Chef Armando Gonzalez shows off the branzino from Amerikas. | Melissa Elsmo

Ordering the branzino at Amerikas is contagious — as soon as the whole roasted fish makes an appearance on one table it’s as if an invisible fish monger has pushed a domino and fish after breath-taking fish begins showing up on every nearby table. On a recent sunny evening the patio at Amerikas, 734 Lake St., bustled with a sense of camaraderie thanks to one such branzino bonanza.

Customers craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the dish, asked their fellow diners what it was and openly talked between tables about how to eat it and how much they enjoyed it. Amerikas’ roasted branzino, boasting crispy soy-glazed skin, is served on a bed of rosy-hued fried basmati rice spiked with garlic, scallion, cabbage and tomato. Spicy serrano chili salsa adds an option to heat things up while a grilled lemon offers a subdued citrus punch. A delicate herb and radish salad adds visual intrigue and fresh notes to the rich and satisfying dish. It is among the finest menu offerings available in our restaurant alcove and a dish that is distinctly reflective of the chef behind it.

“I’ve cooked many fish before and I noticed that no-one else in the area is serving a whole fish,” said Chef Armando Gonzalez, owner of Amerikas. “The branzino is a home run because it reflects what Amerikas is all about— a melting pot of all my ideas.”

Gonzalez is clear the popular main dish also represents a return to creativity in his restaurant kitchen. After “cooking just to survive” the darkest days of the pandemic the chef has found inspiration in the feeling that the restaurant community is coming back to life. Though he would like to see dinner patronage increase on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays he is delighted to see his patio and dining room alive with guests clamoring for the boldly flavored, vibrantly colored and artfully plated dishes he has been crafting since opening Amerikas five years ago.

Nuanced menu favorites including the popular cauliflower with carrots and farro in a hibiscus arbol reduction and seared scallops with black rice remain on the menu, but new elements like a 16-ounce bone-in pork chop served with blueberry compote made from berries sourced from the Oak Park Farmers Market suggest the chef is connecting with his community in delicious new ways.

“I don’t follow the rules; I cook my own food,” said Gonzalez. “It is not Mexican. It is not American. What I cook is in my blood.”

The road to Gonzalez’s independent approach to his cuisine began to take shape when he began cooking alongside his mother at eight years old. She ran a fonda, an unpretentious open-air eatery, in Oaxaca, Mexico where the two cooked together. She passed along her love for home-style mole sauces and bold Mexican flavors.

At age 17, Gonzalez made his way to Chicago, landing at O’Hare with just four quarters in his pocket and little knowledge of the English language. His brother was supposed to meet him at the airport, but never showed up. Gonzalez, who lost half his quarters trying to make a phone call, ultimately made his way via taxi to his new family home in the city. His brother paid for the taxi and took him straight to a Smashing Pumpkins concert — a moment that taught him to be open to new experiences.

Gonzalez developed an insatiable hunger for kitchen knowledge, honed his techniques, and embraced his natural ability to combine flavors, but few may know bar food paved the way to that beautiful branzino. After arriving in America, Gonzalez took his first kitchen job at a sports bar where he cooked up little more than chicken wings and French fries.

“The bar owner would come in every Tuesday and ask me to make him a meal, but never wanted it to be something from the menu,” said Gonzalez. “So, I’d basically make family for him — cooking food my way. Eventually he told me to go over to the Hudson Club. That is where I began working side-by-side with chefs using meats and vegetables and fish I had never seen in my life.”

He parleyed that experience into stints at French, Italian and Japanese restaurants across the city, before opening the much-lauded Libertad in Skokie. In time, Gonzalez made the bold decision to break away and open Amerikas in Oak Park.

“I decided it was time to cook whatever came to my mind and cook from my heart,” said Gonzalez. “Opening Amerikas was a dream come true. This isn’t a job; if I lose this, I lose my dream. I want this restaurant to be one of the best in the city. I think Oak Park deserves that and everything I do is for Oak Park.

The simple truth is we have a seriously competent chef serving up top notch dishes right on Lake Street — take one bite of that branzino and you’ll taste the rebirth of creativity.

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