The good times return to beloved Little Village restaurant

Business dropped off by 75% at La Catedral during the pandemic.

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Ambrocio Gonzalez, owner of La Catedral restaurant in Little Village, is enjoying the good times after business dropped off by 75% during the pandemic.

Ambrocio Gonzalez, owner of La Catedral restaurant in Little Village, is enjoying the good times after business dropped off by 75% during the pandemic.

Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

Ten years ago, Ambrocio Gonzalez took a look at the stone building with the church-like turret and thought: This is never going to work as a Mexican restaurant.

He even considered covering the cream-colored stone work with orange and green paint.

But he and his business partner moved into the building at the corner of West 25th and South Christiana in the Little Village neighborhood — and it wasn’t too long before people were lining up, sometimes for two hours, to drink Gonzalez’s Mexican coffee and devour his chilaquiles.

Those hectic, happy days have returned to the popular La Catedral Cafe after months of agonizing worry and uncertainty during the pandemic.

“I feel like we are getting back to normal now. So we are very, very happy and very blessed,” Gonzalez said Friday morning, shortly after Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other dignitaries used the restaurant as a backdrop to talk about the post-pandemic recovery.

Gonzalez was on a dream vacation in Europe when the pandemic swept through. He cut the trip short, returning to Chicago in early March 2020. He was in quarantine for two weeks — but would look at the footage from his restaurant’s security cameras. Almost no one was coming to his restaurant.

During the worst of it, business dropped off by 75%, he said. Money from the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund helped, he said. The program provided funds equal to a business’ COVID-19-related revenue loss up to $10 million per business. The money doesn’t have to be repaid provided it’s used before March 11, 2023.

Demolishing the building next door to the restaurant also helped. It gave him space to put up an enormous tent for outdoor dining. He didn’t have to lay off any of his 17 employees, although he did have to cut their hours.

But the tent cost $3,000 a week to rent and the heaters didn’t do much to keep out the cold, he said.

“We had fun, the employees had fun — because it was something new for them, too,” Gonzalez said.

And now, with the city re-opening, the lines are back outside La Catedral. Inside on Friday, it was bustling — clinking plates, wait staff rushing from table to table between walls adorned with religious relics, some from Gonzalez’s native Guadalajara.

“I love this place because it’s so rich in culture. The staff is really friendly. The food, you can tell right away that they do it with love and it’s delicious,” said Heidy Rivera, 26, who was eating with her sister, Josie Rivera, both making their second trip to the restaurant in as many days.

Business is so good that Gonzalez is planning to expand into another space on the adjacent corner of the intersection.

“I feel like a rock star when I see a restaurant so packed,” he said.

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