Working his way up from dishwasher to chef at some of the finest restaurants in Mexico, Samuel Linares learned that quality ingredients and expert cooking were key to success. And that a little showmanship also wouldn’t hurt.
He had his employees start making fragrant corn tortillas by hand in the window of the restaurant he opened in Little Village, La Casa de Samuel.
“He’d make tortillas, put it on the table fresh and warm, and they loved it,” said his daughter Maribel.
Instead of watering down Mexican dishes for U.S. tastes, he introduced diners to regional specialties like iguana, rattlesnake and criadillas Guerrero-style — grilled bull testicles. He also offered Guerrero’s complex moles and the dried, salted, thin-sliced meat known as cecina, which he offered in both beef and venison.
“People come here because they love to eat the best of Mexico,” he once said.
Mr. Linares died Monday at Rush University Medical Center after contracting the coronavirus, according to his daughter. He was 76.
“We tried to call him every day just to make sure we were there for him,” she said of his time in the hospital. “We made sure we told him we wanted him to come back home.”
All he wanted was to be with his family, she said: “He loved seeing the grandchildren running in the yard.”
Restaurant critics heaped lavish praise on his tortillas, tacos and meats. The Chicago Tribune named La Casa de Samuel one of the city’s “essential” Mexican restaurants. The Chicago Reader called his venison “an absolute knockout dish.”
His restaurant, operating for 32 years at the same spot at 2834 W. Cermak Rd., helped birth about 20 more Chicago-area Mexican businesses and restaurants that were started by people he trained, according to his relatives.
“The American dream coming true — it’s incredible how many complete families have many businesses” thanks to Mr. Linares’ guidance, his daughter said.
He was born in the Mexican state of Guerrero in the town of San Francisco, where his parents Gabino and Efigenia were farmers. Feeding 10 children wasn’t easy. At times, they went hungry. Samuel, the oldest, left home when he was only 13 or 14, and, with another boy from his town, headed to Acapulco, which in the 1950s was turning into a magnet for the rich and famous.
“Little kids,” his daughter said, “moving there to get a better life for my grandparents and his family.”
After being hired as a dishwasher, he took to the kitchen. He worked at Acapulco restaurants including Dino’s and “started learning and learning,” she said.
Young Samuel moved on to Mexico City, where he worked at La Mansion, Doña Concha Y Don T-Bone and Los Guajalotes, a restaurant that fed the artistic and well-heeled crowds from Plaza Mexico, the world’s largest bullring. President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines was said to be a loyal patron.
He kept sending money home to his family and moving up. At one restaurant, said his son Arturo, he worked for a member of the Cardini family, who’ve been credited with popularizing the Caesar salad.
Mr. Linares had relatives and friends in Chicago, so he immigrated in 1986 to try his hand at the city’s restaurant scene. He worked at El Chile restaurant and the Columbia Yacht Club before opening La Casa de Samuel.
At one point, he had four Chicago locations with that same name, according to his son. More recently, Mr. Linares ran another La Casa de Samuel in Waukegan, but it closed temporarily during the pandemic.
His customers included Mayor Richard M. Daley, and he once catered a party for Tejano superstar Selena during a Chicago appearance, relatives said.
“My father had two loves: his family and cooking for the customers,” his son said. “He always told me, ‘When I see the people eat my food, and I see in their eyes that they like it, it is everything for me.’ ”
“He was a very good father,” his daughter said. “He never would shout at us. He was so patient. He worked to make sure we could eat. He suffered a lot of hunger when he was little. And he always wanted us to keep studying.”
All four of his children went to college.
In addition to his children Maribel and Arturo, Mr. Linares is survived by his wife Alicia, daughter Sarai, son Jorge and 11 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were pending.
Since he’d worked in a variety of Mexico’s five-star restaurants, his son Arturo once asked him to name the best dish he ever tasted.
His father had an easy answer: “The food that my mother cooked for me.”
Contributing: Elvia Malagón