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Tacos, Cocktails & Cult Films: Rojo Gusano is Not Your Average Taqueria

By Patty Wetli | December 22, 2015 6:45am
 Rojo Gusano ups the taco stakes in Albany Park.
Rojo Gusano
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ALBANY PARK — There are plenty of places to get a taco in Albany Park but it's a safe bet Rojo Gusano is the only one serving up a butternut squash and kale filling.

The restaurant is a collaboration between the owners of the former Mayan Sol (which the new taqueria replaces) and chef Dudley Nieto — known to foodies for opening Adobo Grill, Mezcalina and most recently Barbakoa. Rojo Gusano hopes to bring a more upscale approach to tacos while still emphasizing a casual, affordable vibe.

Drawing on Albany Park's mix of diverse cultures along with his own background as the son of a Mexican mother and Spanish father, Nieto marries ingredients and techniques from myriad cuisines.

The idea behind Rojo Gusano, 3830 W. Lawrence Ave., is to create a "tacopedia" of global flavors, he said.

In addition to Latino standbys like guacamole and a version of elote, the menu includes influences from Africa and Asia such as plantains, a Thai-inspired salsa and a vindaloo curry taco that started as a special but is likely to become a regular offering.

"All those flavors, when you put them in a blender, it creates something unique, exotic and comfortable," Nieto said.

Rojo Gusano's beverage list is similarly varied, featuring a near-equal split between boutique tequilas and bourbons.

"I love the rye, the bourbon that smells like earth," Nieto said.

The transformation of Mayan Sol to Rojo Gusano extends from the food to the decor, both of which are several notches above the storefront eateries more typically found on Lawrence Avenue.

"The neighborhood needed a place like this," he said, whether for date night, weekend brunch or drinks after work.

Nieto compared Albany Park to Soho and the Village in Manhattan, where he also opened restaurants.

"They were a little funky like this," he said.

For Nieto, cooking is ultimately about nurturing, regardless of where he's doing it.

His desire to become a chef was sparked as a youngster by watching his dad in the kitchen.

"I was amazed, 'How does he know how to do this and that?'" Nieto recalled. "I saw the soul that goes in, the passion that goes in. I want to provide that."

Though Nieto's reputation is likely to draw curious foodies from across the city, the restaurant is very much intended as a neighborhood joint, said Andrea Durón, a member of the ownership team.

"It looks nice, but we don't want it to be off-putting," said Durón, who had a hand in sanding, burning and otherwise "torturing" the restaurant's wood table tops to achieve the desired weathered effect.

Tacos top out at $3.50 and can be had for just $2 on Tuesdays. Cult and classic movies will screen on Wednesday, with popcorn tossed in for free.

And the Cordon Bleu-trained Nieto isn't above crafting a kids menu featuring chicken fingers and quesadillas.

"Kids want what they want," said the father of four grown children. "I understand."

"Freewheeling" is the word Nieto falls back on time and again to describe Rojo Gusano.

As proof, he points to the surf boards hanging in the main dining room, furnishings that evoke an easy breezy sun-bleached West Coast hangout, and the daily $10 shot-beer-taco happy hour special.

"It's a place to relax and enjoy," he said.

After more than three decades in the restaurant business, Nieto, 52, is ready to let loose himself.

"It's time for me to have fun," he said. "This is it, I'm having the greatest time."

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