The stretch of Sheridan Road that borders Loyola University's campus in Rogers Park has long been home to student-friendly restaurants like Blaze Pizza and Taco Bell. Located just up the street (near local institutions like the New 400 Theater) Semilla’s Latin Kitchen casts a wider net—there’s a daily happy hour that caters to frugal undergrads and a sizable menu for diners seeking something more authentic than a Cheesy Gordita Crunch.
Husband-and-wife co-owners Jose Roque and Patricia Norabuena are Chicago restaurant industry veterans—Roque was a founding partner at Wicker Park’s Amaru, while Norabuena formerly worked in the kitchen at the Pump Room. The menu at Semilla’s Latin Kitchen draws on Roque and Norabuena’s respective Mexican and Peruvian heritages, packed with dishes that demonstrate hallmarks of each country’s cuisine.
Take one look at the appetizers served at Semilla’s and you’ll get a feel for the breadth of its offerings. There’s the hearty hummus-like tontoli (a traditional Mexican recipe that Roque’s mother often prepared) that’s made using ground cashews, pepitas and sesame seeds, served with pita bread for dipping. A Peruvian ceviche exemplifies the country’s seafood-heavy cuisine, with chunks of mahi-mahi that are likely larger than you’re accustomed to, accompanied by onion and sweet potatoes.
While Semilla’s offers plenty of meat and seafood, vegetarians will appreciate a variety of dishes that make animal protein optional, including an array of quesadillas, filled with ingredients like pumpkin flower, cactus or corn truffle. My dining companion opted for the poblano asado, which places a pepper stuffed with veggies and covered in melted cheese atop a bed of potato tostones—a starch-heavy option that seemed under-seasoned after a round of flavorful appetizers.
I opted for the mixiotes, a pair of chicken breasts marinated in achiote spice and wrapped in banana leaves. According to Norabuena, the dish is commonly served in Mexico around the holidays, which makes sense because digging into each leaf-wrapped packet is like opening a savory gift. But the mixiotes weren’t the best chicken dish I sample—that distinction goes to Semilla’s signature wings, coated in a spicy mango, guajillo chile and habanero sauce that provided the ideal balance of sweetness and heat.
Aside from the lingering spice of those wings, the most memorable part of my evening at Semilla’s Latin Kitchen was the cozy atmosphere. The small dining room is outfitted with plenty of two-tops fit for an intimate evening of dining with an old friend or a significant other. You can heighten the mood by stopping in on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, when you’ll be treated to live bossa nova music performed by a guitarist. And in the summer, you can sit on the patio, sip a margarita, tune out the passing CTA buses and imagine that nearby Lake Michigan is actually the Pacific Ocean.
The vibe: Live bossa nova guitar melodies waft through a cozy dining room with a checkered floor and a patio illuminated by globe lights, providing a fitting environment for a romantic (or totally platonic) meal.
The food: A mixture of Mexican dishes (tacos, arrachera, pollo en mole) and Peruvian seafood (pulpo, salmon, ceviche).
The drink: You can sip a small selection of wines sourced from South America, Latin America and Spain, or order from a menu of cocktails made with tequila, mezcal and bourbon (including the Margarita de la Casa).
Time Out tip: Swing by from 4–5pm daily to enjoy orders of guacamole, wings and house margaritas for $8 each. Or show up during Taco Tuesday to snag three tacos for $12.