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The Side Door: Lake Bluff’s Secret Mexican Restaurant

Chef John des Rosiers quietly opened a taqueria in downtown Lake Bluff this fall.

The restaurant's sign is located inside.
The restaurant's sign is located inside.

Lake Bluff chef John des Rosiers has expanded his presence in the village’s downtown, but only insiders know where to find his newest venture. 

The Side Door quietly opened its doors last month with no exterior signage or public fanfare. Instead, des Rosiers is relying on satisfied customers to return and spread the word of his first Mexican restaurant. 

The Side Door — which is literally a door beside the entrance to his five-year-old Inovasi restaurant — occupies the space that previously served as Inovasi’s private dining room. 

“My general manager said, ‘There’s got to be something different we can do with that room,’” des Rosiers said.

“I woke up at 2 in the morning one day and thought it would be great to open a taqueria.”

He said he and his staff spent three months planning the restaurant, which he described as “rustic and funky looking with a little bit of a warehouse feel.” Its few tables are fashioned from wood and metal pipes. The wooden front door was custom made from what was one of des Rosiers’ father’s horse stables in Wisconsin. A wooden interior sign bearing the restaurant’s name came from a fallen red oak tree in Gurnee.

Empty picture frames and hats adorn the walls, and classic rock music flows from a record player. 

“We want it to feel like a little hole in the wall,” he explained. “We just want to be comfortable.”

The restaurant’s basic concept is similar to Chipotle’s; customers order their tacos or burritos at the counter and can either take their food to go or carry it a few steps to one of the restaurant’s dozen seats.

But des Rosiers insists that his restaurant’s quality is superior to any chain establishment. 

“It’s kind of like if Chipotle actually wanted to produce amazing food and didn’t just want to make money. We wanted to take the easy part of what Chipotle does and put our creativity into it. We used their idea of speed and efficiency and combined it with what we do really well,” he said.

So far, it seems to be working.

“We’ve had 200 to 300 people a day since the day we opened,” he said.

The restaurant’s ingredients are sourced from the same local farms used by Inovasi, said des Rosiers, who also owns Wisma.

Diners first choose whether they want their meals served as burritos, tacos, tostadas or bowls.

Eight different fillings are available, including chicken, pork, steak, fish, veggies and — des Rosiers’ favorite — duck with potatoes.

“The longest thing is people deciding what they want to eat. That takes longer than us putting together three tacos,” des Rosiers said.

Diners can flavor their dishes with their choice of 10 different salsas, presented on a menu board in order from mildest to hottest. The salsas are made from scratch and are based on recipes from different regions of Mexico, des Rosiers said.

They include “Limoncitos,” made with lemons, oregano, onions and avocado and the flaming hot “La Malinche,” which contains roasted habanero, cumin and Japanese citrus. He selected on the recipes after taste-testing about 40 different homemade salsas, he said.

The Side Door shares a kitchen with Inovasi, but each restaurant has its own staff.

The Side Door is expanding beyond its 200-square-foot space this week, when it will begin offering catering services. Des Rosiers said he also plans to add outdoor seating for the warmer months.

Related: A Message from the Owner of Lake Bluff's New Hidden Restaurant

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