Francis Lam, the great food writer, editor, and radio host, used to laugh at Avenues, the name of the defunct Peninsula hotel restaurant that launched the careers of Graham Elliot and Curtis Duffy. He told me he thought it sounded like a mall store or a jeans label. Maybe that’s why, despite Elliot and Duffy putting out some of the best American food of the era there, the dining room was rarely packed.
Pepe Barajas, chef/owner of La Josie, a new upscale Mexican restaurant in the West Loop, was practically born into the hospitality game. As a little kid in the ’80s, he was popping the tops off Jarritos and Coke for patrons at his grandfather’s Mexico City taco stand. When he was 7, he immigrated to Chicago and watched his single mother waitress for her brother, founder of the local Los Comales chain of restaurants. Seeing her struggle financially, Barajas dropped out of high school and helped his mom open her own taqueria, Los Comales No. 8.
Whoa-ah-oh-a-oh. Sweet thiiing! Go ahead. Try to take a bite of the Sweet Thang taco from Bronzeville’s Love Taco, featuring roast chicken, grilled pineapple, red onion, queso fresco, jalapeno and pico de gallo slathered in the house secret sweet sauce, without the chorus of Chaka Khan and Rufus’s 1975 single clanging around inside your brain. In my case it was the Mary J. Blige-version (when I think of Chaka, I’m more likely to sing “I’m Every Woman), but you know what I mean.
Leña Brava, which translates to “ferocious wood,” might make a decent character name in the next “Magic Mike” flick. But in this case, it’s a nod to the fact that just about everything cooked at Rick Bayless’ new West Loop restaurant is wood-fired in a hearth or cooked over oak-stoked grills. That’s right; there’s not a single gas-fired dish coming from the kitchen at Leña Brava.
The demand for Rubi’s at Maxwell Street Market is so real that when Mayor Emanuel stopped by a few years ago to buy tacos, he couldn’t find a place to sit down and eat them.