In 2003, I reviewed a restaurant in the south suburbs called Hacienda Jalapeños, an earnest venue with a large fireplace and no customers. Though impressively plated, the food, cooked by the owners’ 20-year-old daughter, was ultimately not worth recommending to Chicago’s readers. Like a grim reaper just out of journalism school, I wrote in my notes, “A shadow of doom hangs over the place.”
Diana Dávila, now 35, went on to culinary school in Oaxaca and kitchens such as Boka in Chicago and Jackie’s in Washington, D.C., before landing as opening chef at Andersonville’s Cantina 1910 in 2015. She endured a nasty Yelp spat and disputes with the owners, then left after three months. The restaurant closed a short time later. “I was really depressed for months,” says Dávila. “I put so much of myself into it.”
Dávila’s unfussy two-month-old Mi Tocaya Antojería in Logan Square, modeled after the street food spots of Mexico, is a terrific comeback. It’s a shoestring operation: no vertical rotisserie for the tacos al pastor, no budget for handmade tortillas. But with its sunny ambiance, colorful murals by neighborhood artists, and blazing neon sign, Mi Tocaya beckons with a “Have at it and have fun” vibe. It’s easy to down multiple Sangriscos (a bright marriage of pisco and sangría) and get carried away in the merriment.
The small, affordable menu contains no filler. Dávila’s renditions of touchstone dishes—garlicky guacamole, strong margaritas, moist tres leches cake—taste bright and fresh. Sonoran shrimp ceviche has a bold citrus tang that makes other ceviches seem bland. Spoon some into a blue corn picadita cup with avocado sauce and you’re wading into familiar waters that feel more welcoming than you remembered. Dávila’s four tacos boast creative but sensible compositions that reveal a subtle skill at balancing flavors. In one, shredded beer-can chicken mingles with xoconostle, a cactus fruit with a flavor that falls somewhere between that of a lemon and a tomatillo. Another combines charred butternut squash, chilies, black beans, and corn crema so seamlessly it tastes as though it were an age-old classic.
But Dávila also blends her favorite foods in unpredictable ways that showcase a broader worldview. Breaded and fried into a milanesa and accompanied by a slaw-like salsa veracruzana (olives, caperberries, red onion), beef sweetbreads are transformed into a creamy-crunchy indulgence. “Treating sweetbreads like milanesa makes a lot of sense to me,” says Dávila, with the disarming frankness of a battle-scarred chef. “From a cook’s perspective as well as a fat-ass eater’s.”
Her eclectic approach yields some winning cross-cultural mash-ups. Lamb albóndigas, meatballs traditionally stuffed with egg, get spiked with guajillo pepper, poached in a ranchero salsa, and served with a hard-boiled egg—a nod to an Ethiopian preparation—along with fennel, mint, and stewed carrots. The dish Dávila calls peanut butter y lengua, which sounds like the casualty of an earthquake in the refrigerator, is an homage to her food-obsessed uncle in San Luis Potosí. A generous slice of beef tongue is braised, pan-seared, and drizzled in a thick salsa de cacahuate that’s similar to a Thai curry.
Most of Dávila’s more ambitious creations are bull’s-eyes, such as juicy longaniza sausage atop browned queso fundido with roasted rajas (made with poblano and güero peppers) and onions. But a few are misfires, such as nutty fideos secos (toasted vermicelli) floating in chicken broth and pummeled into oblivion by a too-blunt chintextle salsa made with pasilla peppers and dried shrimp. When I told Dávila after my visits that I wasn’t wild about the fideos secos, she shrugged it off: “This is the food I want to cook.”
It’s hard not to get sucked into Mi Tocaya’s enthusiasm, especially after learning about the journey that led to it. “I am petrified that any day it could be taken away from me,” says Dávila, who responds personally to every single Yelp review, good or bad. “I have to remind myself that I have nothing to prove, other than to share food I am in love with.”
It’s working. Whatever the opposite of a shadow of doom is, that’s what hangs over Mi Tocaya.