Never Settling for the Humdrum

SITTING IN HIS NEW RESTAURANT, ¡Ay Chiwowa!, Arturo Gomez talks of developing a “Mexican dive bar” with authenticity and a focus on tequila—but no sombreros. He expects this concept will fill a void in the Chicago dining scene. | Photos by Sheila Barabad

Arturo Gomez has a been-there-done-that attitude towards the Mexican fare in Chicago. Aside from a carnicería on Ashland Avenue and Pilsen’s Carnitas Uruapan—a little taqueria whose blue-and-white façade under the red, white, and green awning makes it look like a Greco-Mexican identity crisis is afoot—there isn’t much that impresses this Chicago resident. That’s why he, his father, and the house chef at ¡Ay Chiwowa! locked themselves in a kitchen for 12 hours at a time last winter. Here, Gomez shares his excitement for the cantina he and his partners at Rockit Ranch Productions, Inc. opened this past February, he talks about jumping ship from dental school to become an entrepreneur, and he explains why the Windy City is his kind of town.

You’ve said that you’re glad your work hasn’t taken you away from Chicago. What do you love most about this city?
If you want to fall off the map for a second, you can do that. But, you can be at the red-hot center, too. In the winter, I want to cry. But, in the summer, Chicago is a city that’s tough to beat. I think Chicagoans have a very different attitude and approach to life. This is a city that’s very friendly. Right now there are tremendously exciting things going on with the culinary world in Chicago.

Did you ever envision yourself in the position you’re in now, president of Rockit Ranch?
I had no idea that careers could be built in this business, but once I really got into it, I realized it was something I loved. I think my first dream as a kid was to be a bullfighter, then an engineer, then a businessman. I didn’t really know what [being a businessman] meant, only that in Mexico many of my relatives owned and operated their own businesses. I admired those men as leaders, decision makers.

A big turning point for you was deciding not to go to dental school and moving to Chicago. What was going through your mind when you made that decision?
Things about my personality started to shine through toward the end of college, and I realized I fed much more off of being around people. After graduating with a biology degree, I postponed dental school to move to Chicago. I decided I was just going to see if I could make it. I started working as a barback and honestly thought of it as an in-between job. Then I got my first management job at a bar called Frank’s. When I saw that I was required to take the reins and everything was riding on me, I found I liked that type of pressure. It made me work, and is still a motivation today.

Can you take us back to opening night of your first club with Rockit Ranch, Le Passage?
We pretty much lived and slept there. That’s the same way we operate today, and it’s never going to change. You can’t walk away from the restaurant and bar business. It’s nonstop vigilance. Moving into River North, which was a pretty desolate neighborhood in 2004, brought along with it a lot of question marks, but we turned it around and now that is one of the most popular areas of the city.

MAMA’s WATCHING A wall mural at Rockit Ranch’s new restaurant ¡Ay Chiwowa! depicts the mother of one of the firm’s partners.
A wall mural at Rockit Ranch’s new restaurant ¡Ay Chiwowa! depicts the mother of one of the firm’s partners.

Let’s talk about ¡Ay Chiwowa! What’s the idea behind this place, and what are you most excited about?
¡Ay Chiwowa! is more a tequila cantina than anything. We polled people and they said they wanted a “Mexican dive bar,” so that’s what we’re delivering. The pieces we put together such as a focus on tequila, authentic food, and a celebration of Mexican culture that’s not over the top—no sombreros will be on the wall or piñatas hanging from the ceiling—make it a unique experience. It really personifies what Mexican culture is to me. I think my people are very vibrant and comical and love to have fun. ¡Ay Chiwowa! is a cultural expression of that.

When we built Rockit Bar and Grill, there was a real void; there were no upscale bar-and-grills at the time in Chicago. Now there are a hundred. We were trailblazers. It was the same with [our other restaurants, such as] Sunda and Dragon Ranch. The void we’re filling here is the environment we’re creating. It’s a place where a party can burst out at any minute, a place that doesn’t take itself seriously. The only thing we take seriously is making sure people have fun.

How are you achieving authenticity with the new restaurant?
My dad and I brought recipes to the table with our chef, who’s also Mexican. It’s not a huge menu, but it’s really focused around what I call “comida de pueblo,” or “food of the people.” My dad grew up in a house where his mother made him help in the kitchen. He has a real passion for food. The quality revolves around preparation, execution, and quality of ingredients. It’s a little bit of a ballet. A little too much of any one thing can throw it off. When you have someone who truly knows the flavors and how they should be balanced—as my dad does with the food and I hope we achieve with the venue as a whole—you can create something really authentic and wonderful