For the inspiration of his fourth Chicago restaurant, industry vet Ryan O’Donnell of Ballyhoo Hospitality (Gemini, Coda di Volpe, Walton Street Kitchen + Bar), didn’t have to go far. The idea for Old Pueblo has been in his head for more than two decades, inspired by the 10 years he spent growing up in Tucson, Arizona, 45 minutes from the Mexican border, and his enduring passion for the area’s Mexican cantinas he often frequented.
Lincoln Park’s Old Pueblo, which opened in August, taps into O’Donnell’s childhood memories coupled with his 25 years’ experience in the restaurant business, both as a chef and restaurateur.
While the concept for Old Pueblo had been set for some time, its location was another story—until, that is, O’Donnell walked into the vacant space at 1200 W. Webster Ave., formerly White Oak Tavern & Inn. From the moment he saw the interior’s usage of natural materials, such as wood and exposed brick—in a 130-year-old building, no less—and its corner location, O’Donnell knew he had found the home for his neighborhood Mexican cantina.
For the food, O’Donnell focuses on a region of Mexico that traditionally hasn’t been represented in Chicago restaurants: Sonora, the northern state of Mexico, which shares a border with Arizona. Its arid climate lends itself to the growing of wheat, which is characterized in the preference of flour tortillas over corn. At Old Pueblo, those are made in-house. “Flour tortillas are a staple of Sonoran cuisine, so we need to ensure they are the best and freshest,” says O’Donnell.
Those tortillas also serve as the base for another signature dish, Cheese Crisps, or Sonoran quesadillas as they’re more commonly known. At Old Pueblo, there are 5 options with a variety of toppings, including carne seca (dried beef) and spicy chorizo, along with a special blend of Mexican cheeses. Made-to-order guacamole and enchiladas, along with tacos served on housemade flour tortillas, can also be found on the menu.
Open-flame cooking, typically over mesquite wood, another staple of Sonoran cuisine, is also featured at Old Pueblo, including grilled marinated carne asada and mole-accented short ribs. Chimichanga, the deep-fried burrito, has a spot on the menu at Old Pueblo, too, with options including chicken tinga, cantina beef, carne asada, Arabe pork, red chile beef and seasonal vegetables. And in keeping with its vibe, kids get their own special menu.
For its drink program, Old Pueblo relaxes a bit and focuses more on the fiesta. Margaritas, available by the glass and pitcher, are made with 100% blue agave tequila and feature fresh fruit and herbs, ranging from watermelon, basil and jalapeno (Mockingbird) and charred pineapple and cilantro (Pancho’s Pina) to hibiscus lavender and mint (La Bandera). Should you crave a frozen margarita, the slushy machine can definitely oblige. There’s Mexican beer on draft and in bottles, any of which can be made into a Michelada. Spanish and South American wines dominate the list. Cocktails lean towards those featuring tequila and mezcal, including its on-draft El Squirtsky, a riff on the Squirtsy at Gemini. A no-bar-gun policy means you’ll find Topo Chico and Mexican Coke by the bottle. There’s also a rotating selection of seasonal housemade aqua frescas that find their way into the cocktails. In the works: A mezcal old fashioned subbing in a mole negro from the kitchen for the bitters.
For the interior design of Old Pueblo, O’Donnell collaborated with Brianne Carden, the newly appointed Director of Hospitality for Ballyhoo Hospitality and most recently General Manager of Gemini. For the 120-seat restaurant, the duo sourced many items from Mexico, including hand-painted tiles, the studded bar stools and mesquite wood-framed antique mirrors. Wood-topped tables are complimented with gently worn leather banquettes. Above the copper-topped bar hang light fixtures with macramé shades. At the free-standing tables, wood chairs from Arizona are made partially with the ribs from the indigenous Sonoran saguaro plant. Throughout the space, you’ll find those warm, rustic tones, reminiscent of what you’d find in Mexican cantinas. The wrap-around outdoor patio on Racine and Webster provides additional seating and a view of the neighborhood park across the street.