Shrimp tacos from Gwacamole, 6011 W. Irving Park Road, as seen Nov. 8, 2023. Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago

PORTAGE PARK — After working in the kitchens of various Chicago restaurants for 15 years, Isabel Leyva decided it was time to try operating her own business.

Leyva, with her sister and friend opened Gwacamole, a Mexican restaurant with food from the state of Michoacán, in the beginning of October at 6011 W. Irving Park Road.

Gwacamole offers popular items such as tamales, flautas and birria tacos, all with a homemade touch using Leyva’s mother’s recipes, she said.

“She always taught us how to cook this kind of food, so we are trying to give people the experience, like if you are eating real Mexican food,” Leyva said. “We want people to have a different experience than the regular Mexican-American experience.”

Although Leyva’s mother died two years ago, she said she knows her mother would be proud of her and her sister. She’s also happy the restaurant is all women-owned and -operated and gives opportunities to women in the industry, she said.

With special seasoning, sauces and other ingredients native to Michoacán and the Leyva family kitchen, like avocado aioli, the owners hope customers will taste a more authentic dish than more common Mexican-American or Tex-Mex cuisines, she said.

The restaurant’s name, a play on the word “guacamole,” was chosen because of guacamole’s popularity and representation of Mexican cuisine, the owner said. It’s a clear symbol of the culture and food, both for Mexicans and in other cultures.

“When people from other cultures hear ‘guacamole,’ they know that it’s going to be something from Mexico,” Leyva said.

The restaurant takes over the spot that formerly housed Volcano Express Japanese Grill & Sushi, which closed over the summer after being open for less than a year. Before that, it was home to an empanada shop that closed in 2021.

Seating inside Gwacamole, 6011 W. Irving Park Road, is seen Nov. 8, 2023. Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago

The small restaurant is painted in green to represent guacamole, but owners didn’t need to change the space much since it’s been outfitted for a restaurant for years.

Leyva, who has worked in Chinese, Mexican and American kitchens and works part-time at a Hibachi business on the South Side, is friends with one of the Volcano Express owners. After they reached out to her asking if she wanted to take over the Portage Park spot, she thought it a good opportunity to grow.

“We saw an opportunity to open a small business new to the area,” she said. “I don’t know about other people, but when you work in the industry, you always think that maybe you can open your own. So I wanted to open this because I want to try something new … and to give people an at-home feel.”

In addition to Mexican items, Gwacamole’s menu has an avocado sandwich, a steak sandwich, salads and birria ramen.

Leyva, who lives in Archer Heights, hopes to get to know the neighborhood and that more people support the local business.

Gwacamole is open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-8:40 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9:40 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 12-8:40 p.m. Sundays.

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