Why you should care
Because Mexican food is more than Chipotle.
In the early afternoon light, Mi Tocaya Antojería is tranquil — a far cry from the bustling hotspot it will become when dinner service begins at 5 pm. Diana Dávila, wearing a sweatshirt with her dark hair pulled tightly into a side braid, brews herself a cup of coffee during a break in her pre-service prep. But the kitchen waits for no one — not even its head chef — and Dávila’s attention is as hot a commodity as her mole.
A mezcal vendor is at the back door. A station chef asks for the list of that day’s prep tasks. Dávila is in demand by the restaurant world at large too. Mi Tocaya, which opened in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in 2017, has put the 36-year-old on the map; Food & Wine named her one of its best new chefs for 2018, while Bon Appétit did the same with her restaurant.
Dávila is one of the country’s few female head chefs (the post skews 78.4 percent male, according to Data USA) and she’s normalizing Mexican cuisine’s inclusion among prestige “cheffy” restaurants despite a pervasive American sentiment that ethnic food should be cheap and fast. Only five of 171 Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.S. are Mexican.
If you think Mexican food should be a value, this isn’t for you.
Though she’s a second-generation restaurateur — Dávila grew up working in her immigrant parents’ taqueria and upscale Mexican restaurant in the South Side of Chicago, spending her summers in Mexico — she hid her ambition from her folks at first, expecting they’d want her to be a lawyer or accountant. Dávila needn’t have worried. “My mom’s very artsy, and my dad’s very free-spirited. They always fostered the arts with us,” she says. Dávila’s sister works in film and her brother is a musician. After Dávila revealed her dream, her mom booked her a trip to Oaxaca to learn the craft.
She returned to climb the culinary ladder in Chicago, eager to join restaurants where she enjoyed eating in the first place. As a teenager, Dávila collected menus from her favorite Chicago restaurants and asked the chefs to sign them, like her peers might have done with their favorite Bulls players.
She relocated to Washington, D.C. with her husband, Joe, in 2008. It was there Dávila earned her first head chef job, thanks to well-known restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum. “When I was looking for my chef, I thought I was looking for somebody who had already made a name, but I interviewed those people and I wasn’t impressed,” says Greenbaum. “There were very few female head chefs at that time too. So I gave Diana a shot, and I was impressed with her right away.” Dávila cooked short ribs and greens — a modern take on soul food — for Greenbaum at her home. “You could feel how ambitious she was; she had such a creative mind, and she was very nervous, which I thought was cute,” Greenbaum says.
Indeed, Dávila’s personality shines in her cooking and in her interviews, where she isn’t afraid to say exactly what she’s thinking. Unfortunately, the ingredients comprising her career have included pinches of sexism and racism.
When Dávila was pregnant with her first of two children, a close friend assumed she wouldn’t go back to work. He asked her, “Who’s going to raise your child then?” “Me, you asshole,” she replied. Upon moving to D.C. as a sous chef, Dávila hadn’t experienced sexism in the kitchen. That quickly changed, as she recalls comments from other cooks like “I’m not going to listen to you because you’re a woman and no bitch is going to tell me what to do.”
In January, Greenbaum came to Chicago to eat at Dávila’s buzzy antojería (a small-plate-focused restaurant serving antojitos, or “little cravings”). “The place represents Diana so well,” says Greenbaum. “She’s such a little spitfire of a person. The place has that lively, colorful, energetic vibe to it, and that’s very much Diana.”
The word Dávila uses repeatedly to describe Mi Tocaya is nostalgia. “It revolves around your family, your culture, your upbringing, and it’s a perfect way to showcase the Mexican food I wanted to make,” she says. The fast-food Mexican restaurants catering to Americans are typically a means to an end; they allow people to own their own businesses. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but many times people think this is what Mexican food is,” she says. “‘I see Mexicans cooking it, so it must be Mexican food.’ It’s very ignorant and really racist.”
That manifests in some Mi Tocaya patrons bemoaning what they perceive as a pricey menu. Meals run around $60 for two, without alcohol — though it would be easy to order double that amount. “Our prices are really, really low,” Dávila says. “I sell a taco for $4 that’s smoked Amish beer can chicken with red onions and cabbage and lime mayonesa that we make here, and salsa borracha con xoconostle and a tortilla and epazote. All of those things for four fucking dollars!
“If you don’t see the value, then you don’t see the value,” she says with a shrug. “I’m not doing any of this to cater to somebody. I’m doing this to share. And if you think Mexican food should be a value, this isn’t for you.”
As dinnertime creeps closer, Mi Tocaya comes alive. Dishes clatter in the kitchen, and the front-of-house staff arrives for work. Dávila’s sous chef, Juan Meza, ties an apron around his hips as he chats with her about the evening service. His favorite thing about working with her is her creativity. “I have no idea where it comes from,” Meza says. They agree the chef’s “spirit animal is an octopus, because of her many arms and the way that she handles herself, just being all over the place.”
Still, Dávila dismisses the notion of reaching her arms beyond Mi Tocaya toward a culinary empire. She’s living the dream now. At the end of their pre-service meeting, Dávila and her colorful staff will recite their nightly rallying chant: “Mi Tocaya en tres: Uno, dos, tres, Mi Tocaya!” Then they’ll work together on creating the dishes that have materialized from Dávila’s vision and experiences: nostalgic yet forward-looking, traditional yet modern.
OZY’s 5 Questions for Diana Dávila
- What’s the last book you read? I’m doing some new menu writing, so I’m carrying around, like, six books and flipping through them.
- What do you worry about? My kids. I want to make sure they know that the world is open and how to deal with things and to be happy.
- Who’s your hero? The only person I’ve ever had a healthy obsession with is Madonna.
- What’s your spirit animal? An octopus.
- What’s your favorite taco? Anytime, anywhere, if an al pastor taco is on the menu, I order it. I’m always in search of the perfect al pastor.
Read more: This Nigerian chef is a culinary Wizard of Oz.