At River North Mexican stunner Tzuco, personal extends beyond the plate. The restaurant’s name is short for Huitzuco, the Mexican town chef Carlos Gaytán grew up in. The ceramics in the restaurant come straight from Mexico, and a comal that hangs in the restaurant is the first one Gaytán used to make a tortilla.
The chef was already known to Chicagoans thanks to his groundbreaking MICHELIN-starred restaurant Mexique, but Tzuco might be his most personal restaurant yet—and that’s what he attributes to its success. “It is amazing to see this restaurant busy all the time,” says Gaytán, whose restaurant just turned four. “I have diners who have been in Chicago for one week and they come back four times.”
The restaurant’s anniversary coincides with the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, and there’s no better time to visit—or revisit—this River North favorite. Read on four dishes that showcase the breadth of regional Mexican cooking at Tzuco.
A lot of the dishes at Tzuco are inspired by Gaytán’s travels back to Mexico, particularly to markets throughout the country. This zippy ceviche came out of a trip to the Riviera Maya coast along Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. At Tzuco, the freshest hamachi sits in a pool of aguachile that gets its bright reddish-orange color from achiote. Gaytán tops it with thinly sliced fried plantains for added crunch.
A La Talla
Growing up near Acapulco, Gaytán was fascinated by the way fishermen in the region cooked fish on an open fire pit by the beach. “It was one of the most amazing memories,” Gaytán recalls. His version also gets the open-flame treatment in Chicago and mild, gentle heat from a marinade of guajillo chiles, garlic, and cumin. Gaytán recommends ordering this dish for sharing—break some pieces of fish, add it to tortillas with salsa, and repeat.
Tlayudas are a lunchtime favorite in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the same goes at Tzuco. “They’re kind of like open-face crispy tortillas,” Gaytán says. Tzuco offers a couple of versions, but the standout is the cecina with piquant salsa macha, chorizo, and tiny avocado pieces. Adding a creamy poached egg on top is the way to go, Gaytán says.
When Gaytán first prepared cochinita pibil—the Yucatán-style slow-cooked pork dish—for his mom, she stayed silent. That’s code for not too impressed, the chef says. She did offer some helpful advice, though: She was going to show him how to make her version. And that’s what lives on at Tzuco today. Her unusual preparation stands out thanks to housemade pineapple vinegar. Almonds, cumin seeds, and guajillo peppers also go into the marinade. “When you try that cochinita, it is like eating in her kitchen,” Gaytán says. “Every single item on the menu has a story behind it.”
Tzuco is throwing an anniversary celebration on September 15 hosting top chefs from Mexico. Gaytán also celebrates different regions of Mexico each month on the menu in a section called Back to My Roots—Puebla is the spotlight for September.