Alex Guerra poses with a fish outside La Palapa, his McKinley Park seafood restaurant. | Dave Hoekstra~Sun-TImes Media
Updated: April 14, 2014 4:47PM
The light of spring is a promise.
That is why I like La Palapa, a Mexican seafood restaurant in McKinley Park.
La Palapa looks like a tropical island that fell out of the gray December sky and landed at 2000 W. 34th St., just south of the Orange Line. I need an escape like this on the darkest afternoons. The colorful restaurant is named after the palapa, the small umbrella-like thatched roof huts that adorn Mexican beaches, and a dozen of the huts surround the urban oasis.
Why is it open year-round? La Palapa exists on a pledge. Owner Alex Guerra promised his young staff of 20 year-round employment.
How does the place exist? Guerra and his wife, Diana, have an agreement: He runs the business and she operates the homestead with four daughters (ages 5 through 16) like a business. Life grows in the light.
Guerra opened the eatery in a former tamale stand on Valentine’s Day 2008. One of the first things he did was add the year-round 50-seat patio in the former gravel parking lot. The patio is heated during the winter months and accented with wall hangings of pink and blue fiberglass fish from the crafts town of Tlaquepaque, Mexico, and a sign that says “Don’t Ever Give Up On Your Dreams.”
La Palapa is a seafood restaurant known for its rompecolchon, a.k.a. “The Mattress Breaker.” Guerra’s grandmother’s recipe is cooked in gobs of butter and features shrimp, octopus, crab, onions, tomatoes and cilantro served on a rice bed. There’s also crab, grilled calamari and non-alcoholic drinks like a shrimp-octopus cocktail. La Palapa is BYOB.
“I’m a good eater,” Guerra said on a recent Sunday morning at the restaurant. “So I like good food.
“We try to be authentic, creative and different from other businesses,” Guerra said as banda music played in the background. The restaurant is popular with Univision reporter Aureliano Salgado and television personality Mancow Muller, even though he has fled the dive city for the north suburbs.
Guerra, 37, is from San Jose, Mexico, and came to Chicago in 2001. He found work as a grocery importer and in real estate. His father, Antonio, is a mechanic in Mazamitla, Mexico. “It’s a magic town,” he said. “It is very special. It is like the Wisconsin Dells, a tourist town. All the streets are stone and all the houses are white.”
Guerra has successfully transferred that magic to McKinley Park. He handcrafted a 9-foot lifeguard chair he saw during a cruise of the Bahamas. A fish hanging in the patio is made of repurposed U.S. license plates. “People like this because they transfer themselves to any beach in the Caribbean or Mexico,” said Guerra.
He spends seven days a week at the restaurant during the summer. “Every year we have been expanding. In the winter we serve around 90, in the summer about 170. The final goal is to build a big palapa in the next three or four years that would serve 500 people. And a dome.” He looked around his little La Palapaville and said, “This is a dream come true for me.”
La Palapa, 2000 W. 34th St.; (773) 376-9620, lapalapamariscos.com