5600 National Turnpike, Louisville, KY | 502.632.2000
The Sierra Madre mountain ranges crisscross the state of Oaxaca in Southern Mexico, dividing it into regions with distinct climates and food cultures. This diversity led to the state becoming Mexico’s culinary capital. Oaxaca is celebrated for its beef, artisanal cheeses, and mole sauces, which are so varied that Oaxaca is also known as the “Land of the Seven Moles.” In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) identified the region’s cuisine as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Gonzalo Cruz, owner of Chilakiles Restaurant in South Louisville, grew up in Oaxaca de Juárez, the Mexican state’s capital. He and his brother Roberto learned to cook by watching their mother make Oaxaca staples in their home. Cruz admits his brother was more interested in the kitchen than he was, but Cruz still managed to pick up a few skills. After the brothers moved to Louisville in 2012, they were good enough to find work at a succession of topnotch restaurants – North End Café, Silver Dollar, and Con Huevos Restaurant.
Cruz said one thing that bothered him about Louisville was the limited scope of Mexican cuisine being offered in local restaurants. In November 2018, he opened Chilakiles Mexican Restaurant in South Louisville, so he could share some of his favorite flavors from home. The restaurant’s name is a play on Chilaquiles, a dish of corn tortilla pieces that are fried, topped with tomatillo-based green or tomato-based red salsa, cheese, cream, and sliced raw onion.
Chilaquiles are a popular Mexican breakfast item that probably originated as a way to use leftover tortillas. And chilaquiles and other breakfast items are a perfect component of Cruz’s menu because of the location, near several factories on National Turnpike. Cruz said the restaurant is popular with laborers who work split shifts — and crave breakfast at any time of the day, as well as culinary explorers who come in to sample a variety of Oaxacan dishes.
“I wanted to break the stereotype of what traditional Mexican food is,” he explained. “Much of the Mexican food you see in this city is really Tex-Mex, and mostly the same dishes — tacos, tamales, and burritos. Chilakiles has lunch and dinner menus, but we serve breakfast all day with the sauces and other things authentic to Oaxaca.”
Cruz leaves most of the cooking at Chilakiles to his brother Roberto, the executive chef. Their brother Nestor also works at the restaurant as a waiter and manager. Chilakiles offers several menu items that are unique to restaurants in the area. Chilakiles Suizos, for instance, offers two fried eggs with a creamy jalapeno-tomatillo sauce on a bed of corn tortilla chips – accompanied by queso fresco, cilantro and pickled red onions.
Steak Oaxaqueño is a variation on a dish that originated in Cruz’s homeland that features an eight-ounce ribeye, topped with peppers, onions, tomatoes and jalapeno sauce, and caters to American tastes with sides of mashed potatoes and green beans.
Notwithstanding Cruz’s focus on celebrating the little-known aspects of his regional cuisine, he acknowledges that many of his customers — no matter which part of the world they call home — prefer to eat the comfort food they’ve become accustomed to. So one of the most popular dishes on the Chilakiles menu is the Buenos Dias Breakfast: bacon, eggs, hash browns and a pancake. On the other hand, an adventurous culinary explorer might check out the Strawberry Cream Keki, three housemade Tres Leches pancakes topped with whip cream and fresh strawberries that adds a luxurious note to the other breakfast offerings.
“Everything we do, we try to make it special. But the customers just want good food,” Cruz said. “It doesn’t matter if it is breakfast or dinner.”
Chilakiles offers fine mimosas and margaritas, but Cruz said he takes special pride in the Michelada, an amped-up version of the classic beer cocktail made with tomato or clamato juice, lime, various spices and sauces like black pepper, Worcestershire, and Tabasco, served in an enormous beer mug topped with cucumber, celery and cooked shrimp.
Over the last year, thanks to word of mouth and a few rave reviews in local publications, Chilakiles has begun to expand its patronage beyond the nearby plant workers. Cruz said many visitors gravitate at first toward the more well-known Mexican dishes like the Chicken Enchiladas or the Chuletas al Pastor (grilled pork chops on a bed of vegetables and white rice). But even so, he said, many customers return to try out the more adventurous dishes.
“I don’t know any restaurant that serves Chuletas al Pastor as we do with the grilled pineapple salsa, guajillo sauce, and pickled onions,” he said. “We come from a place where good food is a tradition. And we like to show it off a little bit.” F&D