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Different Brew, Not Strange Brew, Comes to Lakeshore East Neighborhood

An upscale coffee chain from Mexico is opening its first café and joint restaurant venture in the Lakeshore East neighborhood near Millennium Park in Chicago.

photo of Manuel Banuelos
Manuel Bañuelos, executive chef and general manager of Mezcalina, wants to bring more than tacos to Chicago’s Mexican food scene. Photo by Glenn Minnis.

The Mezcalina restaurant and Black Coffee Café Gallery will feature art, food and coffee near Mariano’s Fresh Market.

There are 17 coffee houses in Mexico. This will be the first coffee house in the United States and the first one to include a restaurant.

“I want to bring in traditional Mexican foods and flavors,” said Manuel Bañuelos, executive chef and general manager. “I want my restaurant to be classy but sophisticated at the same time.”

In addition to the food, the 65-seat restaurant also provides its guests with a feast for the eyes, with enticing scenes of tea parties from afar, painted by Mexican artists. The murals took three months to complete.

Bañuelos started off as an interior design student in London and then took a job as a bartender for an Italian restaurant. After developing a relationship with the head chef, he asked for a job as and started off as a salad chef. It was at that point he made his decision to switch life paths and become a chef.

Now Bañuelos looks to create “traditional dishes not known here in the states” and “educate with Mexican food.” That means something other than tacos, he said.

“I am very passionate about cooking and the opportunities have all been perfect timing,” he said. Before coming to Chicago, Bañuelos  worked at La Frambuesa  at the Gran Casa Sayula Hotel outside of Guadalajara.

Bañuelos said one of the challenges of being a chef in Chicago is creating his native Oaxacan dishes with ingredients that cannot be found locally. He related the use of ingredients to music. He says you need the right notes to create a melody and you need the right ingredients to cook. He has traveled to different places to taste different ingredients to use for his cooking including grasshoppers and mescal, a distilled alcoholic beverage made from agave.

Along with finding ingredients, Bañuelos found that the passing of coffee from Mexico to the United States was difficult. “Customs are strict on what they let come through,” Bañuelos said.

Alejandro Fonseca is opening the Black Coffee Gallery that occupies a corner of the restaurant space near the front. “The flavor of the coffee is not strange, but different,” Fonseca said.

Bañuelos is looking forward to the opening of his restaurant.“ I am excited to be in Chicago because I will be balancing doing what I love the most with exploring this wonderful city,” Banuelos said.

A worker finishes painting the outside of the new Mezcalina restaurant and Black Coffee Gallery in the Lakeshore East neighborhood of Chicago. It officially opens Sept. 15.

Mezcalina will have its grand opening on Sept. 15, with a soft opening in the coffee space starting this weekend.

Trevor Conley, Harold Hager, Anastacia Favela, Jazmyne Henderson, Lauren Elizabeth Luthringshausen and Lauren Gandara contributed to this report.

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