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Mexican restaurants scramble, get creative to survive during tough pandemic times

Some in Chicago have offered outdoor dining for the first time. Others have tweaked their menus to be more carryout-friendly.

People dine at Mi Tierra’s outdoor patio. Like many restaurant s hurt by the pandemic, it converted its parking lot into a outdoor dining space to try to attract more patrons.
People dine at Mi Tierra’s outdoor patio. Like many restaurant s hurt by the pandemic, it converted its parking lot into a outdoor dining space to try to attract more patrons.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

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In the decade that Kevin Suarez has worked at Mi Tierra Restaurant in Little Village, he has seen the popular business go through a change of ownership, a fluctuating local economy, several makeovers and a variety of clientele and performers.

But never has the survival of the Mexican restaurant been so precarious as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It affected us because this restaurant has a lot of capacity and many employees on staff,” Suarez said. “In the beginning, we laid off a lot of people, and we’re practically counting this year as a loss.”

Latino restaurants had no choice but to adapt to the public health crisis. For many immigrant owners, their businesses are their only lifelines. It was do or die.

Mi Tierra, known for extravagant dishes consisting primarily of grilled meats and traditional cuisine, introduced a special menu — more reasonable portions and more affordable — that would make carryout options attractive. It also ramped up online sales with delivery via Uber, GrubHub and DoorDash.

A family is served drinks while sitting at Mi Tierra’s outdoor patio earlier this month. Mi Tierra converted their parking lot into a outdoor dining space due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A family is served drinks while sitting at Mi Tierra’s outdoor patio.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

“We then opened up our parking lot and took our live-music performances outdoors on weekends” after Mayor Lori Lightfoot relaxed pandemic restrictions on restaurants said Suarez, who is Mi Tierra’s general manager.

Alejandro Reyes, manager of La Costa Restaurant in Belmont-Cragin on the Northwest Side, said he didn’t understand the gravity of COVID-19 until his Chicago seafood providers halted operations.

“I was in awe because here we were, the crowds packing the place, with people lined up on the sidewalk to wait for a table, while the mariachi played,” Reyes said.

La Costa had 55 employees. Payroll was reduced to a rotation of 15 workers a day.

La Costa restaurant in Belmont-Cragin.
La Costa restaurant in Belmont-Cragin.
Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

The restaurant kept its regular menu, and carryout and delivery were surprisingly successful, according to Reyes, who says customers kept coming for its Nayarit-style dishes including shrimp empanadas, ceviches and spicy crab legs.

Mi Tierra and La Costa applied for temporary permits from the city of Chicago to offer outdoor dining when the city expedited the permit process because of the economic impact of the pandemic.

“The regular patio permit was a super-complicated process,” Reyes said. “It required architectural drawings, strict specifications. You gotta get your local authorities to sign off on it, like the alderman and the fire marshal. It’s a drag.”

More than 250 bars and restaurants have been able to apply to operate outdoors temporarily.

Aside from its back patio, La Costa has vertical windows on the front facade that open up like an accordion to give customers a view of the street. It allows for ventilation, while people waiting on the sidewalk can listen to the live norteño music playing inside.

Per city guidelines, restaurant operators do not need any additional permits to run “an indoor space where 50% or more of a wall can be removed via the opening of windows, doors, or panels.”

Those restaurants that didn’t seek a permit found other ways to operate safely during COVID-19, like setting up improvised food stands in front of their buildings.

Andrés Reyes of Birrieria Ocotlán had to close one of his two locations in the beginning of the stay-at-home order, while at the South Chicago location, “We put employees in hazmat suits and gloves while taking orders outside,” he said.

Eventually he reopened and installed a sliding walk-up window on the front of both restaurants, which have had great reception.

“Birria has been in my family for a little over a century now, my father began here in Chicago back in 1973,” he said of his family restaurants, which are famous for their traditional Jalisco-style goat dishes.

That legacy is why keeping the business going was not a question. Lately, he’s been promoting his own version of the trendy quesabirria, the “quesataco”, a street food that consists of a birria quesadilla that’s dunked in the goat broth.

Reyes recently purchased a food truck that he’s calling El Chivo (The Goat) on Wheels, and should be more dynamic to operate during the remainder of the pandemic.

Because outdoor dining can’t always be practical in Chicago.

“Winter is coming,” Suarez said. “Mi Tierra staff is bracing for any situation. We’re already discussing innovating safe ways to serve our customers well into next year.”