Alcove restaurant, hidden under the Davis Street Metra Station. (Photo by Sam Stroozas)

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Elio Romero, formerly known as José Romero, was just 17 years old when he emigrated from El Salvador to the United States. 

Romero left El Salvador because of poverty – he didn’t see a future for himself in the country and had heard about opportunities in the United States.

“I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know the language, but you can be anything,” he said.

He lived with his cousin in Rogers Park when he first arrived and got a job as a dishwasher at Foodstuffs on Central Street in Evanston. He worked there for five years, went back to El Salvador to visit his parents, tried construction for a few months and then decided he had to choose between cooking and baking.

Chef Elio Romero. (Photo provided)

In 2000, Romero got a job as a sous chef at Chef’s Station – now called Alcove – at 1625 Maple Ave., which opened in 1997 and is located under the Davis Street Metra station. The head chef soon left, and Romero asked for more responsibility.

Eventually the former owner of Chef’s Station decided he wanted to retire. He and Romero worked out a deal, and in 2014, Romero bought the restaurant and became head chef.

For more than two decades, Romero was living the American dream, and while it did last for a while, it sputtered with the outbreak of COVID-19.

In 2020, a lot changed for Romero. He rebranded Chef’s Station as Alcove, renovated the restaurant and then confronted a pandemic. Alcove closed its doors in February 2020 for renovation and did not reopen until June 2020, but only for outdoor seating.

Since then, Romero said Alcove has felt the same pandemic fatigue many local businesses have experienced. But he also felt support from the Evanston community.

Pan-seared sable fish with Jerusalem artichoke espuma. (Photo provided)

“It’s been a challenge, but we’re still here,” he said.

One customer brought employees separate envelopes with extra money to get them by while Alcove’s doors were closed, and another would stop by and help Romero with whatever he needed that day.

Fish has always played an important role in Romero’s life, and seafood is a staple at Alcove, from yellowfin tuna tartare to steamed Prince Edward mussels to grilled Spanish baby octopus.

Romero recalled going down to the river in El Salvador, catching a number of fish with his net and cooking them right there at the peak of freshness. While he doesn’t think too many fish taste as good as the river fish in El Salvador, he can tell if a piece of fish is fresh just by looking at it.

Romero tries to shop local and organic when he can. He has a special relationship with all of the ingredients he uses and through a sense of mutual respect between the meal and the chef, he is able to seamlessly create intricate dishes.

“You have to treat it with respect and love and then everything is easy,” he said. “Now, it’s just hard to quit cooking.”

While Romero found what he was searching for when he made the dangerous journey to the United States, he says a small part of him still wonders what would have happened if he had stayed in El Salvador.

He has gone back to El Salvador only once, but plans to go with his three daughters this summer to visit his parents. Romero said he hopes to show his children how different his life could have been if he had not put all fears aside and immigrated to the states. 

Visit Alcove’s website to make a reservation and learn more about the menu.

Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is a reporter and the social media manager at the Evanston RoundTable. She covers small businesses, social justice and human interest stories. Contact her at sam@evanstonroundtable.com and...

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