The Brains Behind the Best Pork Carnitas You Can Find in a Subterranean Chicago Basement

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.

Soraya Rendon, owner of Chilam Balam. Photo credit: chilambalamchicago.com
Soraya Rendon, owner of Chilam Balam.
Photo credit: chilambalamchicago.com

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.

Inside Chilam Balam.  Photo credit: chilambalamchicago.com
Inside Chilam Balam.
Photo credit: chilambalamchicago.com

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.

Published by Ally Spiroff

I am Ally Spiroff, and what seems like seven short years ago I created a Twitter account, @runningforlife2. I tweeted how I felt and what I was doing. I tweeted about my greatest passion in life, running. I also tweeted about my other passions, food, music, movies, books, pop culture, writing, traveling, and life. Before I knew it, people (mostly those people in the running community but others too) began to latch onto my life. Then, I realized, “hey, this Twitter thing is pretty cool.” I get to write about what I love. I get to tell my story. The world around me, all of my people, get to ride along with me as I take on the world, one day at a time. People can watch me grow. I can watch other people grow. The Twitter handle has evolved into @allyspiroff over time. With it, the content has also evolved, but the same crazy woman is behind the content. :) So what exactly is my story? Who exactly is Ally Spiroff? I graduated with a Master's in Communication from Loyola University Chicago in May 2017. I was a Division I collegiate athlete there for five years, all four of my undergraduate and one of my graduate years. I graduated with honors in May 2015 with a Bachelor’s in English. In the winter/spring 2015-2016 due to a redshirt season of indoor and outdoor track, I returned to run a fifth year. Since I have always thought that it is more fun to jump over water and other obstacles than just run normal laps around the track and I like a good challenge, I am a steeplechaser by nature. I got to chase fast steeple times for one more season at Loyola, as well as run the 3k, 5k, and even the mile/1500 with my teammates that double as my best friends, sisters, inspirations, and the greatest people you will ever meet. Now, you might ask, how did I still run at Loyola if I graduated in the spring of 2015? I started the cutting-edge graduate program Digital Media & Storytelling in the fall of 2016 at Loyola. It was a two-year program, so I was blessed with another year at the wonderful Jesuit institution to finish up my Master's degree. After obtaining both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I have become an experienced writer and researcher. Through graduate work, I have become well versed in Adobe Creative Commons software programs, specifically Photoshop and shooting and editing video in Premiere Pro, and in Google Analytics, along with other search engine optimization tools. Through an abundance of internship experience, I became extremely proficient in news editing software programs. I have lots of experience in the newsroom and writing for news producers as well as out in the field on assignment and in working with a variety of people. My experience as an undergraduate and a graduate student while simultaneously being a Division I collegiate athlete on Loyola’s cross country and track teams as well as in a variety of jobs/internships and volunteer work has helped develop my confidence, drive, responsibility, time management, sense of teamwork, people skills, communication, troubleshooting skills, attention to detail, critical thinking skills, leadership, planning skills, and even a sense of humor. I also have extensive experience with all outlets of social media. As I mentioned before, I am an avid tweeter and Instagram user, with 1,450+ followers on Twitter. I have lots of experience with creating and building content for websites. I also run the website I created for my graduate school capstone project, titled "Wise Old Women." I am on Pinterest, Foursquare/Swarm, and Facebook as well. I wrote in the arts and entertainment section of my university’s award-winning newspaper, The Loyola Phoenix. You can find my running profile on the Loyola Ramblers website. You can find all about my collegiate running career on TFRRS. Of course, you can also catch me on LinkedIn. I am lucky because I get to tell people’s stories for a living online, through digital media and other means. Currently, I live in New York City and I'm the Digital Editorial Assistant at Runner's World magazine, and I'm a freelance writer for VICE's health vertical, Tonic. I really love life. I have big dreams. I do not know where my dreams will take me, but I am confident that they will take me far. I am an open book. I like sharing myself with anybody who wants to listen. I am enjoying the opportunity to further my education every day and perfect my craft. I love learning something new every single day about myself, others, and the world around me. Besides being a multimedia journalist and a city dweller, I am a literature (Hemingway and Plath are my favorites) and grammar nerd, a hippie, a music fanatic, a foodie, a concert-goer, a traveler, a huge sports fan, a fashionista, an art lover, and an urban explorer who likes natural adventures (like hiking up mountains in Alaska) as well. Wherever I go and whatever I do, I conquer it. I was born and raised in Milwaukee, though, and no matter where I go, I never forget my roots. Milwaukee will always be my city and where my heart truly lies. I have quite the eye for unique knick-knacks. My spirit animals are the grasshopper and the gazelle. When I take the Essential Enneagram Test, I am #3. I am a hard worker with relentless energy. I am everyone’s sister. I am nutty but in a way that I like it. I think that God is so good and we are blessed to get to walk this earth every day. I believe that every person has the right to be exactly who they are. I am dreaming big, with my head in the clouds, but there is still some common sense in there somewhere. ;) Turning over a new leaf in my life, at the start of grad school, I wanted to create a comprehensive website where I could connect you to all of my social media outlets. I will continue to share my running experiences and life journey through this awesome outlet we now have called the World Wide Web, and I hope that everyone continues to enjoy all things Ally Spiroff. Peace, love, and running (fast), Ally Spiroff

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