Chilam Balam may be a small restaurant with ten or fewer tables, but go right off the sidewalk down the little set of stairs under the bar above and enter into a cozy and comfortable sanctuary. Bring a bottle of wine (it is a BYOB spot), and order Mexican small plates in which each plate has its own unique twist. Owner Soraya Rendon sat down and talked to us about menu inspiration, her Mexican roots, her mother, living in Chicago, and how Chilam Balam came to be.
“This is who I am.” Soraya Rendon stands outside Chilam Balam in her jeans, leather jacket, and platform tennis shoe heels.
A proud owner, she smiles at the people on the street as they walk by. Chilam Balam, a Mexican restaurant in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood (3023 N. Broadway), has been around for six years and has shown no signs of slowing down.
After deciding at age 18 to leave her home in Mexico City, Soraya arrived in Chicago. She did not speak English and had little money, but she did have a big heart. She had an unwavering drive to succeed and achieve the American dream. She worked various minimum wage jobs, learned English, and learned a new career. After she started to become successful in the mortgage business, she took her success to another level she had never thought possible: she had the opportunity to open up a restaurant. She took that opportunity, and before she knew it, Chilam Balam was born.
The restaurant made a name for itself very quickly in the Lakeview neighborhood. 80 percent of restaurants fail after their first year, and in a foodie-centric city like Chicago, those odds are even tougher. Once again, Soraya found herself defying the odds.
“We have been running out of food since day one,” Soraya says. “This is a good problem to have.”
Soon, the restaurant was drawing more and more attention around Chicago and beyond. Guy Fieri filmed in Chilam Balam, and Rick Bayless, one of the world’s most well known chefs in Mexican food (also based in the Chicago area and known for Frontera Grill and Topolobampo), recommends the restaurant and dines there himself. Soraya says that waits during the busy dinnertime rush can sometimes be two hours or more, especially on the weekends.
Despite the popularity gain, Soraya tries to keep the restaurant running as a small business with a family ambience that serves great food with great flavor.
“We want to expand, but we never want to forget our concept,” Soraya says.
The restaurant uses fresh ingredients from local farmers, and they change their menu every month so that customers will have new dishes to try and reasons to keep coming back for more.
“All the dishwashers and cooks have been here since the beginning, and that is saying something,” Soraya says. You can also find her regularly washing dishes and waiting tables in the restaurant.
“I want to show the people dining and the employees that I care,” she says.
Soraya certainly does care. She pours her heart into Chilam Balam, and telling her story is an honor. Stay tuned for more about Chilam Balam in upcoming blog posts. There will be an interview with executive chef Natalie Oswald, and a video will also follow within a few weeks. The video will cover the food at Chilam Balam, the atmosphere, Soraya and Natalie’s stories, and how and why small, neighborhood restaurants like it are quickly making up the growing food scene in Chicago. In the meantime, check out Chilam Balam on their website and follow them on Twitter.