With her Chicago restaurant Mi Tocaya Antojería, Diana Dávila is paying homage to Mexico’s history while pushing the cuisine and industry forward.
“You can tell people that I'm a witch,” says Dávila, chef-owner of Chicago Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant Mi Tocaya Antojería.
Dávila likens witchcraft to cooking: one adds things to a pot—a little bit of that, a dash of this. “If you understand all your ingredients, you know what you're doing to the person. Magic! It’s witchcraft!” she says.
Dávila, for certain, understands her ingredients. Every element on her menu—from the burrata to the raw cactus in the Ensalada de Nopales—has been studied; every dish—from the Flan de Queso to the Chips y Salsa—has a purpose.
She believes when food is stripped of its story, it risks falling into the trap that a lot of Mexican food has in America: a menu item without meaning, reinterpreted in a way that may be more palatable to the unfamiliar but also perpetuating misinformation. “Mexico is a very large country with a lot of really rich history about food,” Dávila says. Educating guests is one way she honors her culture.
Tossing up tradition
Mi Tocaya is an antojería, which means it is nostalgic and offers food that guests grew up with. A mix of patterns, from tiles to murals, creates a festive vibe in the space while modern elements like industrial exposed ductwork and unassuming furniture conveys the restaurant means business. “Mexican food has been cooked by women for centuries and centuries,” Dávila says. “To me, it's all about honoring that food that has been passed down from generation to generation and sharing it.”
Dávila offers quick, intentioned, and researched explanations for each dish on her menu. “Every dish has a story. It’s based on our tradition or it's personal in a sense of something that I have experienced,” she says.
The Spaghetti Squash "Elote Style" with lump crab, corn, brown butter, and chile?
“So many people have had Mexican elotes before,” she says. “It's taking what everybody loves about a Mexican elote, but in a different platform using spaghetti squash, which—in many ways—the flavor profile reminds me of corn.”
The Fried Oyster Taco with salsa Veracruzana?
“That was actually a taco that I made for an event to honor a mentor,” she says without skipping a beat. Specifically, she was honoring Giuseppe Tentori, with whom she worked at Boka in Chicago. “They have a great oyster program, so I did a fried oyster taco, which, honestly, I don't know if I've ever heard of that before. I just thought that it was very different,” she says. The squid ink tortillas add another element of the ocean to the dish, and the salsa Veracruzana, famous in the state of Veracruz, also plays well with the seafood. Adding a bit of herself to the traditional sauce, Dávila composes this salsa in a not-so-traditional technique. “Instead of stewing the sauce, it’s steeped in an orange vinegar that we make and a roasted garlic-chile oil. It almost reminds me more of a chimichurri, but, when you taste it, it’s undoubtedly a salsa Veracruzana.”
That gets to one of the major themes of her restaurant. “We're based off tradition, but I don’t want to do the same thing every time,” Dávila explains. To the classic or historical dishes she pays homage to on the menu, Dávila aims to put her own spin. “It's being able to add a little something of myself to a piece of history,” she says.
Read More: 5 Questions with Diana Dávila
Dávila’s guacamole, for example, utilizes chile ash derived from a pre-Hispanic technique that involves incinerating chiles to make an ash. Historically this ash was used for sauces, but also for writing and dyes. “It’s something people probably first think is a new technique or very modern, but it's actually very, very old and part of the birth of Mexican cuisine,” Dávila says. “In Mexico, a traditional guacamole is smashed avocado, with a little bit of lime, salt, and chile—and sometimes garlic. I wanted to highlight the old way of doing it.”