Chef Diana Dávila’s first solo venture, Mi Tocaya Antojería, sits on a tree-lined boulevard corner in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The 38-seat space houses the dauntless, emotive energy of Chef Dávila, a fervent advocate of authentic Mexican comfort food – the real thing, not the ersatz, American-ized version.
“When someone who’s first or second-generation Mexican walks in and says ‘My God, that tastes exactly like what my mother made, or what my grandmother made,’… having that moment for people is Mi Tocaya’s sweet spot,” says Dávila.
“There are a lot of restaurants and chains capitalizing on making Mexican food the way they think Americans will like it. I’m not into that,” says Dávila. Her food reflects Mexican cuisine as it really is – a complex fusion of indigenous and Spanish colonial traditions, layered with African and Middle Eastern influences. Mexico’s wide variety of geographical and climate regions add further nuance.
“When people think of Mexico, they think it’s just a little pueblo, and that’s totally not it,” she says, “That’s just ignorance.”
Traditionally, an antojería restaurant serves antojos, Mexican shareable plates loaded with sentimental value. Every region has its own versions, reflecting local tradition, terrain, and heritage. Satisfying those cravings, and ushering in waves of nostalgia is Mi Tocaya’s modus operandi.
With dishes like lamb albondigas – meatballs with ranchero and guajillo pepper – and peanut butter y lengua made from braised beef tongue drizzled with a thick peanut butter salsa, Dávila crafts her food to be both a welcome return and an accurate re-introduction to Mexico’s culinary tradition. The rest of the culinary world has responded, with significant nods from James Beard, Jean Banchet, Bib Gourmand, Bon Appetit, and the Chicago Tribune. New York Times food critic Melissa Clark calls Mi Tocaya “one of Chicago’s most thrilling restaurants” with “one of the best chiles rellenos” she’s ever tasted.
Raised in Chicagoland with summers in Mexico, Dávila is both a vocal participant and keen observer in the world of Mexican food. Her creative, gastronomy-loving family provided a deep foundation in Mexico’s vibrant, traditional cuisine – a cuisine she’s seen misconstrued and depreciated in translation to American audiences.
Dávila’s parents owned a taqueria, and pursued artistic endeavors both in and out of the kitchen. During summers with her Aunt’s Rosa’s family in San Luis, Dávila’s culinary interests grew, fueled by Rosa’s passion for cooking and teaching.
“She loved everything having to do with la cocina mexicana, everything about the cuisine itself,” says Dávila. Rosa led the family through marketplaces in Mexico’s distinctive cities and states, exploring local food traditions.
“A market represents what’s being served in that region – people from rural areas bring in the produce and goods they grow and eat,” Dávila says, “I learned so much from her, that’s really where I got my snapshots and my inspiration, all throughout Mexico.”
Later in life, Dávila enrolled in Chef Susana Trilling’s cooking school, Seasons of My Heart, for a short class in Oaxaca. What should have been a weeklong visit stretched to three months, as Dávila fell in love with the region. Her career continued to flourish in the States, garnering praise from lauded Chefs Ryan Poli and Giuseppe Tentori and restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum. Mi Tocaya though, is where Dávila can share and pay homage to her Mexican heritage. She’s excited to dive deeper into its traditions, and to share her knowledge.
“My vision is to teach and instruct and organize Mexican cuisine, because no one’s really done that before, and nobody can do it like a woman.”
While Dávila isn’t a huge fan of French food, she’ll give it one thing. “They’ve organized and catalogued and identified what it is to be a cuisine… and that’s commendable and beautiful.”
Dávila already knows she’ll begin codifying Mexican food, when, years from today, she can’t physically move around the kitchen. Right now though, capturing the taste of memory at Mi Tocaya fills her life.
“You have to give so much when you’re cooking,” she says, “it’s just that kind of an art.”
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Photo courtesy of Marisa Klug-Morataya