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I went into Gaudi Cafe, a Ukrainian Village restaurant I'd been to with my family a few times, to check on the progress of a new restaurant from the same owners. Instead it looked like this one was closing. Art had come off the colorful walls. The counter was stacked with boxes. "This is our last day," said co-owner Verònica Pineau.
It would have been a bummer to lose this example of a great little neighborhood place, with its colorful, local-art-bedecked interior, comfy food, and equally likable owners and staff. Fortunately that wasn't the case—they were just in the process of moving about five blocks to 1147 W. Grand where they'll reopen next week in a larger space with a bar. (A liquor license will come later, they hope.)
A few moments later Verònica's sister Betty Romo came in with a friend who was helping carry stuff to the new spot. (Yes, somehow their Mexican parents named them for the girls in Archie comics.) Exhausted after a frantic week—she says she worked through Sunday night after a Super Bowl party getting the new location ready for Monday's final inspection—Betty seemed happy to get a chance to sit down and talk about how two Mexican immigrants with college degrees—Betty worked in marketing for GM in Mexico, Verònica is an attorney—wound up with an arty little cafe and, soon, a two-restaurant miniempire.
Betty immigrated to Chicago from Mexico City nine years ago, and her younger sister followed two years later. Betty worked in a downtown restaurant, but after two years and being promoted to manager, she thought, "There's no more to do." She suggested to Verònica that they check out a location on Ashland for a place of their own: "I say, 'Maybe we can do it.' We put our little money together, we both open it; it was January, in the worst time economically."
Then called Gaudi Coffee and Grill, it was the kind of polyglot restaurant with some of everything—Mexican food, burgers, salads, soups, wraps, pastas, and tapas at night—which often promises mediocrity. But they tried to make everything from scratch, not using food-service shortcuts, and from the start the good things were pretty good. Chilaquiles became the signature item, but they also sold a lot of salads in a neighborhood where salad was a rare delicacy. And the atmosphere was sunny and friendly, with local artists selling their art off the brightly painted walls. Art was always part of the restaurant's atmosphere, starting with the name, which was taken from the Catalonian architect Antonio Gaudí, and Betty sees the gallery side as part of connecting with the community: "We have a party for the artist, if they know somebody who does music, they put on the music. If somebody's looking at something we say, you like it, you can make payments—$10, $20. And the artists say, 'Wow, you sold a lot.'"
Over time they improved the decor and refined the menu as they learned the business. "You always have to be making it better, little by little, or it's boring," Betty says. And as business grew over the six years they've been open, they started to look for a location that wasn't an island on a not-very-pedestrian-friendly street. Betty's excited about moving to the Noble Square restaurant row on Grand. "That place is double the size, there's more restaurants around there," she says. "Grand Avenue is changing; we love that we're going to be next to other restaurants." She's already met the owners of Two and Butterfly Sushi, and sees Gaudi Cafe fitting a family restaurant niche alongside more upscale date spots like those.
Betty says they'll be offering something different that the neighborhood doesn't have: "It's a very Italian neighborhood, with a lot of pizza places. We have a pizza oven, but we don't want to do what they do. We don't want to take the business from anybody. Maybe we're going to have Mexican pizza." She also looks forward to expanding the nighttime tapas menu (which Verònica tells me later is Betty's baby), freshening it up and adding more Latin-American flavors, and—if they get the liquor license—adding drinks like sangria to the menu.
Moving Gaudi Cafe, however, meant pushing back their other project, a Mexican street-food restaurant at the corner of Chicago and Damen in the old Lorraine's Diner space, which they're opening in partnership with longtime Gaudi customer, Dan Andrews. "It's called El Metro, like the Mexican subway," Betty explains. "It's going to be late-night dining. Street food is not too formal, but it's going to be good quality meat, it's fresh ingredients. Because [at] the taco place on the street, it's fresh because they don't have storage. They go and buy it every day. So that's our goal: to try and have it fresh. Fresh cilantro, fresh ingredients every day."
So street food means tacos, basically, but El Metro's not going to be exactly the same as every other taco joint, Betty says: "We're going to include some stews, where [at] taco places it's usually steak and al pastor and chicken—we in Mexico don't usually have chicken tacos. We'll include something like a taco alambre, which includes chicken [kabobs] bacon, green peppers, onions and cheese. But that's how you'll be able to get a real taco like people get in the streets in Mexico." They also plan to make aguas frescas in house, with ingredients like quinoa—"from my Aztec roots"—and chia seeds with lime water. "It's different [from Gaudi Cafe]—more fresh. More hipster," she says. She thinks the opening of El Metro should be no more than two months out.
Opening two restaurants might seem enough to be involved with for the short term, but Betty says they're always trying to learn about new things to make the restaurants better—she's been taking classes at Intelligentsia to improve their coffee (an important consideration for a place whose busiest time is still Sunday morning breakfast), and has been looking into taking culinary courses. She also says that her and Verònica's mom, who still lives in Mexico City, is going to culinary school with an eye on an extended visit to the new location. She says that's how it's been for their family since their father died: "We don't come from a very rich family. Everything that we do is by ourselves. When my father passed away I was 14 and [Verònica] was 11. Something like that can make you weak, but my mother made us stronger. She said, 'Now that he's not here, we have to make it ourselves.'"