Rafael Esparza and Mitchell AbouJamra Credit: Alan Epstein

Rafael Esparza was a “weird kid” who hated spaghetti. Specifically he did not like his grandmother’s cheesy, chile-spiked pasta casserole, the SpaghettiOs of every Mexican American kid’s diet.

He hated the mess of it, “the presentation,” but “the thing is, I loved the sauce,” he says. “I used to dip my french fries in it while she was making it. She would get pissed and be like, ‘You don’t do that.’ I always kept that in the back of my mind, so when Mitchell was like, ‘We need some kind of nacho,’ I said ‘Boom.’”

Esparza was the chef at the recently shuttered Finom Coffee, and Mitchell is Mitchell AbouJamra, his partner in the new Lincoln Park fast-casual Lebanese-Mexican mashup Evette’s

If that sounds like an unlikely clash of cultures, know that if it wasn’t for Lebanese immigrants in Mexico, who pivoted from lamb shawarma to pork, there would be no tacos al pastor ortacos arabes.

Shawarma wrapCredit: Max Kilibarda / Waypost Creative
Shawarma plateCredit: Max Kilibarda / Waypost Creative

It was discussions about this sort of undersung contribution to Mexican cuisine that inspired the partnership. AbouJamra, a former GM for the DMK Restaurants group (among many more varied hospitality gigs), used to deliver chai to Finom, where Esparza was making magical Hungarian dishes with little more than an induction burner. Deliveries led to discussions about the often overstated contributions of the Spanish to Mexican cuisine over that of the slaves they brought, or the Indigenous people they colonized. 

“People seem to think nobody cooked food before the French, Italian, or Spanish,” says Esparza. “Like food didn’t exist before them.”

Evette, or “Teta,” was AbouJamra’s grandmother, a Spanish- and French-speaking Lebanese immigrant who settled in Flint, Michigan, via Cuba, and it’s her recipes that contribute the Mediterranean influence on the menu.

Pita nachosCredit: Max Kilibarda / Waypost Creative
A menu of Lebanese-Mexican mashupsCredit: Max Kilibarda / Waypost Creative

The nachos are AbouJamra and Esparza’s most collaborative dish. The poblano-spiked cheese sauce drizzled over pita chips, with pomegranate seeds, jalapeno, radishes, and za’atar. Other dishes stay in their lanes a bit more. A lamb melt is Esparza’s nod to the viral quesabirria trend, a sourdough grilled cheese loaded with 16-hour braised lamb, whipped feta and butterkase cheese, served with a cup of lamb jus for dipping. 

“There’s always lamb going,” says Esparza. “It’s stupid, the amount of lamb we sell.” You can get it in a wrap or on your nachos, but its greatest, if stealthiest, effect might be on a meatball sub, slathered with Teta’s silky shakshuka sauce and shredded mozzarella. When I ate this sub I mistook the meaty orbs for lamb, but they’re entirely beef. Esparza holds them in the copious volumes of lamb jus his braises produce, which imparts the unmistakable essence of frolicking Aries.

As it turns out, I managed to eat this sandwich just after it was perfected by AbouJamra’s dad, a third-generation butcher who flew in from Tucson to taste through the menu and “fix everything.” 

The shakshuka sauce was breaking because they weren’t mounting it with butter. The tabouleh wasn’t juicy enough because they were using cherry tomatoes instead of roma. “He was legit back there with the cooks like, ‘My mother made it this way. This is how it should be made,’” says Esparza. “So we had to rewrite a lot of the steps.”

Esparza is hands-off when it comes to Teta’s recipes. He tried adding a little chili oil to the tabouleh, and AbouJamra warned him, “She will reach her hand down from heaven and choke both of us.”

While the tacos arabes are a departure from the Mexican-Lebanese original—chicken dressed with feta, tabouleh, and (forgive him, Teta) a hit of that chili oil on flour tortillas—the al pastor tacos stay closer to form, annatto-rubbed pork and pineapple, except for the slice of white American cheese between El Milagro corn tortillas, a nod to Raymond’s Tacos #2 on Blue Island.

Za’atar garlic friesCredit: Max Kilibarda / Waypost Creative

The fries are the end result of a tasting of some 40 different varieties. They stay crispy well after carryout, and while I can’t imagine what Esparza’s grandma would make of it, and I’m a bit afraid of what Teta might do, they’re just the thing for dipping in the meatball sub’s shakshuka sauce.  v