Few restaurants surprised me more than Sueños did in 2022. Stephen Sandoval’s Baja-inspired concept had more nerve than you’d think possible for a pop-up at the swanky Soho House. I was thrilled to hear earlier this year that he and his team had found a permanent home in West Town where they planned to open two concepts, Sueños and the more casual Diego.
Some construction delays mean Sueños is still a few months off, but the team scooped up a nearby building to launch Diego. It’s living up to every expectation and then some.
Just a warning: Diego is not cheap. If you feel conflicted about paying $7 for a taco or $17 for a tostada, then stay away. But there’s no debating that the tuna tostada is impeccable. It starts with a crunchy fried tortilla topped with what Sandoval calls diosa roja, a wild combination of salsa macha and Kewpie mayonnaise. “That’s very Baja,” Stephen Sandoval said. “It’s the blending of the Mexican and Japanese influence.” It’s then topped with thin slices of pristine pink tuna, avocado slices and a drizzle of nutty, spicy salsa macha. I could have eaten a half dozen of these.
The tacos are all costly and stunning. My pick for Chicago’s best fish taco is right here. It might be $7, but the fish is enormous, dwarfing the fragrant house-made tortilla. While the fish has a crackly coating, each bite is really about the soft and succulent texture of cod. The norteña taco may cost $8, but it’s also massive, the size of two regular-size tacos. Plus, it comes stuffed with huge chunks of freshly grilled steak, gooey cheese and creamy beans.
If you’re looking for something cheaper, you can score three tacos dorados for $8. These humble and deeply satisfying tacos start with mashed potato that is wrapped up in a corn tortilla and fried until golden. Each bite indulges in the dichotomy of the crunchy exterior and the ultra-creamy interior. To add to the sensory overload, it’s topped with a legitimately spicy and acidic tomatillo salsa.
Some favorites from Sueños’ Soho House menu make an appearance. That includes the Diego Burrito, Sandoval’s love letter to the California-style burritos he grew up eating in San Diego. It starts with a flaky flour tortilla that’s stuffed with your choice of steak or shrimp, along with avocado, crema and a handful of fries. As I found out a few years ago, there are many different kinds of burritos in Chicago, including excellent Durango-style offerings filled with little more than beans and meat. But if you’re looking for a bulging burrito that requires two hands to grasp, this is it.
Sandoval will start rotating in other dishes soon, including a Sonoran hot dog, a chilaquiles torta and chile relleno based on an old family recipe. “My grandma used to make chile relleno,” Sandoval said. “So that’s all her.”
Need something even heartier? Spring for the TJ Hamburguesa, Diego’s super-thick burger loaded with jalapeños. Sandoval admits this was just a dish he’d make for a staff meal. “The burger was a last-minute addition, but Diego is a bar and we all love burgers,” Sandoval said.
Thanks to beverage director Danielle Lewis, Diego definitely is a great bar. Need a fizzy sipper? Try the Guera, which combines cava with Mexican honey and pineapple. Want something darker? Go with the Flor Morada, where you’ll find mezcal mixed with hibiscus and chiles.
Diego has a personal edge that no chain could hope to replicate. Instead of looking like Instagram’s idea of a taqueria, every inch of the restaurant is lined with work from local artists, including pieces by CoCo Schramel, Raspy Rivera and a graffiti artist who goes by the name Neen. Even Sandoval’s staff helped out.
“One of our prep cooks, Andres Galaviz, painted the murals on the side of the building,” Sandoval said. “That’s the beauty of finally having our own space. We get to express our vision. It’s very us.”
The result is a space where attention has been poured into every crevice.
This personal touch also helps explain why my attempts to remain anonymous were completely futile. On both of my visits, my cover was blown within seconds of arriving. But since the team is there most of the time, they’d have probably spotted me even if I was wearing a wig.
There’s still another project in the works, one where Sandoval will be able to showcase his fine-dining skills and love of wood-fired cooking, but there’s no reason to wait. Diego is already a gem.
459 N. Ogden Ave.
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Tribune rating: Three stars, excellent
Open: Tuesday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to 2 p.m.; Friday to Sunday, noon to 2 a.m.; closed on Mondays
Prices: Tacos, $7 to $8; mains $17
Noise: Conversation friendly
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible, with bathrooms on first floor
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.