How Do You Replace A Beloved 54-Year-Old Restaurant?
Natalie Escobar | Chicago Magazine | May 1st, 2017
Danny Gutierrez Jr. can recall every moment of December 2, 2015. He had been sleeping on the sofa in the second-floor apartment above his family’s Pilsen restaurant Nuevo León, shortly after closing it for the night. Alone in the building, he had only slept for 15 minutes before he woke up engulfed in black smoke.
He couldn’t see his hand in front of him. “I got up from the sofa, screaming, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’” he says. He fumbled his way out of the burning 18th Street apartment in his boxers, and made it into the street where he called 911 on his cell phone. Neighbors and local business owners in the historically Mexican neighborhood gathered around and gave him a jacket, shirt, pants, and shoes until his family—father Danny Sr., mother Maria, and sisters Leticia, Marissa, and Cynthia—arrived.
The restaurant manager, upon finding out about the fire, called Nuevo León employees to let them know what happened. About 45 of them showed up and stayed with the family from midnight until six in the morning as firefighters tried to extinguish the flames. They stood and watched as the building, owned by their family for 54 years, burned to the ground. That night, father and son vowed to rebuild the restaurant.
But that may not happen anymore. Despite rumors that Nuevo León would reopen this summer, 70-year-old Danny Sr. says he is hesitant to go through with rebuilding. The family has not yet made a final decision.
Danny Jr. says the grieving process for the history-packed old restaurant has taken longer than expected. “Many people see it as a commercial restaurant, as a business. But it’s very personal,” the 45-year-old says. After the fire, they learned that rebuilding would mean months of construction. Danny Sr. was growing listless, and the former employees of Nuevo Leon, whom the Gutierrezes consider family, were beginning to move on to new jobs.
Instead, Danny Jr. came up with a different plan—a risky one that would require lots of goodwill from his staff and community. The family owns a building across the street from Nuevo León; for years, they rented it out for private parties. Danny Jr. dreamed of opening a restaurant of his own.
With Nuevo León reduced to rubble, along with much of Danny Jr.’s savings, the family needed to do something fast. So he went to his employees, many of whom had worked with him for more than a decade. “I said, ‘Listen, the business burned down,’” he explains. “‘All my personal money that I had stashed burned down. I don’t have any money to pay you. But if you’re with me, and if you help me build and finish building what I have, I promise I will give you all jobs.’”
On one Monday morning in February, Danny Sr., stands in front of a giant chopping board, squinting through narrow brown glasses as he concentrates on dicing a mountain of chicharones with a cleaver the size of his forearm. He’s been here since 6:30 a.m., and he’ll leave at 3 p.m. when his son arrives to supervise dinner service. But this isn’t Nuevo León—this is Cantón Regio, the Mexican steakhouse that Danny Jr. and his band of loyal workers built.
In a Christmas party a few weeks after the fire, all restaurant employees received $300 apiece through a GoFundMe page started by members of the community. It wasn’t an easy transition period, says server Hector Perez, 23. Along with around 20 other former Nuevo León workers—the “chosen few,” as they call themselves—he worked unpaid for a month to see what could be salvaged from the old restaurant. There wasn’t much left, says server Jhoan Camarena, 26—only silverware and plates that needed to be washed.
Much of Cantón Regio’s interior was already in place; the workers helped get the building ready to serve customers, complete with tables for dining and a fully equipped kitchen. Meanwhile, Danny Jr. worked with Alderman Danny Solis and local business owners to navigate the permit and inspection process.
Perez says he burned through his savings during this time. Neither he nor Camarena was too worried, though. Both had received job offers from other businesses around Pilsen; both turned them down because they believed Danny Jr.’s promise that he’d put them back to work.
The grand opening came and went on in mid-January 2016, with lines going out the door and all the waiters working double shifts. Finally, the money started coming in. The restaurant wasn’t turning a profit, but the workers were getting paychecks. “We started having little meetings telling us “it’s gonna be okay, we’re gonna make it up,’” Camarena says. “[He told us,] ‘All I really want is for you guys to get paid.’”
Danny Jr. says with pride, “They stood by me for 30 days.” To both father and son, this loyalty between the family and the workers has been crucial to their longevity. Several of Nuevo Leon’s 50-or-so employees had worked there for 30 years; one waitress retired in 2015 after 45 years.
Danny Sr. can even rattle off how long each server has been working with the family. He points at one server in the corner of the new restaurant: “He was a busboy, over there.” He calls out, “Valente!” and gestures for him to come over. Valente, tall with spiky black hair and a kind smile, walks over. “How old were you when you started working?” Gutierrez asks him in Spanish, to which Valente responds, “Dieciseis” (16). “And how old are you now?” Gutierrez asks. “Treinta y cuatro” (34).
On an average Sunday afternoon at Cantón Regio—prime time for families to come in for a late lunch—the smell of mesquite and hickory-smoked meat greets those who walk through the door. Groups huddle inside the entrance at 1510 West 18th Street while dodging the all-male waitstaff armed with sizzling plates of chicken, kilos of arrachera steak, and corn tortillas. The music, alternating between reggaeton and norteño beats, reduces most of the chatter to a hum, occasionally pierced by the porcelain clang of a plate falling to the floor.
Little about Cantón Regio feels like the old restaurant. A wrought-iron staircase connects two floors of tables. A high-beamed ceiling vaults up to the heavens like a church. Instead of being hidden away, a kitchen lies in plain sight. Instead of Nuevo León’s pastel pink laminated tabletops and rickety chairs, there are heavy pine tables and chairs imported from Mexico. Worn leather saddles and framed lotería cards hang from Cantón Regio’s exposed brick and canary yellow walls.
Old street signs for Sabinas Hidalgo and Monterrey hint at the decor’s inspiration: the Gutierrez family’s hometown. “The brick and the wood and the iron chandeliers and staircase, that’s all Mexico,” Danny Jr. says. “I wanted to bring back a little of what Mexico is to me, here to Chicago.”
It’s bittersweet for him. He long dreamed of running his own place, serving up Northern Mexico-style barbecue in family-style dinners. But he still remembers fondly how he used to poke holes in Nuevo León’s 50-pound flour bags and drive the cooks crazy.
“It took a while for us to move forward. It’s only been a year [since the fire], but it was a very personal blow,” Danny Jr. says, adding it took six or seven months to fully process that the old restaurant was gone.
For Danny Sr., Cantón Regio’s success and the loyalty of its staff partially feeds his reservations about rebuilding Nuevo León. His son would still be primarily running Cantón Regio, where almost half the workers from the old restaurant work; the rest of Nuevo Leon’s former employees have retired or found work elsewhere. He’s worried any new employees might not live up to the “Nuevo León way.” Danny Jr. doesn’t think that the two restaurants would compete for customers, but father and son recognize that there’s no way to know for sure.
It’s far from certain whether the reopening will happen, or when, but Danny Jr. insists the decision will be one the family makes together. For now, there are no formal plans.
He hopes that they will start rebuilding sometime in 2017. After all, the neighborhood misses the old place. His new restaurant’s menu doesn’t feature the chicken mole and enchiladas that old patrons still ask him about “a hundred times a day.”
Seeing the boarded-up old Nuevo León building pains Danny Sr., too. “It’s a tradition, you know, in Pilsen. This was the oldest restaurant in Pilsen,” he says. “When people open a restaurant and it lasts 10 years, you gotta be doing something good. When you last 20 years, you’re great. And when you last, like we did, for over 30 years, you’re a legend.”
In the meantime, though, Perez and Camarena say that they’re more than happy working at the new restaurant. They like the upscale concept, smaller menu, and bigger tips. Danny Jr. still hopes his family can bring back the old restaurant, but for now, this is enough.