Love at First Bite: The 40-Year Sizzle of El Nuevo Mexicano
Love at First Bite: The 40-Year Sizzle of El Nuevo Mexicano
In the heart of Lakeview East, amidst the bustling streets and ever-changing culinary landscape, stands a beacon of authenticity, dedication, and a culinary love story – El Nuevo Mexicano. At first glance, you might just see it as a place to satisfy your Mexican food cravings. But delve deeper, and you’ll discover an establishment that has withstood the test of time, constantly reinventing itself, yet staying true to its roots. A restaurant that started as a love story between two passionate cooks in the ’70s has now evolved into a cherished community hub. As we sit down with the torchbearer of this establishment, Maria Rodriguez, we embark on a journey that takes us through 40 years of trials, triumphs, and of course, tantalizing tacos. Join us as we unwrap the story behind this iconic restaurant and its enduring legacy.
El Nuevo Mexicano’s original owners, my uncle Elfego Rodriguez, and his wife, Tere, met in the 1970’s at the old La Margarita restaurant on 878 N. Wabash. It was a match made in heaven. Both were excellent cooks and knew how to run a restaurant, so it was only a matter of time before they launched their own restaurant, El Nuevo Mexicano, briefly located in Lincoln Park in the Old Bowling alley near Clark and Wrightwood. The building was slated for demolition to make way for a McDonalds and an apartment building, so they moved El Nuevo Mexicano to Lakeview East in 1983. When Elfego passed away in 2004 after a lengthy illness, I jumped in to take care of things and decided within a month that I would give it a go with innovative ideas and energy.
Over the course of 40 years, El Nuevo Mexicano has become a beloved establishment. What do you think sets your restaurant apart from others in the area & has kept folks coming back over the last 40 years?
El Nuevo Mexicano has always featured authentic Mexican food with a twist. And our servers are some of the best in the industry. I know this because our customers have repeatedly told us in person and in their reviews. Our guests’ preferences and comfort are a priority because so many of them spend their special occasions with us. We want those moments to be special for them.
How has the restaurant evolved over the years? Have there been any significant changes or additions to the menu or the ambiance?
Authentic Mexican food will always be at the core of our menu; however, we’ve also kept pace with changing times and the evolution of the customer palate. Healthy food is important to me, so I take every opportunity to rework the menu and make sure there are healthy options while staying true to our traditional flavors and sauces. We offer fresh fish and many vegan options, setting us apart from traditional Mexican restaurants.
Maintaining a restaurant for four decades is an incredible achievement. What have been some of the most memorable moments or milestones along the way?
My background in art and fashion is reflected inside the restaurant, where many of my own paintings hang. Over the years, I’ve expanded and renovated the restaurant, including the patio, which now has a semi-permanent roof that is a real blessing when it rains. In the winter, we have three high powered heaters, so guests can enjoy our festive patio during the holidays. We got creative during the Covid curveball and went from Plan A to Plan B and back again, like so many others. Our loyal staff was willing to take on new positions: bartenders and managers were Dos Chicos Delivery; kitchen learned how to whip up our Picnic at Home menus; and our servers took orders and serviced all customers in a take-away capacity. We had fun, stayed focused, and overcame what could have been a disaster. You could say we made Limonadas with our lemons!
El Nuevo Mexicano likely has a loyal customer base. Can you share some heartwarming stories or anecdotes about the connections you’ve made with your patrons?
Server David Garcia joined El Nuevo six months after I took over the restaurant. He remembers customers on their first dates, celebrating engagements, starting families, bringing in their new babies, and celebrating graduations. Customers fondly remember Elfego & Tere and will spend time reminiscing. So many have been long-time customers, and we’re especially touched when they celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, promotions, and host their families and other out-of-towners. It makes us happy to see our customers continue making El Nuevo Mexicano the place where they want to create more memories.
With the ever-changing culinary scene, how do you ensure that El Nuevo Mexicano remains relevant and continues to attract both new and returning customers?
We place a high emphasis on quality of ingredients, freshness of product and healthy options. Every month, we rework the offerings under the Especialidades section of the menu. Here you will find dishes that are not on the regular menu but are offerings for the month. New items will rotate back in the following month. These “Monthly and Seasonal Plates” are great opportunities to try something new and look forward to again. Traditional Mexican food is often made with lard; however, when I took over the restaurant, I revamped the original menu and added fresh fish and several vegetarian and vegan items to reflect my own lifestyle.
What values and principles have guided you throughout these 40 years in running the restaurant? How do these values contribute to the restaurant’s success?
We know there are many other dining options, and we also know that our customer is savvy. We strive to make the El Nuevo experience unique by combining authentic flavors with a twist and providing excellent service. Our staff’s values and work ethic are second to none.
Running a restaurant requires a dedicated team. Could you tell us about the people who have been part of the El Nuevo Mexicano family and their impact on the business?
We must be the luckiest restaurant in Chicago in that our team is loyal and long-standing. Our head cook, Francisco, has been with El Nuevo for over 33 years. Another cook has been with us 18 years. David, one of our managers, is celebrating 19 years of service, and each of our other staff members have been on board for many years. We value their work and their loyalty, and feel we are a great place to work because we do it as a team.
El Nuevo Mexicano has likely witnessed changes in the neighborhood and community over the years. How has the restaurant adapted to these changes, and what role does it play in the community now?
El Nuevo Mexicano has benefited from many neighborhood upgrades, wonderful businesses who have created their own niche. Some businesses have come and gone, but overall, we’ve noticed that they all try to create something unique, and it keeps the area interesting. Our Chamber, which we joined in 2004, is constantly guiding and helping us local businesses.
As you celebrate this 40th anniversary milestone, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future of El Nuevo Mexicano?
El Nuevo Mexicano will continue to keep our ideas and our menu fresh and continue offering the best, most authentic Mexican food in our neighborhood. Due to my frequent trips to Mexico, I’m always inspired to learn new dishes, adapt them, and bring them into our restaurant.
Do you have any special events or promotions planned to commemorate this momentous occasion with your customers?
For Latin Restaurant Week and our neighborhood Supper Club (date to be determined), we will offer a four-course dinner for $40.
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to establish a long-lasting and successful restaurant business?
There’s plenty of competition, and many establishments have very deep pockets. They are to be admired. But you can stand out by establishing a sharp vision for yourself and staying focused on it. Try not to run before you can walk. Do what you do best versus trying to be everything to everyone. Fine tune your talents and study! People don’t think that is important, but it is always important to take a quarterly look with a critical eye at what you’re doing, what works, and what you can improve. And most importantly, find the best staff you can and treat them well! Loyalty is priceless.
El Nuevo Mexicano was founded by Teresa and Elfego Rodriquez in 1983. By using only fresh ingredients, they were able to create an authentic traditional Mexican menu. In 2004, their niece, Maria, took over the restaurant and infused her own style of cooking while keeping the traditional dishes the same. The menu at El Nuevo Mexicano is constantly evolving and will continue to offer dishes that are traditional along with new healthier options.