A friend once described the ambiance at La Catedral Cafe and Restaurant as “magical” and the coffee and food as “delightful.”
Given that the iconic Little Village spot is named after the Guadalajara Cathedral in Jalisco, Mexico, the spiritual otherworldliness is apt.
The silhouette of the famous landmark is embedded in the restaurant’s eye-catching logo and, inside, the already extensive collection of crucifixes and religious figurines keeps growing as devoted customers bring their own souvenirs from their treks around the world.
Chef/owner Ambrocio Gonzalez also has the type of following reserved for holy leaders, drawing devotees who line up in droves during peak service times.
“Sometimes on Sunday, I don’t believe that this is my restaurant. Where did all these people come from?” Gonzalez said recently.
Many flock to La Catedral for its legendary cafe de olla — a Mexican coffee with cinnamon and brown sugar — and the 10 types of chilaquiles, a comfort meal of crispy fried tortillas with eggs, salsa, beans and cheese.
Gonzalez said he has continued adding new chilaquiles to the menu since he took over the restaurant, at 2500 S. Christiana, in 2011.
“If we’re still in business in 20 years, we’ll have 30 chilaquiles on the menu,” he said.
There’s also a full breakfast menu with omelettes, French toast and crepes. One of the most popular sweet crepes is filled with cajeta — a milk caramel rice pudding with banana, and topped with strawberry.
Lunch items, including paninis, salads and Mexican favorites round out the menu, since doors close at 3 p.m. A top seller is grilled steak or chicken covered in a fresh mango sauce served with rice and salad.
Gonzalez said his success comes from his kitchen team and servers, who he calls “a big family.”
“Everything I’ve dreamed of has happened because of this restaurant. … I’ve learned so much from my customers and my neighbors. Not just Mexicans [in Little Village] but Latinos from everywhere and people from everywhere come here,” he said.
Gonzalez started cooking at age 7 because his single mom worked long hours as a nurse in Guadalajara, Mexico. At 15, he went on the treacherous trip across the Arizona desert with his aunt and nephew. Eventually, they found their way to join relatives in Little Village.
“It’s like being in Mexico,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez believes the community’s strength lies in the support system and dedication of residents who shop and eat local. He tells me that he buys his groceries, gets his hair cut and buys his insurance in the neighborhood. Even though he has two other restaurants (in Lincoln Square and Berwyn), he’s devoted to his beloved Little Village.
Gonzalez also said he tries his best by focusing on his progress and not fixating on what others are doing. “And if I’m doing good, I have to do better and better,” he said.
“It makes me happy, [the neighborhood’s] been part of this success.”