in March with a focus on Oaxaca, a mountainous southwestern state known for large indigenous populations and rich, complex moles. Garcia Jr.’s Oaxacan menu starred three moles — including a mole rojo that required thirty ingredients — gilding salmon, chicken, and more, alongside crisp tlayudas, mini tamales steamed in banana leaves, and beer from Mexican American brewery Casa Humilde in West Town. A lineup of the states and their corresponding months is available online and tickets for April (Michoacan) and May (Puebla) are for sale via Tock.
“It was fun, but we’re a little mole-ed out right now,” says Karla Garcia, laughing. Despite tastebud fatigue, however, she says the series is turning out to be an inspiring exercise for the Garcias and their staff. “I feel like I’m doing a book report on each state — I’m learning all this stuff I didn’t know, learning about cooking techniques and what makes the region so rich and special.”
For the siblings, that excitement and optimism about the future is hard won. In 2020, months after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Tecalitlan was ousted from its original home on Chicago Avenue (where their father, Carlos Garcia Sr., founded it in 1973) when its landlords sold the building. The pair embarked on an arduous quest to find a new space, temporarily shifting operations to a virtual kitchen in Humboldt Park as they toured more than two dozen storefronts in search of a new home. Though they fought to remain in West Town, the Garcias eventually were swayed by the former Lyfe Kitchen space in the New City development.
“We walked in and it just felt right,” Karla Garcia says. “It’s brand new so nothing hurts, everything is still pretty and shiny. We thought, ‘Let’s give it a try, and god willing, everybody will follow us, we’ll make new customers, and we’ll be here for another 47 years.”
Tecalitlan’s new location launched in July 2021, and as the co-owners hoped, longtime fans are finding their way to Lincoln Park. Still, the transition has run into snags: pair initially put up a banner at the former Chicago Avenue restaurant to redirect customers, but the building owner removed it in the fall.
The team has also had to contend with the omicron variant, fluctuating mask and vaccination mandates, and the city’s usual winter lull. The demise of the ArcLight Cinema theater, which closed during the pandemic, also hurt with fewer potential customers patronizing the complex. But warmer spring days and the news that AMC has taken over the movie theater — with plans for a late spring opening — could mean a bustling season for Tecalitlan.
“If people come back to the movies the way the industry is hoping, I think it’s going to be huge,” says Karla Garcia. And, if the timing is right, those moviegoers can fill out the evening with Sabores de Mexico. “You can come in and experience new dishes and flavors — or maybew relive them from your grandmother or mother’s kitchen. It might take you home or open up a whole world of something you didn’t know existed.”