Eating/Drinking

Carlos Gaytan’s Tzuco Is the Biggest Thing to Happen to Mexican Food in Chicago Since Carlos Gaytan’s Last Restaurant

Photo by Diego Padilla/Courtesy of Tzuco

The Overview: One of the most prominent Mexican chefs on the continent, Carlos Gaytan has left an indelible mark on Chicago’s culinary scene, and he’s been sorely missed since he closed West Town’s Mexique, where he was the only Mexico-born chef to earn a Michelin star. Well, he’s back in a big way, kicking off a trifecta of planned Mexican concepts in River North with the eagerly awaited Tzuco, heralded as a love letter to (and named after) his birth city of Huitzuco. Not since Rick Bayless planted his empire of restaurants downtown has there been such a major Mexican opening of this caliber in Chicago. Prepare to be dazzled.

Photo by Diego Padilla/Courtesy of Tzuco

The Food: Similar in spirit to Gaytan’s bygone Mexique, which famously blended his Mexican heritage with French techniques and influences, Tzuco is all about highlighting those bright, bold, and beautiful Mexican flavors with a thread of French cuisine woven throughout. Dinner starts with an impressive array of house-baked breads in a cornucopia of colors and flavors, followed by small plates like ceviche, chicken tinga, steak tartare, and dried fideo with molcajete salsa tatemada. Larger portions include pork pibil, lamb neck barbacoa, and smoked corn husks filled with trout. Dessert-wise, you’ll find sweets like hazelnut sponge cake with chocolate and salted caramel ice cream, and tapioca infused with citrus, guanabana sorbet, and aquacate foam. Gaytan is joined in the kitchen by chef de cuisine Andrew Kim and pastry chef Jesús Escalera.

Photo by Diego Padilla/Courtesy of Tzuco

The Drinks: For the beverages, Gaytan brought in the best of the best, both in terms of talent and in terms of product. Mica Rousseau is manning the cocktail program, and he’s got quite the pedigree, as he was named Mexico’s best mixologist in 2016 after placing first in the World Class Mexico competition. Menu details on that are TBA, but rest assured they’re bound to be epic.

Photo by Diego Padilla/Courtesy of Tzuco

The Space: The decor is as stunning as the food and serves as a most idyllic backdrop for such a soulful, spirited meal. Mexico-based companies Cadena + Asociados Concept Design and ATRA Form Furniture lend their visions to a space enrobed in tints of chocolate and taupe, designed to hark back to imagery of earth, coast, land, and water. A highlight is floor-to-ceiling glass boxes in the dining room, filled with indigenous Mexican wood, corn silk, husks, thornbushes, and other materials inspired by Gaytan’s homeland. The idea, in general, is to transport guests to his home country in every sense, from the food on the plate to the immersive interiors. Naturally, dining tables and chairs are wood and handmade, with custom leather seat cushions.

Photo by Diego Padilla/Courtesy of Tzuco

The Deets: Tzuco is now open for dinner Monday–Thursday, 5–10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5–11 p.m.; and Sunday, 5–9 p.m. Lunch is coming soon, along with an adjoining Mexican bakery called Panango and a 12-seat chef‘s tasting room called Tales of Carlos Gaytan.