Mexican restaurant Zentli brings home cooking and warmth to Evanston


Rachel Schlueter/The Daily Northwestern

A sculpture of corn, shaped like a heart. The work is just one example of Alfonso Nieves Ruiz’s handmade artwork displayed around Zentli.

Rachel Schlueter, Reporter

Marcos Rivera, Alfonso Nieves Ruiz and Danny Howard created their restaurant Zentli as a love letter to the flavors and artwork of Mexico. 

Rivera, Nieves Ruiz and Howard began developing Zentli three years ago, but the pandemic postponed its opening until late December. Every dish on the menu is corn-based — hence, the name Zentli, which means corn in Nahuatl and pays homage to the staple’s importance to Mexican culture.

“The story goes that we were created from corn,” Nieves Ruiz said. “Corn is how we survived.”

At the restaurant, corn tortillas are handmade the minute customers place an order for tacos. Each bowl of esquites, a sweet and cheesy corn dish, evokes flavors that come straight from the streets of Mexico. 

Rivera said the three founders asked their mothers for help in curating a menu unique for Evanston residents and nostalgic for Mexican Americans who want a taste of home. 

“Our moms’ cooking has a pinch of this and a dash of that, so we are trying to replicate that with consistency for a restaurant,” Rivera said. “We’re not trying to fancy it up. This is home cooking.”

The Zentli owners said this style of Mexican cuisine was not previously represented in Evanston — but, with Evanston’s “rich and diverse background,” Rivera said, Zentli was sure to find success in the neighborhood. 

Nieves Ruiz said Zentli’s food also represents the current culinary scene in Mexico: a blend of flavors from across the globe. 

“We have a combination of Old World and New World flavors,” Nieves Ruiz said. “Without Lebanese food, we wouldn’t have tacos al pastor. We add cheese to our tlacoyos, which we wouldn’t have without the Europeans.” 

Tlacoyos are rolled tortillas filled with black beans, cotija cheese, salsa and crema. Zentli customer Nancy Berté ordered them with nopales, which is a tart, citrusy cactus that’s a staple in much of Mexican cuisine. 

“The flavors were very strong and unique,” Berté said. “I liked (the tlacoyos) a lot. We’ll be coming back here.” 

The lively environment, complete with Nieves Ruiz’s handmade artwork, will also be pulling Berté back, she said. 

One wall exhibits an enormous sculpture: a colorful ear of corn shaped like a heart. Behind the bar, a vibrant skull hangs from the ceiling to the floor. In its eyes, two television screens play black and white films from what Nieves Ruiz called “the golden age of Mexican cinema.”

In February, Nieves Ruiz will bring his art to the neighborhood by finishing a community mural at Dewey Elementary School. Rivera said he looks forward to displaying local artists’ work at Zentli and organizing art workshops with schools.

“Art is energy,” Nieves-Ruiz said. “It’s like a new member of the community we are bringing to Evanston. We want to change the environment and offer our best.”

While their doors are open, music rings out all night, with playlists highlighting native artists and specific genres like blues melodies. Nieves Ruiz and Rivera said they wanted to provide customers with an experience that appeals to all five senses. 

Rivera hopes customers remember the flavors, art, music and, above all, the warmth Zentli brings to Evanston. 

“It’s important to us that customers feel like they’re a part of our family, as if they’re pulling up a chair to grandma’s house,” Rivera said. “We want them to walk away with that love.”

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