Cheesy romance can gain top billing in February as Chicagoans scurry to book Valentine’s Day reservations to make their partners feel extra special. But Aboyer chef Michael Lachowicz is choosing to deliver a message of respect and appreciation to his longtime business partners — chef Miguel Escobar, sous chef Carlos Cahue, and wine director Sergio Angel. The veteran chef’s Valentine comes in the form of the opening of Fonda Cantina, a new Mexican bar and restaurant, debuting Wednesday, February 8 in suburban Evanston.
The owner of much-lauded French restaurants Aboyer and George Trois in suburban Winnetka, Lachowicz wants to make it clear that at Fonda, the culinary voices and vision are solely those of his Mexican-born collaborators. “I want this to be a love letter to my team,” Lachowicz says. “This place is about everybody else, that’s what I want it to be and what it’s supposed to be. It’s conceived by Michael Lachowicz but it’s run well and properly by a team of people who know how to do this better than Michael Lachowicz.”
The culmination of nearly two years of work and planning, Fonda Cantina houses two discrete sections, a dining room for 80 with table service and a 5,100-square-foot cocktail bar area with seats for 60, a late-night walkup window, and an abbreviated food menu. Chicago-based firm Perpetuum Designs, also behind the aesthetics at Stay & Play Game Cafe in Irving Park and the Jibarito Stop in Pilsen, selected an earthy palette to offset blue and rust-colored fiber wall art, woven bamboo light fixtures, and decorative painted tiles, many of which were sourced from Mexican artists and craftspeople, according to a rep.
Inspired by Escobar and Cahue’s respective grandmothers’ cooking throughout their childhoods in Huandacareo in Michoacan and Huitzuco in Guerrero, Fonda’s menu aims to evoke the same sense of cozy nostalgia that the chefs recall from family dinners past. These include a tender chile relleno filled with queso Oaxaca and pintos martajados atop a pool of tomato marjoram sauce, pork rendering-laced sope manteca, and a late-night selection of tacos like al pastor, carne asada, and gobernador.
For imbibers, there’s a cocktail list that ranges from familiar favorites like margaritas and Palomas to original creations, such as the Sonreir (tangerine and aloe vera mezcal, thyme and chamomile cordial, passionfruit tincture) and the Artesanal Old Fashioned (mezcal, agave, tobacco bitters). In addition to a lineup of Mexican beers, patrons will also find options from a local purveyor, Mexican American brewery Casa Humilde Cerveceria in West Town. The team is also offering booze-free creations including the Chikanita Mia (prickly pear puree, lemongrass).
On the cusp of his ninth restaurant opening, Lachowicz says he’s bursting with pride for all his colleagues have accomplished. But this particular debut, he says, stands apart from the others. It’s his first since the pandemic began — an event that, despite its challenges, allowed Lachowicz an opportunity to examine his own behavior in the kitchen and reevaluate the atmosphere he fostered in his own restaurants.
“This [opening] is a culmination of everything I’ve learned that I like and don’t like about myself,” he says. “I found myself stepping back and not controlling everything. I’m able to make corrections here. It’s soul-feeding.”
Explore Fonda Cantina and its menu in the photographs below.
Fonda Cantina, 1735 Benson Avenue, Dining room open 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday; Cantina open 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.