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Lebanese-Mexican Restaurant Evette’s Opens Today

By October 15, 2020July 13th, 2023Arts & Culture

Chicago chefs Rafael Esparza and Mitchell AbouJamra drew on family recipes to create Evette’s, a new restaurant that highlights Lebanese immigrants’ contributions to Mexican cuisine.

Mexican, Lebanese, chefs, food, ChicagoDiane Bou Khalil/Borderless Magazine
By October 15, 2020July 13th, 2023Arts & Culture

Chicago chefs Rafael Esparza and Mitchell AbouJamra drew on family recipes to create Evette’s, a new restaurant that highlights Lebanese immigrants’ contributions to Mexican cuisine.

Above: Chicago chefs Rafael Esparza and Mitchell AbouJamra in their new restaurant, Evette’s, on Oct. 9, 2020 in Chicago, Ill. Diane Bou Khalil/Borderless Magazine

When you bite into a chicken taco árabes at Evette’s restaurant, you are tasting over a century of the blending of Lebanese and Mexican cultures, say chefs Rafael Esparza and Mitchell AbouJamra.

The taco consists of cumin-marinated chicken wrapped in pita bread and was inspired by a dish created by Lebanese and other Middle Eastern immigrants who fled to Mexico during the Ottoman Empire.

chefs, restaurant

Evette “teta” AbouJamra in her kitchen in Michigan. Photo provided by Mitchell AbouJamra

For Esparza, who identifies as Chicano and whose family comes from Mexico, it’s that hidden history of immigrants adopting and blending their cuisine in a new country that makes Evette’s unique.

“I want customers to walk away with an understanding of the culture and identity struggle that children of immigrants had,” said Esparza, who is co-owner of Evette’s with AbouJamra. “Immigrant children try to incorporate their culture and assimilate even through food, Americanizing their food, like “taco pizzas,” so we don’t seem like weirdos.” 

While taco pizzas are not on the menu of Evette’s, which opens today at 350 W. Armitage Ave. in Chicago, Esparza and AbouJamra’s Mexican and Lebanese heritage is front and center in the menu. 

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Evette’s pita nachos. Photo courtesy of Evette’s Chicago

Customers can choose from a variety of dishes that blend the chefs’ immigrant and Midwest roots including pita nachos, halloumi tacos, and baklava shakes. The nachos, made with fried pita bread, are covered in a special sauce from a family recipe passed down from Esparza’s grandmother.

The idea for Evette’s came from AbouJamra, who dreamed of starting a restaurant that would blend his own family’s cooking with other cultures. The restaurant is named after AbouJamra’s grandmother. 

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“Evette’s menu has been in my head forever,” said AbouJamra. “My teta Evette and aunt’s food has been perfected over generations, but I want to show what my experience was as an American-Lebanese.”

AbouJamra met Esparza while he was delivering produce to Esparza’s old cafe, Finom Coffee. That cafe, which has since closed, featured Hungarian dishes and Mexican-inspired drinks like Tres Leches De la Rosa. 

As restaurants shut down in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, AbouJamra decided that now was the time to take a chance on his dream. 

AbouJamra asked Esparza, who has long explored the melding of cultures in his cuisine, to join him in opening Evette’s. Having had worked at fine dining and sit-down restaurants for most of his career, Esparza was ready for a more fun, fast approach to serving food. 

Beirut, lucha libre, chefs, restaurant

Photos of two neighborhoods in Beirut, Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, popular for their art and nightlife, as well as photos of the lucha libre wrestler, Fray Tormenta, cover the walls of the new restaurant, Evette’s, on Oct. 9, 2020, in Chicago, Ill. Diane Bou Khalil/Borderless Magazine

The partnership felt fitting.

“It was scary how natural Mexican cuisine fit with my family’s existing recipes,” said AbouJamra, “The flavors combine together perfectly.”

The blending of Lebanese and Latin American cuisine featured at Evette’s is not something new. From the 1860s to the early 1900s many Lebanese immigrated to Europe, Australia, and Latin America following the Mount Lebanon massacre of Christians during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. 

As Lebanese migrated across the world, they carried with them their unique culture and cuisine. “They brought shawarma to Mexico, specifically Puebla, Mexico,” said AbouJamra. “The way that shawarma meat was cooked on a vertical spit influenced the Mexican dish al pastor. Maybe without Lebanese culture’s influence on Mexico, al pastor wouldn’t exist.”

AbouJamra’s own grandma grew up in Cuba and spoke Spanish. He says that it was Evette’s passion for food that inspired him to have a career in food.

“At a young age I could help teta roll warak enab [stuffed grape leaves] and by the time I was four years old, I was helping my teta and jeddo [grandpa] pick parsley.”

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Mitchell AbouJamra with his grandparents picking parsley in Michigan in the late 1970s. Photo provided by Mitchell AbouJamra

Food was also the family business. His grandfather’s brother bought a butcher shop in Michigan in 1972, and when his grandfather retired he moved his family to the United States to help with the shop. AbouJamra was the first one out of his family to be born in the United States and learned how to butcher at his family’s store as a young man.

For AbouJamra and Esparza, it is this rich family history that Evette’s is drawing from when the chefs serve Chicagoans. 

“The food is real stuff we have tried our whole lives, and it is fun for someone who doesn’t know it,” said Esparza. “We want to get people to understand that the first generation Mexican and Lebanese culture converging with the Midwest is me and Mitchell’s experience, this is what it looks like.” 

Evette’s is open for takeout at 350 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago. See website for hours.

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