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www.rojogusano.com

The chef and co-owner of Rojo Gusano, Dudley Nieto, wants you to shed your winter layers and feel the salt water in your hair when you walk into the new Albany Park taco joint brimming with global influences.

Nieto is no stranger to the restaurant industry. Throughout Chicago alone, he has opened restaurants including Adobo Grill, Chapuline, Mezcalina and most recently Barbakoa in Downer’s Grove.

 

Having studied at Le Cordon Bleu in France, Nieto brings a fine-food background to the casual, vibrant atmosphere he aspires to at Rojo Gusano. A bright mural of a beachscape, painted by a friend of his and finished by his daughter and her high school friends, makes it nearly possible to hear the crashing waves rather than the honks of cars on Lawrence Ave.

It’s all about fun, friends and youth at the “red worm.” Sip on a Mezcalita at the bar and share a taco platter with your nearest and dearest. That’s what the passionate, accomplished chef had in mind when creating the “free-wheeling” concept. And if he weren’t in the back behind the open-faced kitchen cooking up those delicious tacos and rice bowls, he would probably even join you — but bourbon for him.

 

CUSP Magazine spoke with Dudley Nieto to learn more about Rojo Gusano’s unique role within the Albany Park neighborhood.

Q&A – CUSP Magazine & Rojo Gusano

CUSP Magazine: Did you always want to be a chef?

Dudley Nieto: No, I came to Northwestern to finish my specialty to be a doctor, but I ended up being a chef. I always wanted to have a restaurant, but in my family, you needed a title. You needed to do something that was going to make you money, which I did. But at the same time, my passion was for food. I found this small place in Oak Park in 1986, an old Greek restaurant I forget the name of. I came in and the guy said, “What do you think of the place?” I had a little money saved, and I said, “Okay.” That’s how I started cooking professionally.

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CM: What is the overarching theme of Rojo Gusano?

DN: I think that, for the most of the part, the theme is of freedom and openness and creativity. But then again, it’s also things that I loved when I was growing up. I loved the beach, surfing, skateboarding and futbolito, and that’s Bob Dylan [he points to a photograph on the wall]. It’s all about that, and I love that, the freewheeling. This is Bob Dylan in New York City. It’s more that sense of that kind of freedom, of freewheeling where you feel comfortable doing whatever you want to do without feeling any remorse, because it’s all about having fun, getting younger every day and promising to have a good time. To me, that’s probably the best point of it. I love food. I’m a food guy. I’ve been a chef for almost 30 years, so that’s my part. But also, I love music; I love art; I love everything that has to be done with something that we’ve forgot, which is passion and love and really digging deep inside of us and doing our best to have fun. We live to work instead of work to live, and we need to find that balance. That’s why.

CM: Can you tell me a bit about your weekday specials?

DN: Monday is industry night, Tuesday the famous taco Tuesday and on Wednesday we have cult movies from “Django” to “The Warriors” to all those kinds of movies. Then we have half off bottles of wine. We’re trying to reinvent it. We sell tacos, but we sell more than that. It’s more of a fusion on the cuisine — tacos that have different influences. We want to do something that’s not [just] because you’re selling tacos, you’re going to have a Mexican theme. No, it’s the opposite, post-Mexican statement — doing something new and exciting.

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CM: How did you choose this location?

DN: It came to me in the way of an accident, in a sense. Before was the restaurant Maya del Sol, and it was full of surprises. I came to help them, to solve things and change the menu in October or September last year. They asked what I would really change. I said everything, and that’s when we started coming up with this concept. I opened other concepts like this in Connecticut and New York City. My background is fine dining at Le Cordon Bleu in France. My mentor was John George, who owned several restaurants throughout the globe with Thai, French and Vietnamese influences. I grew up in different places. I lived in Brazil for two and a half years. That also helped a lot with flavors that I didn’t even know existed.

CM: How do you feel Rojo Gusano has been received by the neighborhood?

DN: I think it has been very well received by the neighborhood. The neighborhood has been very supportive. There was a contest when we came in after not even our second month, and they had a competition between the sides of Lawrence — this side of Albany Park and that side of Albany Park. We came in the finals. To me, that made a big difference, because the locals know that we’re here to stay and that we have what they want. It’s a place where you can bring your date and have fun. You can taste the bourbons, tequilas and mezcals and have fun.

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CM: What do you think is the strongest thing that you offer the community?

DN: I think for the community, we offer the option of getting something new and exciting: the global flavors that belong to this neighborhood, in a sense, the unique statement that belongs to this place and also comfort food. I always call it slow food with a fast food approach. This is about moving — action, sport, being healthy. It’s about a culture that spends the time to provide you with the best, so you will be able to perform at your best, and of course, have fun. It’s a place where you’re going to have fun. Great drinks and great people are going to be taking care of you. It’s going to make you feel comfortable.

Dudley – “We need to take care of people, not just by feeding their stomachs, but their souls and their bodies in a way that is healthy and make sense.”

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CM: What can you tell me about the menu?

DN: We use all organic stuff from local farmers. It should be everywhere that we’re using that. We need to take care of people, not just by feeding their stomachs, but their souls and their bodies in a way that is healthy and make sense. I use the tortilla as a vehicle only to put something that I really love from my travels that people will enjoy. We have the green curry shrimp taco, lemon curry, chicken verde, chorizo and charred butternut squash — which is one of my favorites and probably one of the best sellers. We have chopsticks for the rice bowl, where we use Japanese rice. To me, the best way to taste guacamole is if you have it on its own and then you cover it with the toppings and decide how much you want. The recipe is chunky, flavorful; it’s got some lime juice on it with a little kick. For the salsas, I have a Thai roasted tomatillo. I use Thai chilies for the salsa. I’m half Spanish and half Mexican. The Churro de la Casa, that’s something that resembles my family. I invented it like ten years ago. It’s a combination of Mexican and Belgian chocolate, the bittersweet with the sweetness. Then I have the vanilla bean ice cream that comes with instructions. If you want to go to heaven, take a big cut of the ice cream and then of the warm flourless Mexican chocolate tamale. That will make a big difference. We’re going to be changing the menu pretty soon, and you’re going to see a Korean Taco, which I made with Kobe beef and barbecue Korean sauce. If you’re into it, you’re gonna love it.

CM: Where do the global influences for your food come from?

DN: I travel a lot. All those different influences that I have, I’ve been transporting from different places. In Peru, they have leche de tigre, tiger’s milk. They create this dressing that is affected by the seafood. They say that in Peru, people get more erotic with this thing, so they call it tiger’s milk. In this neighborhood, you have different influences: Korean, Japanese and Indian. I buy my Indian produce from these guys down the street. I want to feel like this is a neighborhood that you can compare and mix flavors and things will happen, and we are on Lawrence Ave. That says it all.

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CM: How does Chicago compare to having restaurants elsewhere in the world?

DN: Chicago, to me, it’s got everything. I’m so blessed to be here, and I love Chicago. Not only because I’ve been here for many years, but because the people in Chicago love to try something new. They love to not just go with the flow, they’re always trying to find something new.

CM: Do you miss your finer food days?

DN: I do, but sometimes I don’t. Especially with this concept, because it’s a lot of fun and I have a lot of fun doing it. Plus, I have the Alto Cucina awards this summer, and I will be doing fine dining for the reception. I always get a chance where I can go back and recreate where I came from. But other than that, I’m fine. I’m having fun, and that’s the best part of it.

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On the wall in the back of the restaurant, just before you enter the kitchen, previously owned and loved skateboards are nailed on the wall surrounded by miscellaneous bumper stickers. If you bring one in, you get a discount. The skateboards, surfboards and framed pictures of plastic foosball players that decorate the restaurant are all testaments to Nieto’s charismatic, youthful restaurant. While Chicagoans wait for the open windows and patio seating that the first days of spring promise, Rojo Gusano provides a summer-themed safe haven in the meantime.

 

You can find Nieto’s signature tacos and the rest of his warm-weather inspired food and bar menu at 3830 Lawrence Ave. To keep up with what’s new from Rojo Gusano, visit its website and follow the establishment on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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