I don’t have the luxury of obsessing over a single restaurant. My job requires that I eat in as many new restaurants as fast as I can. But hazards be damned! I’m obsessed with Brown Bag Seafood Co. in the Loop. This column is usually reserved for Chicago institutions, places run for three generations by the same family, places that if you haven’t eaten in you’re not allowed to call yourself a Chicagoan—not places that have been open for less than a year and a half.
But the first week I discovered Brown Bag near my office, I ate there three times. I’ve eaten there six times in the past month. Brown Bag Seafood Co. is not McCormick and Schmick’s. But in most ways, it’s better. It’s a fast-casual restaurant that delivers on what it promises, serving pristine fresh seafood quickly, affordably and by employees who are so friendly and accommodating, you wonder if they somehow found out I have a terminal cancer that even I don’t know about.
Also interesting about Brown Bag is how it seems like it’s poised for major franchising, but also succeeds in feeling like a cozy one-off neighborhood spot. This, however, makes sense given that owner Donna Lee started her career in one-off local restaurants such as Evanston’s Blind Faith Cafe and recently defunct Quince, but also was a general manager for a Noodles & Company franchise at Old Orchard Mall in Skokie. Sure, there’s netting, rustic pendant lamps and a door with a porthole, but the dining room at Brown Bag feels less like Long John Silver’s and more like you’ve walked into a Martha Stewart Living spread on the wonders of Nantucket-chic design.
Serving reasonably priced food fast might be easy with cheap burritos, burgers or hot dogs, but we’re talking about flaky, lemony Lake Superior white fish ($9.99) on artisan-style baguettes, aka “the subbie” (Lee has worked with her bread baker to develop three versions of the roll since they opened in search of the optimal fish-to-crackling bun ratio). Also on deck: blackened fish of the day on a bed of quinoa, or those same spicy caramelized hunks of fish or fried plump shrimp mounded high with crisp slaw, pickled red onion, fiery jalapeno slivers and an herbed crema made in-house from greek yogurt, mayo and lime juice all swaddled in a pretty decent flour tortilla ($8.99-$11.99). It’s one of the best fish tacos in Chicago.
“When we were opening, people asked me, ‘Aren’t you worried you can’t compete with the [nearby] Mariano’s?’,” Lee said. “I’m not competing with the grocery buffet. I’m serving the same fish you get at Gibson’s for $20-plus for $12 a plate.”
Brown Bag Seafood Co. also serves the occasional flaky lobster pot pie ($14), which clocks in as the priciest menu item besides the weekend-only lobster roll ($22). All of the seafood served is sustainable (as determined by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list), most of the items are less than $10 and the seafood’s delivered twice a day to guarantee freshness. “When I hear about restaurants who use frozen product or refreeze leftover stuff, it just makes me upset,” Lee said. “We have a little freezer space here, but it’s mostly dedicated to storing our tater tots.”
Indeed, the tots ($1.50-$2.50) are frozen, but they’re deep-fried to order and served piping hot in tiny paper coffee cups topped with your choice of cheddar cheese and freshly ground pepper, buffalo sauce and blue cheese or wisps of parmesan and truffle oil.
Despite that small decadence, Brown Bag Seafood Co.’s most popular item is their spinach, quinoa and wild rice blend “power box” topped with a healthy broiled or blackened fillet of fish ($6.99-$11.99 depending on protein option). “I bought a $10,000 breading machine and thought people were going to go crazy for the fried stuff, but the power box has been the most popular,” Lee said. “I didn’t realize how popular the healthy aspect of this restaurant would be.”
The soup of the day might be broccoli cheddar ($4) studded not with tiny green bits but with lovely al dente whole florets dripping with white cheddar rich broth. There are fresh-baked cookies at the door for $1.50 that you don’t order at the counter but instead pay on the “honor system” by stuffing the cash in a box near the cloche domes that hold the tantalizing desserts.
By now, readers know I’m a sauce geek, and there’s a dip bar featuring a custard-thick, lemony-spritzed herbed tartar sauce and something called “rickshaw,” a glorious tomato-based chutney I adore. If you do anything, make sure you order tots just so you have something to sop this stuff up with.
The essentials: Brown Bag Seafood Co.
340 E. Randolph St. 312-496-3999
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.