LOGAN SQUARE — When the owners of Don Chema moved from Mexico to Chicago three decades ago, they weren’t planning to open a restaurant in their new hometown. But their traditional Mexican eatery became the center of their lives, a home base for their two families.
Even so, the family-owned business wasn’t able to survive the coronavirus pandemic — and gentrification in Logan Square.
Don Chema at 2331 N. California Ave. closed last weekend after 24 years, following many other Latino business owners who have closed businesses in the neighborhood over the last several years.
For owners Lazaro Efrain Estrada and Maria Cruz, this isn’t end of their restaurant career — far from it. Estrada and Cruz have two other restaurants, and Estrada is opening a third restaurant on Logan Square’s Fullerton Avenue.
Still, the closure of Don Chema on California Avenue, the one that started it all, stings. Asked how it felt to close the restaurant after nearly 25 years, Estrada said, “Mal … muchos años aquí” — bad … so many years here.
Estrada opened Don Chema in 1997 with his friend Reymundo Garcia. The two served tacos, burritos and other traditional Mexican fare at cheap prices. A few years later, as the two business owners started to build a customer base, Reymundo Garcia’s wife, Maria Cruz stepped in to help.
The two families grew closer as the years went on and after Reymundo Garcia died. The owners watched their kids and grandkids grow up in and around Don Chema.
Cristina Garcia, 24, Garcia and Cruz’s daughter, said she has fond memories of going to get chocolates with Estrada near the restaurant when she was young. The two families have shared a two-level home in Humboldt Park for the last decade.
Over the last several years, the owners started to feel the impact of gentrification. It became harder to keep up with the constantly rising rent for the restaurant. Some of their longtime customers had stopped coming in, having been priced out of the neighborhood themselves.
In recent years, several upscale apartment towers have sprouted up near the restaurant at Milwaukee and California avenues, one directly across the street from Don Chema. Meanwhile, nearby Mexican eateries like Dos Amigos and Panaderia La Central have closed.
“We had good customers that used to come here daily but rent went up and obviously they can’t pay that rent,” Cristina Garcia said. “(Regulars) don’t come anymore because there’s no parking, they feel like it’s too expensive, they don’t feel comfortable.”
Then the pandemic hit and Don Chema, like so many other small businesses across the city, suffered greatly. Estrada said business took a nosedive because people couldn’t eat out because of city restrictions, or were afraid to once indoor dining began reopening. Partnering with third-party delivery apps like Grubhub and UberEats didn’t amount to much because of the steep fees, he said.
Estrada and Cruz have to be out of the California Avenue restaurant by the end of the month. They said the property owner wants to open a hair salon in its place.
But Estrada and Cruz both have a lot to look forward to despite the big change. Estrada is opening a new Don Chema restaurant at 3721 W. Fullerton Ave., this one specializing in seafood. He’s also continuing to run his restaurant 3434 W. North Ave., called Chema’s. Cruz will continue to run La Catrina at 3924 W. Diversey Ave., while also stepping back to spend more time with her grandkids.
As the two gear up to clear out the original Don Chema, they said they’re immensely grateful for all of their customers who have been a part of their journey and they hope they’ll continue to support them by patronizing their other restaurants.
“Thank you to all of the customers for coming and helping us,” Estrada said in Spanish through a translator. “Without them, we wouldn’t have anything.”
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