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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Father-and-son Mexican-American dreams clash at Cemitas Puebla

Posted By on 08.07.13 at 10:23 AM

Tony Anteliz and his father in 2011
If 18th Street in Pilsen is Chicago's gringo-friendly Mexican strip, 26th Street in La Villita/Little Village is the chaotic one, a sensory overload of music, street vendors, cell phones and LED license-plate holders and quinceañera dresses, all competing for attention. It can be hard to make sense of, but then suddenly you come across a face you recognize.

Two of them, in fact: Guy Fieri and Antonio Anteliz Zurida.

Actually, you only recognize the second one if you've been a customer at Cemitas Puebla, the Humboldt Park restaurant owned by his son, Tony Anteliz. Antonio played host there for many years, greeting guests in person and staring back at them from the hundreds of self-publicity shots he collected with sports figures and celebrities during a long career writing for Spanish-language media in Chicago. (He posed with Fieri when the restaurant was on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.)

The photos are gone from Cemitas Puebla, and now they decorate the door and the walls of a soon-to-open restaurant at 3508 W. 26th called Tortas y Tacos Mexico. Behind the move, it turns out, is a complex and poignant generational saga.

Tony Anteliz describes his dad as "a character, with the gift of gab." After coming to Chicago from Puebla in 1967, Antonio talked his way into a gig at La Raza by claiming a background as a Mexican sportswriter and submitting a made-up sports report as a sample—which the paper's editor promptly printed. Spanish-language media not paying much, he also ran a travel agency with Tony's mother, and when that business dried up, drove a limo. Tony says he brought Antonio into the restaurant to get him out of driving parties of bros to strip clubs at 3 AM, and with his ability to instantly ingratiate himself to anybody, Antonio became the face of the business.

Antonio Zurida covering baseball, c. 1980.

Especially after Fieri put the two of them on TV, Antonio saw possibilities for his son to open a chain of restaurants devoted to the Pueblan sandwiches that are the restaurant's specialty. "He'd ask everybody who walked in the door if they wanted to buy a franchise," Tony says. But he felt his dad's ambition and long hours had sometimes made him a distant figure at home—"He came from a place with a different idea of what being a man means. I don't think his father was the type to put his arm around his son."

For Tony, who has two young daughters, the price of mortgaging his house and spending time away from his family in pursuit of an empire was just too high. "My dad has the immigrant's idea of the big American dream," Tony says. "I know I could open a restaurant in Wicker Park and it would be packed. But I don't want to give my kids fancy clothes and the biggest house on the block, but they feel like they don't know their dad."

Tony became aware that his father wanted to open a Cemitas Puebla of his own, with partners Tony didn't know. And though he says, "I still can't swear in front of my parents," he stood firm in a showdown with his father. Antonio finally agreed not to offer the distinctive cemitas, or use the name "Cemitas Puebla," in any business of his own. And so Antonio, and his pictures, went out the door.

If Tony's account of the breakup is personal and sometimes anguished, when I visit Antonio at the storefront on 26th, he's ebullient and eager to sell me on his vision, saying only, "I told him when I went there that someday I would have to leave to open my own restaurant. My son owns everything [at Cemitas Puebla]. He's a smart guy."

Antonio won't make cemitas or use the spit-roasted pork like Cemitas Puebla does, but he has a bakery lined up to make a special kind of bun for his tortas, which he will fill with pierna de puerco adobada, a kind of roast pork leg traditionally served at Christmas. Instead of generic refried beans, a traditional torta topping, he's making frijoles cooked with chorizo for more flavor. And he says his will be the first restaurant in Chicago offering tacos de canasta, a kind of steamed taco sold as street food in Mexico. (His wouldn't actually be the first, but they're not that common, either.)

He also shows me the cheerleader-style outfits he plans for "the five prettiest girls in the neighborhood" to wear as his waitstaff, "so the men will like to come." There are many restaurants on 26th, but Antonio says, "This will be different, because I know service. There is no way you don't come back. Guy Fieri is going to come, because I know tasty food."

Antonio Zurida with pictures of Vicente Fernandez, Guy Fieri and others.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Antonio Zurida with pictures of Vicente Fernandez, Guy Fieri, and others

Cemitas Puebla will be serving up brisket cemitas at Smoque, 3800 N. Pulaski, on Tuesday, August 13, from 5:30 to 9 PM.

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