By Nona Tepper
After nearly a year of preparation, a group of three chefs and friends are ready to open a new Mexican restaurant on Madison Street.
Rosalba Diaz, Enrique Gomez and Fernando Manriquez will open Mexican Republic Kitchen and Cantina, 7404 Madison St., at 11 a.m. on July 16. Mexican Republic replaces Axcan Mexican Grill, which closed in early June and where Gomez served as executive chef for about four years.
"We've always had the idea to own our place, a restaurant to serve great Mexican food," said co-owner Manriquez.
He met Diaz in culinary school, where the two studied a wide array of cooking techniques and styles. After graduation, Diaz went on to work as head of hospitality at the Peninsula Hotel, Manriquez said, while he took an internship at Frontera Grill, working under famed chef and restaurateur Rick Bayless. There Manriquez met Gomez, who spent almost two decades working as a teaching chef at the award-winning Chicago restaurant.
"We were looking in Chicago, the Pilsen area, but we decided on Forest Park because it's a nice, small town and the mayor really cares about what goes on," Manriquez said, noting that Mayor Anthony Calderone met the team when he learned the group was looking to buy the 4,325-square-foot space.
"The cool part about this is you have three chefs, all trained chefs, who are all going to be owners of the restaurant and all going to be working in the restaurant," said David King, owner of the Oak Park-based David King & Associates, who brokered the deal for the commercial property. "Do all of us put a little more effort into our own endeavors if we're our own boss?" he said. "Yes. This really is exciting."
After signing a five-year lease on the property, the group decided to name it Mexican Republic after the many states they hail from, including Guanajuato in central Mexico known for silver mining and colonial architecture; Guerrero, where Acapulco, the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains and the Pacific coast can be found; and Oaxaca in southwest Mexico, best known for its indigenous peoples and cultures. Mexican Republic's menu will reflect the diversity of its owners, and include dishes native to these states, like Oaxaca mole coloradito.
"The menu will be more traditionally known food, like what you would expect a Mexican restaurant to have: tacos, enchiladas, burritos, some traditional entrees like carnitas, chile rellenos. Popular dishes that are popular with people who know Mexican food," Manriquez said, noting that the group has lower prices compared to the previous restaurant.
He also said the group repainted the building's exterior and interior with bright colors and installed new lighting.
"Could you do any bolder colors on the outside?" King said. "We're here, we're festive, let's be bold, let's go."
Mexican Republic seats about 92 people inside, with about 20 seats available at the full-service bar. Patio seating adds another 28 seats.
Mexican Republic will open at 11 a.m. on July 16. It will be open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends, they will offer a brunch buffet for $12.50 per person that includes carnitas, beans, rice and more. The restaurant will also offer daily happy hours from 3 to 6 p.m. with $5 margaritas and red and white sangria.
"When we came to Forest Park and saw this space, we thought we would fit right in here," Manriquez said. "We're excited to be in Forest Park; we want our customers to be happy and have a good time."