Chilam Balam: What it takes to keep a restaurant open during a pandemic
today at 7:46 am
When I was 17-years-old, we had a new “authentic” Mexican restaurant open its doors. It took my hometown by storm, quickly establishing itself as the third pitcher in my family’s after-church rotation (trailing Arby’s and Fazoli’s). I remember going there for the first time and seeing all of these new menu items. What’s this chimichanga thing? Flautas? Excuse me, waiter, I think this section’s written in Spanish?
I didn’t find out until a semester in New York City that Midwest Mexican food, even the authentic variety, usually meant Tex Mex. And with Tex Mex, the focus is on ground beef, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes. Served in either a hard shell or flour tortilla. Compare that to the tacos I tried at this taqueria in Manhattan, these were carnitas, carne asada, barbacoa. Corn tortillas. Onions and cilantro on top. I remember making faces like Phil Rosenthal on Somebody Feed Phil. “These are incredible!” The owner and her daughter smiled at me but also had that look of, “He’s gonna ask if we have some Old El Paso hard shells, isn’t he?”
When I came back to the Midwest, I became the worst kind of Mexican food evangelist. Just a tall white guy on a cilantro ego trip. I don’t know if there’s a snootier way to start a sentence than, “When I was at this taqueria in Manhattan.” Regardless, I was on a mission to find the good stuff right here in the Midwest. And Yelp made it possible. I found a great spot called Margarita’s in Holland, Michigan. Discovered Elvira’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant in Sanford, right by my hometown. Turns out authentic Mexican food was always close to home, you just had to know where to look.
But it wasn’t until I did this same Yelp search right here in Lakeview East when I discovered there’s a whole other level of authentic Mexican Food. This search took me a few blocks north on Broadway to a classy little hole in the wall called Chilam Balam.
Soraya Rendon: From Mexico City to Chicago
When Soraya Rendon was 17-years-old living in Mexico City, she’d already developed a long-distance love for Chicago. She’d seen shows about Al Capone and pictures of the Sears Tower. She knew this was where she wanted to live.
So she packed her bags and – with a couple hundred dollars to her name – traveled 2,000 miles north to the Windy City. She came by herself and only spoke Spanish. She landed a few minimum-wage jobs first before landing a job working in the Sears Tower. It wasn’t the dream job in the sense of reaching her ultimate goal, but it was this moment of experiencing a taste of the American dream. She was working in the tallest building in Chicago, one that used to just be a photograph.
The song “Non-Stop” from Hamilton could’ve just as easily been written about Soraya. She kept grinding, always working. Always learning. About five years after arriving here, Soraya landed a job as an executive loan officer in the mortgage business.
But that wasn’t the ultimate dream either. She had her sites on 3023 North Broadway. A little garden-level restaurant space in Lakeview East.
Building a Michelin Bib Gourmand Restaurant from Scratch
Soraya faced adversity right away opening Chilam Balam at the same time as the 2008 recession. To make it work, she kept working her day job as a loan officer (which also took a hit during this time) to pay the bills.
Soraya has continued to work both jobs and I think she might be the only restaurant owner in Chicago who has one 5-star review that reads like this:
“It is always a great pleasure to work with Ms. Soraya Rendon. I have known Ms. Rendon for over a decade and we have done business together since the start of her mortgage career. Besides being a joy to work with, the efficiency and reliability Soraya provides is always beyond my expectations.”
“Wow! This has hands down been the best meal I’ve eaten in Chicago! I love tapas restaurants to begin with and this place has some of the best. I went with a friend and we shared 5 tapas- some staple items and some seasonal (which change monthly). We tried the ceviche, memelas, duck carnitas tamal, chicken flautas, and the pork ribs. Everything was truly excellent and so flavorful. My favorite dishes were the memelas (regular menu item) and the duck tamal (seasonal). They were both on another level from a flavor perspective! Absolutely delicious! We also shared the chocolate mousse and the pecan coconut pie for dessert, both of which were also fantastic… We left totally full and extremely satisfied! Think I’ve found my new fave place!”
The food and dining experience has earned Chilam Balam a coveted Michelin Bib Gourmand rating. This coveted award is given to restaurants that serve high-quality food at a reasonable price. Chilam Balam is one of only 54 places in Chicago to receive this honor in 2020.
A Chef from the Midwest
Helping to create the food is Chef Natalie Oswald. Natalie started out baking as a child with her mother and grandmother. Growing up in Toledo, Ohio she decorated cakes at local bakeries and her mother’s kitchen. Friends and neighbors would always stop by to try her food or just watch her create. Already a knowledgeable baker, Oswald decided to pursue a culinary degree at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. She was first introduced to Chicago during her externship at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. It was here that Natalie really grasped the concepts of traditional Mexican cuisine and the use of local ingredients. When she was young, her mom taught her the basics of gardening but until Frontera, she never really understood the impact of natural organic farming.
Upon graduation from culinary school, Natalie started a pastry chef position in the west loop at Otom restaurant. Here she refined her skills and worked her way up in the Chicago restaurant culture. Three years later, she was asked to help with the pastries at the newly opening Chilam Balam. Given her background in Mexican cuisine, the job soon escalated to a full-time Sous Chef and then Executive Chef position. It is very important to Natalie that her menu continues to showcase local, seasonal ingredients, and ideas.
Natalie and Soraya change up the menu 3x a week so no two trips to Chilam Balam are ever the same.
“Chilam Balam is authentic Mexican food,” Soraya said, describing her restaurant. “Not Tex Mex. This is what you’d have at a nice dinner in Mexico.”
Having what it takes to run a restaurant right now
For anyone interested in opening a restaurant, Soraya’s advice is simple and it’s truer now than ever.
“You have to be ready to work, it’s non-stop.”
Soraya’s brother moved up here as well and helps out as the manager. Her mom has been able to visit around five times since Soraya’s been up here and Soraya goes back to Mexico City every now and then to be with family and find new inspiration for the menu.
For any restaurant that went through the 2008 recession, the owners are all in agreement that the 2020 pandemic has posed a much larger threat to keeping the doors open. For Soraya, she had to layoff her staff, everyone except herself, her brother, and Natalie. The three of them aren’t taking a salary right now. The money that comes in pays for food and bills. Soraya relies on her second job as a loan officer to keep things going.
In so many ways, the transition hasn’t been easy. Just the process of switching to delivery wasn’t an easy one to make for a traditional dine-in restaurant.
“Our food doesn’t really work well as takeout, but we adjusted,” Soraya said. “We made delivery work.”
Chilam Balam has also been participating in the Lakeview East “Dine out on Broadway” series, part of the bigger “Make Way for Dining” initiative launched by Mayor Lightfoot. On these select weekends, Broadway is closed off from Belmont to Surf, and the restaurants like Black & Caspian, Stella’s Diner, and Chilam Balam set up tables on the street. The next time to experience this will be August 7-9 and September 11-13.
When dine-in is available, Soraya stresses the importance of guests keeping their reservations since she can’t seat a full capacity.
“Be patient with us and stick to your reservations,” Soraya said. “If you can’t make it, please cancel ahead of time.”
And despite not taking a salary right now, not being able to fill the restaurant, and not knowing when all of this will end, Soraya keeps grinding.
“We didn’t make the rules, but we’re running by them,” Soraya said.
The road to keeping a restaurant open right now is extremely challenging, but something tells me the person who left Mexico City at 17/18-years-old with a couple hundred dollars to her name and a few pictures of Chicago in her mind is the exact person that has what it takes right now. She’ll keep working and her restaurant will keep serving the Lakeview East neighborhood.
You can support Chilam Balam by making a dine-in reservation, ordering delivery/takeout, or reaching out via email to setup a giftcard.
Over the last several months, I’ve been using the Medium Rare blog with a different format, featuring local restaurants around Chicago and the Chicagoland area. These also, from time to time, drift into a little bit of philosophy and stories from my own life. To catch up on some of the posts and read about other great local spots, here they are below:
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 1)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard intermission)
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 2: The Family Behind Tango Sur)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard Finale)
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