Zentli’s small bar has a pair of televisions showing old black-and-white Mexican movies. The giant skull, created by Alfonso “Piloto” Nieves Ruiz, is made of recycled foam and recycled TVs. Credit: Zentli

After two years of waiting, with brown paper covering the windows and neighborhood taste buds speculating, the new Mexican restaurant at 1813 Dempster St. has finally opened. Zentli is the name of this new venture, owned and operated by Marcos Rivera, Danny Howard and Alfonso Nieves Ruiz, better known as “Piloto.”

Alfonso Nieves Ruiz (left) and Marcos Rivera are two of the three owners of Zentli, a new restaurant at 1813 Dempster St. Credit: Gay Riseborough

Zentli means “corn” in Nahuatl, the language also called Aztec or Mexicano and spoken by about 2 million Nahua people in Mexico. ”The story goes that we were created from corn,” says Nieves Ruiz, the artist whose sculpture and paintings have transformed the space. Dishes on the menu are corn-based and pay homage to the importance of corn in Mexican culture. 

Piloto’s mother sold food on the streets in their home city of Querétaro and then in Guanajuato, Mexico. Nieves Ruiz and Rivera have relied on their mothers’ recipes for Zentli’s simple cuisine – authentic, delicious foods that can be eaten with one’s hands. Tableware is, of course, provided and ingredients are locally sourced. Many dishes are taco-based.

Zentli’s website references the restoration of the environment and community through educational art workshops and the celebration of culture. It mentions Tonantzin Tlalli, the Aztec Mother Earth, goddess of sustenance and fertility, source of life and bringer of corn. “We created Zentli to remember the wisdom of our ancestors who with their dedication to work and family taught us to observe and respect life, who brought us the gift of Zentli (corn) and the knowledge required to live a healthy, happy life.”

The restaurant is at the former site of Curt’s Café South and, prior to that, Pick-A-Cup, a neighborhood coffeehouse and meeting place. Zentli is a spot of nurture and sociability in the very commercial Dodge-Dempster area. The space was renovated with help from a $24,200 forgivable loan from the city’s West Evanston tax increment financing district.

Zentli, in the former Curt’s Cafe South space, features decor and artwork by Nieves Ruiz. Credit: Zentli

Zentli co-owner Rivera is also co-owner of the award-winning Libertad restaurant in Skokie, which opened in 2011. He grew up in the restaurant business, working from a young age at his father’s Las Palmas family of Chicago-area restaurants. Howard, the restaurant’s third co-owner, is a businessman and friend from Rivera’s childhood. Nieves Ruiz is a friend.

The permit to open Zentli was initially granted in summer 2019, but the pandemic delayed its opening by three expensive years. Rivera and another partner, Arturo Orozco Jr., had hoped to open a second Mexican restaurant, named Estación, on Howard Street in Evanston. That hasn’t happened yet, but Rivera says it will – it’s a work still in progress. 

Zentli is softly lit with a welcoming staff, and a small bar with not one but two TVs, showing – rather than sports – old black-and-white Mexican movies. The menu, though not extensive, is original. The atmosphere might be called casual-romantic.

The decor and artwork is by artist Nieves Ruiz, who serves on the City of Evanston’s Arts Council. Although currently living in Chicago, he is eager to move back to Evanston. Unschooled as an artist, he is praised for his unique and prolific work in the Chicago area, as well as his community work with young people. He has a mural on Foster Street; one at Y.O.U., off Church Street; and several at Dewey School.

Some of Nieves Ruiz’s sculpture at Zentli is of clay, though the giant skull is made of recycled foam and recycled TVs. In fact, the tables and much of the furniture has been made from salvaged material, he said. Discarded items and garbage have always been a source of inspiration and useful to him in his art, often as his material.

There are plans to conduct art workshops and to exhibit the work of other indigenous artists at Zentli, mainly on the west wall where a simple pattern of corn stalks will provide the background. The first exhibit opening is scheduled around the spring equinox, probably March 21.

Zentli is awaiting its outdoor sign but the restaurant is open – 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5 to 9 p.m. Sundays. The restaurant is closed Mondays. Prices are reasonable, with the most expensive dish $14. Cocktails are $12. Reservations can be made via the website or 224-999-7486.

Gay Riseborough

Gay Riseborough is an artist, has served the City of Evanston for 11 years on arts committees, and is now an arts writer at the Evanston RoundTable.

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