ALBANY PARK — As a former line cook at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, where he worked under one of the top chefs in the U.S., Anselmo Ramirez knows a little something about performing under pressure.
But with his own Albany Park restaurant, Ixcateco Grill, set to open at 5 p.m. sharp on Wednesday, Ramirez confessed to a major case of nerves.
Anselmo Ramirez, chef/owner of Ixcateco Grill. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
Buzz around Ixcateco has built to a roar in recent days, fueled in part by Ramirez' association with Rick Bayless, and the 35-year-old self-taught chef is worried he'll fall short of expectations.
"We're a casual restaurant, not fancy," he said. "My menu is going to be simple."
Larry Butcher, a retired maître d' and manager at Topolobampo, who's taken on the role of Ixcateco's head cheerleader, said his friend is just being modest.
Patty Wetli says the block is experiencing a mini-boom:
Ramirez' menu may be "simple" in the sense that it will feature fewer than a dozen items, but it has "great complexity in terms of flavor," Butcher said.
"Having watched Anselmo in this venture, he has all the basics and knowledge ... but it's his creativity — he gets to create his own flavors and his own dishes," said Butcher.
Though the menu will change frequently to accommodate seasonal ingredients, Ramirez' moles are sure to take center stage.
Pollo en Mole Negro: Roasted chicken served in black mole with mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables. [Ixcateco Grill]
It's "very instinctive" the way he combines as many as 30 ingredients in his chile pepper-based sauces, Ramirez said. The key is "exceptionally long cooking," with moles simmering away on the stovetop all day long.
"I like to call him the 'Rembrandt of mole,' " said Antone Jacobs, another Bayless vet who's on board at Ixcateco as general manager.
The sauces "play out like a fine wine," Jacobs said, some light and some earthy and smoky.
Though Ramirez honed his technique in Chicago kitchens, Ixcateco's menu reflects the cuisine of his native Mexico. He moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 12 and got his first restaurant job as a 16-year-old.
His resume includes stints at Prairie Grass under award-winning chef Sarah Stegner and most recently at Mixteco Grill.
"When I started working at Frontera on the line, that's when I really felt 'This is what I want to do,'" Ramirez said.
In much the same way, Ramirez knew immediately when he saw the storefront at 3402 W. Montrose Ave. that he had found the perfect home for Ixcateco.
Brightly colored interior of Ixcateco Grill. [Ixcateco Grill]
During a year-long search for a location, Ramirez considered spots close to his Cicero home, as well as Lincoln Square, but none were the right fit.
"As soon as I got here, I knew this is the place," Ramirez said.
Ixcateco is situated not only near the bustling corner of Kimball and Montrose, but also smack on the border of Albany Park and Irving Park.
"It's a hub," he said.
Ramirez also noticed the absence of restaurants serving the sort of refined dishes he plans to offer.
"There's no Mexican like what we want to do," he said. "We'll have something different for the whole family."
Initially Ixcateco will be open for dinner only. Ramirez plans to add weekend brunch in a month. The restaurant is BYOB and does accept reservations by calling 773-539-5887.
Calabacitas Rellenas Vegetarianas: Mexican green squash stuffed with seasoned vegetables, served in yellow mole, chihuahua melted cheese. [Ixcateco Grill]
Camarones: Wood-grilled shrimp served in tomato cream sauce with oyster mushrooms. [Ixcateco Grill]
Ceviche: Tilapia marinated in lime juice, cilantro, serrano, celery, tomato, tomatillo habanero. [Ixcateco Grill]
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