The owner of Logan Square standbys Cafe Con Leche, Saba, and the Walk-In is reloading with a new Mexican restaurant that’s a partnership with a longtime Rick Bayless collaborator.
Prolific restaurateur Esam Hani and business partner Frank Monroy have plans for the former home of Hemingway-inspired restaurant Papa Cenar and will bring a casual new modern Mexican spot next door to top-notch pizzeria Paulie Gee’s. They plan on debuting La Victoria in late May at 2445 N. Milwaukee Avenue.
It’s also a chance for the partners to commemorate a 25-year relationship with managing partner Carlos Alferez, who spent 18 years as general manager at Bayless’ Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. The new restaurant’s name, which translates from Spanish as “the victory,” is meant to mark that eventual union. Conveniently, Hani’s wife is also named Victoria.
Though Alferez is well acquainted with the world of Mexican fine dining, La Victoria will be more casual: “We don’t want it to be overbearing. We want to recreate experiences we’ve all had from childhood or from travel [to Mexico],” he says.
The menu from chef Ryan Wombacher (Lawry’s the Prime Rib) isn’t yet finalized, but diners can expect dishes regional dishes that range from Oaxacan tlayudas to pescado tikin xic (a grilled fish dish inspired by the Mayans) from the Yucatan. His team will cook all proteins over a six-foot solid fuel grill, including a brined and charcoal-roasted half chicken with chipotle glaze and red peanut mole. The dish is crowned with a Nashville hot chicken wing and a sprinkle of chili-lime seasoned peanuts — a flavor that Alferez finds comforting and nostalgic.
The food will be accompanied by a tight bar menu of draft tequila and mezcal margaritas, a handful of seasonal cocktails, beers from Casa Humilde (one of the city’s only Mexican American-owned breweries) and nonalcoholic agua frescas in a number of flavors.
The former auto repair shop was gutted to make room for Midwestern-themed Twain in 2018. Crews have done more work inside the cavernous dining room which seats 260. They’ve installed a new bar in back as well as a retractable garage door that opens onto a patio. The indoor-outdoor feeling extends to the interior, where wooden pillars have been transformed into trees. The team’s also draped the back wall with pink bougainvilleas, a plant native to central and southern Mexico. In a nod to a Logan Square neighborhood where graffiti and murals abound, its walls are decorated with street art-style landscapes and scenes made with spray paint.
In addition to Bayless’ long shadow, Alferez is also keenly aware that La Victoria will share a neighborhood with Mi Tocaya Antojería, chef and 2023 James Beard Award finalist Diana Dávila’s game-changing contemporary Mexican restaurant on California Avenue and Logan Boulevard. Before Mi Tocaya opened in 2017, Dávila took playful shots at Bayless and his alums, feeling that they learn to cook similiarly. The Bayless and Dávila camps have since brokered peace.
Alferez says he has great respect for Dávila, but La Victoria isn’t a replica of any other restaurant, including those of his former employer. “Coming from Frontera and everything I learned from [Bayless] and our travels, I think the menu we’re putting together is excellent,” he says. “Rick would be proud of it. I always think about that because I look up to him and Deann [Bayless] and want to make them proud, so I think our food is going to reflect that.”
La Victoria, 2445 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Scheduled to open before Monday, May 29, Memorial Day weekend.