Looking south down Ashland from Division street, your eyes meet a strange red-and-yellow sign, painted over the Chicago common of a three story building side. “La Pasadita,” It reads, and then lists the addresses at which the Mexican restaurant chain can be found: 1132 N. Ashland, 1140 N. Ashland, 1141 N. Ashland. It’s a Chicago mystery: why are there three restaurants on one half-block with the exact same name. We sit down with Owner David Espinoza. The interview was prepared with interruptions of an arriving flat of Goya cans to be counted, a visit from the meat supplier, subordinates requesting some sort of answer immediately in rapid-fire Spanish, and quick peeks at the eight security monitors stacked on the floor behind him. “It’s actually a long story, Espinoza began. Originally he said, his father David came to Chicago via San Luis Potosi, an old gold mining town in central Mexico, when he arrived in Chicago’s east village the neighborhood was about as rough If you parked your car on the street for an hour you’d come back and all four wheels would be missing. Espinoza Said.
Working two jobs, including a position on the western craft cardboard box factory’s assembly line in Elk Grove Village, Espinoza’s father switched from the night shift to the day shift in 1976 so he could open the first La Pasadita, a small, box shaped yellow diner on the eastern side of Ashland with a rounded concrete parapet rising from its top. Before the taqueria moved in, it was a burger joint called Hamburger castle. Business was slow at first, but within three years, there were lines out the door. When a larger seafood restaurant directly across the street-El Cancun-came up for sale in 1981, he decided to make a go for it on the west side of Ashland, too.
“My father said, if people like my tacos there, they ought to like them across the street, Espinoza said. “He’s a real believer in (KISS- Keep It Simple, the other -S- you can do what ever you want with.” The new menu was exactly the same: bare-bones Mexican tacos with burritos, seasoned with a secret mix that only family members are privy to, with meat, onions, cilantro, and cheese if you pay a little more. But he didn’t want to close the old restaurant, which was proven success. He didn’t know if it was going to be a hit across the street, Espinoza said. He decided to leave both open, and within a few years the western location was thriving, too. With the family’s newfound financial success, the Espinoza’s were able to breathe a little easier. Espinoza said he remembers his father bought himself a big hat at Alcala’s a western store on Chicago Ave., after the second restaurant took off.
Then, 15 years later, a man from outside the neighborhood saw that the restaurants were doing well and decided to open a Tex-Mex place a couple doors down. This was an Italian guy that opened a Mexican restaurant it was like, what are you doing? Espinoza explained. He was going to go into lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream. To us, that’s Americanized Mexican food, you cant see lettuce and tomatoes on a taco. You see onions and cilantro that’s just the way it is. But instead of closing his mind to the idea, Espinoza’s father decided to arrange a meeting with the interloper.”I don’t know what went on,but my dad ended up convincing him somehow that he would buy his business” Espinoza Said. The Foundations for the third restaurant were laid. This one would be different, the family decided to adopt the slightly more upscale, Americanized menu the Italian had proposed, in order to target non-Mexicans moving to the gentrifying neighborhood but apparently little discussion went in to changing the name. When the new restaurant opened its doors in 1996, it too was called La Pasadita.
Now there are three, barely distinguishable from the outside, each with their own familial name: La Chiquita (the small one), the original. El Largo (the long one), the second, and larger one, and La Nueva (the new one), the yuppie-targeted Tex-Mex place to the south. With its spacious seating, glass-and-bamboo tables and full waiting staff, La Nueva is a different kind of place from its two predecessors. The vegetarian burrito-it’s an invention, I would never eat it. But we had people moving in, asking “Can’t you make something that doesn’t have any meat in it?” So we did,Espinoza Said.
The original location, across the street from the office, still has the most loyalists. Espinoza says many insist it has better tacos than the Pasadita across the street, El Largo. We only have one kitchen, so it’s all in their heads. Later the same morning, more than ten customers pack into the tiny cinderblock building of La Chiquita-there is only seating for eight between the short metal counter in the back and the speckled, vinyl-lined one that looks over the kitchen-and smoke from the grill hangs thick in the air. A crudely-painted red racing stripe runs around the small dining room, interrupted only by an even cruder painting of a bull, testicles flapping in the wind, that Espinoza says has been there since a friend of his fathers painted it in 1980.
The new place is about customer service, Espinoza Said. “We don’t have much customer service here. We’re not going to be like-“Hi, welcome to La Pasadita”. He points at one of his workers, Look at his face. That’s not a smiley face!” It’s not going to be like that when most of them just got here from Mexico eight months ago and barely speak English. Norteno music, a mix of jumpy accordions and horns from northern Mexico that sounds a bit like Latin polka plays over a tiny stereo system. It’s like walking in to Mexico here, Espinoza said . ” Throughout the years, man, what doesn’t happen here? The crazy Friday and Saturday nights- they start brawling or having a great time, everybody’s yelling. Everyone wants to be Mexican for ten minutes.”
As time has passed The Espinoza’s have decided to close the original location and the dine in restaurant with waiting staff. With no exact reason other than “times have changed” The Espinozas still stand strong with their original recipe and mouthwatering steak tacos and burritos found at 1140 N. Ashland. The menu has changed a bit to keep up with the area. You can still find your favorite Super Burritos, Tostadas, and Famous Chachos ( Chatos Nachos, if you don’t know ask!). The Family is still very much active in the business and are now incorporating its 3rd generation to keep its legacy alive. “Day or Night You will always find an Espinoza here! We love this place. This is home.” Daughter of the owner says.