On Chicago’s northwest side, the neighborhood of Logan Square is quickly becoming the city’s hippest hot spot. New restaurants and bars seem to pop up every week, giving the scene a constant injection of fresh and trendy places to be seen, while established favorites continue to draw crowds. With a diverse demographic that ranges from 20-something hipsters to young families, and all the way to mansion dwellers, Logan Square is filling up fast.
So how do you stand out in an area with so much buzz? In the case of The General Restaurant & Mercantile, you take a tried and true concept, inject a bit of Southern soul, and learn how to charm your neighbors. It’s a winning combination so far for The General, which has been open since the beginning of June.
Helming the kitchen is chef and partner Tony Mugica. A South Side Chicagoan who grew up on pig roasts and tortillas made by his Mexican father, Chef Mugica brings another kind of Southern flavor to this unusual taqueria. Taco joints are beloved in the Windy City, whether they are new and gourmet or the mom-and-pop shops that never change. Chef Mugica and his partners, Bryan Kiernan and Eric Ganz, knew that they’d need to bring a different take to the traditional to make a splash in the fast developing Logan Square neighborhood.
Chef Mugica’s love for the flavors of the South was the secret ingredient they were looking for. “After being in South Carolina and Alabama for a couple years, I picked up smoking meats and was doing it all the time in my backyard,” he explained. “So when we started discussing how we could be different from most taco places around, we came up with the idea of doing the Southern cooking mixed with it.”
This fusion of Mexican and Southern styles produces tacos you won’t find anywhere else in Chicago. There’s the fried catfish taco, layered with smoked garlic jalapeno sour cream, black eyes peas, vinegar slaw, and a housemade habanero dill pickle. Textures and flavors are both on show here, resulting in an addictive bite.
And of course, there’s got to be some smoke on the menu. The General Logan Smoked Bourbon Brisket taco is one of their biggest sellers, says Chef Mugica. The free-range, house-smoked brisket comes with a flavorful poblano sauce, roasted tomatoes, onions, and orange bell peppers. The meat is tender and juicy and perfect cradled in the corn tortilla, also made from scratch in house.
It’s not just the taco fillings that set The General apart from other bars and restaurants in Logan Square. They also have a retail element to their establishment, a holdover from the wine shop that used to occupy the spot.
“We originally were going to try and get together with them and have them do retail. It wasn’t going to work out though, but we didn’t want the neighborhood to lose the retail side of what was going on here,” said Chef Mugica. Beer, wine, and spirits are available for sale at the front of the bar, and there are even bigger plans for this side of the business.
“We’re going to be starting a market to sell overstock of fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs that I get from local farms,” Chef Mugica shared. He plans on working with the area farmers’ market to provide a place for them to sell what they don’t want to take back to their farms, and thus provide the neighborhood with more opportunity to get that fresh, local produce. It is a serious development of the “Mercantile” in the title of the establishment and a standout feature in a sea of trendy menus and eye-catching décor.
What it really all comes down to for The General and Chef Mugica is the respect of regional ingredients and neighborhood spirit. The stock for the restaurant comes from Midwest farms; the vegetables in fact come from Old Stone Farms in Wisconsin, owned by the mother of one of the line cooks. The beer program, developed by Paulie Sauer, focuses on Midwestern beers and specifically Chicago breweries, including ones as close as 4 blocks away. Emma Sterzinger, formerly of Logan Arcade and SPACE, created a cocktail menu featuring housemade syrups and bitters.
“We want our customers to come to realize that the whole place is supposed to be a comfortable neighborhood spot, and that we’re not just using frozen stuff and throwing it on your plate,” said Chef Mugica of the impression he hopes The General makes on diners. “Eric lives a block away, Bryan lives 6 blocks away, and I live 8 blocks away. We all live in Logan Square… and the whole concept was always to be a neighborhood spot.”
So get off the beaten path of hyped bars and stop by The General. Whether you’re just picking up a six pack or settling in to enjoy the beer, shot, and taco combo (a great deal at $8), you may just find a new local favorite.
Header photo: The Chicago Eater.