PILSEN — A restaurant that brought people from all over the city — and the world — to Pilsen was destroyed in an extra-alarm fire Wednesday morning, but community leaders vowed to bring Nuevo Leon back to life as soon as possible.
The fire in the three-story building started about 12:30 a.m. in the 1500 block of West 18th Street and developed into a 2-11 fire, according to Chicago Fire Department officials.
With about 100 firefighters from 39 different companies on hand, the fire was snuffed out around 3:30 a.m., according to the Fire Department's Media Affairs division.
No one was injured in the fire, and the cause is still under investigation, officials said.
Manager Danny Gutierrez, Jr., whose parents founded the restaurant in 1962, said he was sleeping in an apartment above the building when he was awoken by the smell of smoke and rushed outside. Visibly exhausted Wednesday, Gutierrez said he had "mixed emotions" about the fire.
"This is so devastating for so many people, but at the same time I have to thank God I'm still breathing," Gutierrez said outside the restaurant. "If I had stayed in there any longer, I could be dead."
Gutierrez wasn't able to recover anything from the building before it was destroyed, he said, with untold numbers of pictures and mementos going up in flames.
"I have so many great memories of growing up in this place, learning recipes from my grandma and flipping tortillas until my fingers burned on both hands," Gutierrez said. "Now we'll just have to focus on building some new memories."
Early Wednesday, Ald. Danny Solis (25th) said he plans to meet with city officials in an effort to speed up the opening of a second bar/restaurant owned by the Gutierrez family across the street from the original Nuevo Leon location to make sure the restaurant's 60 workers are not out of work for long.
Opening the second, smaller restaurant will help keep some of Nuevo Leon's employees working while crews work to rebuild the original restaurant, Solis said. Many of Nuevo Leon's employees live in the neighborhood.
Gutierrez's employees, he said, were his main concern.
"No matter how much space we have to rent out, the priority right now is making sure these guys can keep working and feeding their families through Christmas," Gutierrez said.
By 7:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, "some smoldering fire" was still active inside the building, Deputy Fire Chief John McNicholas said at the scene. At 9 a.m., firefighters still had a hose blasting water at the building's rear.
Board-up service workers were waiting outside for representatives of the city's Building Commission to give the go-ahead to start patching up the windows and doors, McNicholas said.
Around the same time, workers from Peoples Gas were digging in front of the building to shut off its gas service. After hearing of a possible gas leak inside, one worker said, they were trying to "cut it off at the head" as soon as they could.
Tortilleria Sabinas, a tortilla factory next-door to Nuevo Leon, suffered minor roof damage from the fire, according to plant manager Ernesto Avina.
Around 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, at the time Avina got a call saying the factory was on fire, a night crew was working in the building, he said.
"It was such a relief when I got here and found out they had all evacuated," Avina said.
After the fire abated, Avina said, firefighters escorted him into the factory, where they found "very little damage" aside from some leaks in the roof. Depending on the degree of damage to the roof, which firefighters hadn't inspected yet, the plant may continue operations as early as Wednesday night, he said.
Nuevo Leon has been family-operated since it opened in 1962. Over the years, the Mexican restaurant has welcomed a number of Hispanic celebrities and local politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former Gov. Pat Quinn, Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Sheen.
Solis said that Nuevo Leon is a staple in Pilsen and considered one of the best Mexican restaurants in the city.
The restaurant "is particularly significant to me because Nuevo Leon is the state in Mexico where my family is from. [Owner] Danny [Sr.] and I have known each other since we were kids," Solis said. "It's very important to me that we work to get this fixed up as quickly as possible."
The loss of a community staple like Nuevo Leon, Avina said, would send shockwaves to residents and business owners throughout the area.
"It really is gonna hurt all the local business around here, since a lot of people would go eat there then buy souvenirs or groceries nearby," Avina said. "I really hope they decide to rebuild and somehow reopen. This place is an anchor in Pilsen ... I can't imagine what this neighborhood would be like without it."
When Juan Santoyo, owner of the nearby Centro Botanico Guadalupano pharmacy, heard about the fire in the middle of the night, he said he couldn't go back to sleep.
"I was so worried, I couldn't do anything but come into work early," said Santoyo, who opened his business on 18th Street in 1990. "This is going to be very bad for small businesses around here.
"We might even see some of them have to close."
Long before the area started developing in earnest about 10 years ago, Santoyo said, Nuevo Leon was attracting newcomers of all stripes to the block.
"Even back in the '90s, there were lots of white people coming down here to eat, then afterward they'd come into my shop for some herbal tea or medicine," Santoyo said. "It brought tourism, new businesses, schools ... all good things. If they don't do something to rebuild or replace [Nuevo Leon], I think things may start to go in the other direction."
Nuevo Leon restaurant in Pilsen was destroyed in an extra-alarm fire Wednesday morning. [Byron Sigcho]
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