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. Advertisements
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.
“They asked me what they should change. I said everything,” said Dudley Nieto, chef and partner of Rojo Gusano.
Tacos for bros! I figured that might as well be the motto at Velvet Taco, a late-night taqueria that opened earlier this month in the Gold Coast. The folks behind this Texas import (other locations are in Dallas and Fort Worth) clearly have a fondness for frathouse-worthy double entendres. There’s the WTF taco (weekly taco feature), “backdoor” rotisserie chicken and, of course, the free stickers that say “I eat out Velvet Taco.”
It seems like culinary suicide to open a new taqueria in Chicago’s tortilla nexus, aka the La Pasadita corridor near the corner of Ashland Avenue and Division Street. After all, La Pasadita has been the stalwart late-night carne asada beacon for the drinking masses and, more tellingly, many sober customers, for more than 38 years. Moving in on their territory feels a little like opening a hot dog cart outside of Hot Doug’s, a futile and likely fatal enterprise. And yet, not only did Felipe Caro, owner of Picante in Wicker Park, open his new taqueria, Authentaco, across the street from two locations of La Pasadita on the west side of Ashland, but he did so precisely inside the former location of the original La Pasadita opened by David Espinoza in 1976. Caro doesn’t give much credence to karma or competition though. “It’s like having Burger King across from a McDonald’s,” he said. “There’s enough business for everyone.” Considering that La Pasadita once ran three locations on the same block and still competes against itself with two storefronts, Caro is probably on to something.
There’s something about upholsterers. Lately I’ve noticed a link between those who once practiced the art of covering furniture and those who later perform creative, inspired endeavors. Jack White (White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather), for example, got his start as an upholsterer.
Returning from a vacation on either of the coasts or Mexico tends to result in a sad realization: Excellent seafood tacos are hard to come by in Chicago.