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Jefferson Park, Portage Park, Norwood Park

Iztatl Cocina Mexicana Brings A Family-Run Restaurant With Fresh Cultural Flavors To Jefferson Park

Owner Victor Martinez worked for years in the food business, even helping his family run a taqueria, before deciding to try his luck at opening his own spot.

Iztatl Cocina Mexicana, 4808 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Jefferson Park, serves up authentic Mexican food like fried chile relleno tacos, classic veggie tacos and meat varieties.
Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago
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JEFFERSON PARK — Iztatl Cocina Mexicana has only been open a few days — but it’s already attracting customers.

Owner Victor Martinez worked for years in the food business, even helping his family run a taqueria, before deciding to try his luck at opening his own spot. The result: Iztatl Cocina Mexicana, which seeks to serve affordable, authentic Mexican food at 4808 N. Milwaukee Ave.

“We thought it was a great opportunity because we don’t see a lot of small restaurants for the community,” Martinez said. “We put all of our savings into this.”

Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago
Iztatl Cocina Mexicana, 4808 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Jefferson Park, offers classic Mexican dishes and twists on popular items, which can all be made vegetarian.

Martinez, 28, took over the location late last year after connecting with the owner through his mother, who owns Rolando’s Tacos, ​​2322 N. Cicero Ave. The Milwaukee Avenue restaurant was once home to Taqueria La Estrella, which closed at the beginning of the pandemic.

Martinez offers popular Mexican staples. He also plans to highlight cultural dishes from his family’s home of Guerrero, Mexico, that aren’t as well-known, including sweet mole, sopes with savory toppings and gorditas. He is working with the restaurant’s chefs to expand its vegetarian menu and create dishes that will be unveiled in the next month.

“People think Mexican food and the first thing they think of is tacos, burritos, tortas,” Martinez said. “We want to bring more of our culture. Some of [the dishes] will have some twists since we can’t find certain fresh ingredients here, but they will still be really similar.”

Martinez and his family want to focus on healthy, flavorful recipes that pay homage to his roots and ancestors — and that starts with the restaurant’s name.

“Ztatl” means “salt” in Nahuatl, the ancient Aztec language. An avid fan of history, Martinez said he studied the intersections of diet, culture and deities and found the importance of salt stuck with him. Seeing how integral salt is to food preservation and culture — and its representation of fertility, survival and wealth by Huixtocihuatl, the Aztec goddess of salt — made Martinez think the name would be a perfect sprinkle of history and curiosity to share with customers.

“Ztatl” might be tricky to pronounce, Martinez said, so he encouraged people to give the original pronunciation a shot or ask about it. (It’s eats-TAT-el).

“It’s tricky, but it makes people wonder at the end of the day,” he said.

Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago
Iztatl Cocina Mexicana, 4808 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Jefferson Park, opened March 4 for takeout. The dining room will be open at the end of April.

Martinez plans to open the Iztatl dining room at the end of April with a special sit-down menu. He hopes to also get a big sign for the restaurant’s exterior to catch drivers and passersby — though he’s not having a difficult time attracting customers. Several neighbors streamed into the restaurant for lunch Tuesday, looking for a fresh bite.

“I’m so happy to have this restaurant open — it’s a new change, and [Martinez] is young,” said Karl Rivera, who lives above the restaurant and has ordered from Iztatl twice already.

The longtime Jefferson Park resident said Iztatl has affordable prices and twists on classic cuisines that are hard to come by in the neighborhood. He said he is also pleased to see a business take over the long-empty space.

“I see a lot of potential,” Rivera said. “I hope he will do better than the previous restaurant. This is a good area because there are not a lot of Mexican restaurants here in Jefferson Park, so there’s no competition.”

Rolando Rodriguez, vice president of neighborhood group Jefferson Park Forward, said it’s exciting a business is bringing culinary diversity close to the area’s transit hub. He plans to check out the restaurant soon.

“Even small purveyors of food, such as tacos, brings a little extra flavor to the business district,” Rodriguez said.

Martinez hopes to wake up the corner as other independent businesses, public spaces and housing developments open up nearby.

“Chicago is growing big, so I feel like there’s going to be more people coming to the area,” Martinez said. “It looks like a nice neighborhood and a good location. There are not enough nice, family-owned businesses for food.”

Iztatl is open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. daily for takeout and delivery through GrubHub. Call 773-413-7918 to place a takeout order.

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Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation. 

Thanks for subscribing to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods. Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.

Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: