For years, those seeking a sign of where the recent financial crisis was headed need not look any further than an actual sign that occupied the corner of Diehl Road and Freedom Drive. While a host of other restaurants and businesses had begun to appear along this pop-up retail corridor, the teaser for a new Mexican eatery called Zapatista remained just that, a tease, with no construction equipment, no foundation, and certainly no freshly made guacamole to suggest that this was anything but another all-too-familiar cautionary tale of the sour economy.
But just when the dream of a bustling anchor for this high-profile corner was about to fade into history, much like the never-realized Plan of Ayala espoused by the Mexican freedom fighter Emiliano Zapata himself, the sign came down and the walls went up. And before long, there were warm tortillas to replace the chilly emptiness. The revolution had arrived.
A Modest Uprising
Any Mexican restaurant that shares its name with the followers of a legendary revolutionary figure is probably overreaching to a certain extent. There are only so many directions to take this particular cuisine in the context of a moderately priced and mainstream suburban dining destination, after all, and there’s nothing worse than aiming for a revolution and missing by a mile. Besides, Zapata’s famous philosophy that “it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees,” while undoubtedly a valiant rallying cry for a group of rebels, is perhaps a bit too intense for a casual night out with friends.
In other words, those seeking an epicurean revolution at Zapatista will more than likely walk out disappointed. Those simply looking for another great addition to the Mexican dining landscape in Naperville, on the other hand, will find plenty to appreciate here.
Worth The Wait
A feeling of relaxed comfort begins before one even takes a seat thanks to the cozy, welcoming atmosphere of the dimly lit brick interior. The main dining room is tucked between a large bar area and a lively open kitchen to the north and south, with fireplaces on each of the other two walls. An expansive patio—abandoned on the snow-blown January evening of our visit—should prove a popular gathering spot come spring weekends for brunch, Cinco de Mayo and beyond.
Surroundings aside, the first sign that Zapatista is getting things right, in terms of the food, was when our server asked for preferences regarding spice and texture for our guacamole order. There’s nothing worse than ordering guacamole and receiving instead a dish of bland, pre-made avocado dip attempting to pass itself off as the real thing. Fortunately, that crime against the cuisine was not to be perpetrated here, as we could simply glance over our shoulder to watch the fresh avocados, cilantro, peppers, tomatoes, onion and lime being comingled to our specifications. The resulting creation—well rendered to our requested level of medium heat—was a perfect complement to our perpetually replenished basket of warm chips.
After that auspicious start, we moved onto the rest of the menu, which features a wide array of traditional Mexican favorites. As tempting as a steaming molcajete of fajitas seemed on this cold night, I found it hard to pass on the delicious simplicity of a mix-and-match trio of tacos—carne asada (steak), carnitas (pulled pork) and pescado (tilapia). On the other side of the table, the enchiladas suiza with chicken and poblano mole were a hit as well. And we both partook of a shared side of just-sweet-enough fried plantains to round out the meal.
Revolutionary? Not really. But if our visit was any indication, Zapatista figures to have more hungry Naperville residents beating a path toward Freedom (Drive).
1703 Freedom Drive