Along and near Northwest Highway in the Edison Park neighborhood on the far northwest side of Chicago, there are a number of long established restaurants. You can find steakhouses, Italian cuisine, seafood - even a small French-style bistro. But the landmark restaurant in Edison Park may be a longtime favorite of many for Mexican food - Don Juan's Restaurante. I've wanted to try Don Juan's for a long time and I finally got a chance when I stopped in for a late lunch one afternoon a few weeks ago.
Maria Concannon (pronounced ken-CAN-non) was a teacher at a Montessori school and a part-time cook at a restaurant when she decided to go to culinary school to hone her skills. After graduating from culinary school, she opened a small carry-out taqueria in a small tavern in Edison Park in August of 1983. People loved her Mexican food so much that she decided to open a full-sized, sit-down restaurant just a block away. A year after starting out in the restaurant business, she opened Don Juan's Restaurante at the corner of Northwest Highway and N. Oshkosh in Edison Park, the same building that the restaurant is in today. (see map)
She was helped by her family in her restaurant and it turned out that her son Patrick was deeply bitten by the restaurant bug after he procured a job in the highly acclaimed Gordon restaurant in downtown Chicago in the mid-80's. He then moved to Maui to be part of the opening of the then-brand new Westin Hotel on Kaanapali Beach working under Hans Loschl in the fine dining restaurant at the hotel. After a couple three years, Patrick Concannon developed an urge to go to Europe and he found work at the acclaimed Provence La Bon Etape hotel and restaurant in the southern part of France.
After spending a year in France, Concannon moved to San Francisco to work in the kitchen at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, then he moved on the Four Seasons Hotel (now the Island Hotel) in Newport Beach, CA. Eventually, he moved back to Chicago to help the renowned Charlie Trotter in his eponymous restaurant as Trotter's sous chef.
But the family business was calling his name and Patrick Concannon went to work as the head of the kitchen of his family's restaurant working along side his mother, his brother Jacob, and sister Josefa. His influence of Asian and European cuisines mixed with the traditional Mexican flavors made Patrick Concannon one of the up and coming chefs in the Chicago area. He used an idea from working at Charlie Trotter's to have a chef's table area - called Patricio's - off the kitchen at Don Juan's where he would make special Mexican-based meals combining American, Asian and European influences using locally grown seasonal foods.
Patrick Concannon went on to open Fahrenheit restaurant in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, then opened Osterio Ottima with Francesca's head honcho Scott Harris. (I've eaten there and it's very good. Click here to see the Road Tips entry on Osterio Ottimo.) But wanting to do something true to his Mexican heritage in the far south suburbs, Concannon opened Mama Maria's, a taco and tequila bar on S. LaGrange Road in Orland Park next to Osterio Ottima, using a number of the family's Mexican recipes from Don Juan's.
It was around 2:00 p.m. when I pulled up next Don Juan's. I parked on Oshkosh near the door and went into the restaurant. I was greeted by Maria Concannon at a stand in the bar area who, in turn, showed me to a table in the main dining room. It was a nice open space with a series of booths toward the east side of the room, with a sort of curved wood-paneled ceiling in the middle of the room with tables below. It actually reminded me more of a supper club than a Mexican restaurant. She dropped off a menu and said very cheerily, "Enjoy your lunch!"
Not much longer afterward, a young waiter brought out a basket of fresh made chips and a delicious salsa that had a bit of a smoky bite to the taste. The chips and salsa were very good. He asked me if I wanted anything to drink and I ordered up a Dos Equis Ambar that they had on tap.
I wasn't certain what to get from the extensive menu they have at Don Juan's. The menu will change seasonally as they try to procure the freshest ingredients. Some of the things that caught my eye were the Tinga Poblana that featured two tacos (or tostadas) filled with braised pulled pork and a smoky sun-dried jalapeño sauce and finished with caramelized onions, chorizo black beans, queso fresco (cheese) and avocado slices. The Pollo con Seis Chiles featured an Amish chicken breast that is rubbed with a six pepper paste and pan-fried. The chile rellenos also caught my eye - you can get them stuffed with either ground beef, chicken or steak. And going back to their original roots of selling tacos in a tavern a block away, they had a number of street tacos available including a breaded fish taco, a pork carnitas taco, a rock shrimp and bacon taco, and shredded pork tamale in a tomatillo salsa.
I ended up getting the ground beef enchiladas with their verde sauce - a slightly spicy tomatillo sauce. They had a lunch special where you could get two of them instead of the regular three that you would normally get. The enchiladas were very good - the beef was slightly spicy as was the verde sauce. The enchiladas were topped with plenty of cheese and came with small sides of rice, refried beans and a pico de gallo. This was more than enough for a late lunch.
As an added surprise, my server brought me out a flan for dessert. At first I was a little confused and said that I didn't order it, but he told me that it came with the lunch special. I haven't had a flan in a long time and this was light and sweet with a good custard, vanilla and caramel flavor. It came with a small dollop of whipped cream and a raspberry. Mexican desserts are pretty good, but I usually am too full to enjoy a treat after a good Mexican dinner. But I was able to fully enjoy this surprise flan.
As I was finishing up, Maria Concannon came by to see how my lunch was. I told her it was very good and it was the perfect size for a lunch. I was asking her about the dining room as it didn't seem to be the decor of a typical Mexican restaurant. She told me, "That's sort of why we did it this way." She said that she didn't want Don Juan's to "be just another Mexican restaurant". And that's reflected in the menu with the seasonal offerings.
Maria said that they did the remodel in the dining room a few years ago, but that the outside of the restaurant was in dire need of some renovations. "But the city has so many regulations that it makes it tough to do any exterior work to buildings," she told me. "So, we're just letting it go for the time being."
It's no wonder that Don Juan's Restaurante has been in business for over 30 years. As Maria told me, it's not your typical Mexican restaurant using fresh and seasonally available ingredients in their food. The beef enchiladas with the verde sauce were very good, complete with a slightly spicy taste to the sauce. The chips and salsa were both fresh and tasty, but the flan was a nice - and tasty - surprise at the end of the meal. The service was fine, the atmosphere was laid back, and my experience at Don Juan's told me that I will be back at some point. There's just too many interesting things on their menu to just got there one time and get the full Don Juan's experience.