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Carlos Gaytan Brings His Mexican Hometown to Chicago with Tzuco

Autobiographical easter eggs are all over the chef’s new Near North eatery.

Credit: Diego Padilla

When Chef Carlos Gaytan closed Mexique last summer, he decided it was time to get back to his roots.

“I spent a whole year in Mexico – even after living there for 20 years, I still didn’t know enough to understand my culture,” Gaytan says.

After all of his travels, and eating regional dishes from all over the country, Gaytan is back and has just opened Tzuco, which serves his signature combination of French-inspired techniques and Mexican flavors, in Near North.

Gaytan could have jumped right back into the game after his previous closure. “The minute that I closed Mexique, I had proposals all over, and people calling me, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Gaytan explains. After a long talk with his family, he decided to go to Mexico and stay there for a long time – and, while traveling, he also spent time at Ha, his resort restaurant in Riviera Maya that just received five diamonds from AAA. Once he returned, he started hunting for spaces for a new concept.

That concept is fairly massive. Tzuco is the main restaurant, but when the full opening is complete, it will also have a 16-seat high-end spot, Tales of Carlos Gaytan, and a Mexican bakery, Panango.

Carlos Gaytan Credit: Diego Padilla

“This can be my dream come true,” Gaytan says. “I want to have my own small restaurant I can do my fine dining in, but fine dining is not as popular as it was before. So I can do comfort food in one place, and fine dining in another.”

The menu is entirely shareable plates, broken into different sizes. There are some traditional items, though usually with a new twist; for example, guacamole is topped with dried aged Huitzuco cheese to give it an extra tangy flavor. French onion soup incorporates poblano peppers for another level of smoky depth and takes three days to make.

The trucha (trout) is a particular favorite of Gaytan’s. It’s wrapped in corn husks and cooked straight in the open fire, and the burning corn husks add a ton of flavor to the delicate fish. The fish is stuffed with a salsa of almonds, tomatoes, and roasted red peppers to keep it moist, and it’s topped with a light salad of tomatoes and avocados. The pork pibil is Gaytan’s mother’s recipe, and he wraps in in banana leaves and braises it for four hours.

The design of Tzuco feels like dining inside of a lush natural history museum; artifacts and natural objects fill glass cases hanging from the wall. All came from Gaytan’s hometown, and you’ll notice spiky bushes throughout — that’s because “Tuzco” means “land beneath the thorns.”

While the design of the entire restaurant is inspired by Gaytan’s home, pay close attention to the bathrooms. In the center, there’s a huge communal sink, which Gaytan worked with the designer to include.

“Where you will wash your hands, it’s all shared between men and women,” says Gaytan. “That represents home for me. That’s where my mom used to wash dishes.”

Tzuco is open for dinner now and will open for lunch and brunch in coming weeks.

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