Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
In August of 2008, Bill Kim, a chef with about two decades of experience in fine dining, gave up the kitchen at Le Lan in River North to open a small place of his own called Urban Belly.
The storefront restaurant, a former laundromat, would serve simple dishes of noodles, rice, dumplings and broths, and the food would be cheap. Plastic glasses, paper napkins — a far cry from Le Lan’s upscale vibe.
Two-and-a-half years later, Kim has yet another casual spot, Belly Shack, and several other high-profile chefs have embraced this notion of “cheap chef cuisine” that is closer in spirit to plastic baskets and butcher paper than white bone china and fine silverware.
This is food created and prepared by actual restaurant chefs — not corporate food teams, short-order cooks or jaded kids trying to make some extra money. And it is pretty cheap .
“We just thought if we build it, they will come,” says Kim, who runs his two restaurants with his wife, Yvonne. Urban Belly has a pan-Asian bent, while Belly Shack marries the flavors of his Korean heritage and her Puerto Rican roots. Nothing on the menu costs more than $10.
Fries with foie
Big & Little’s, 939 N. Orleans, is a high-end fast-food counter owned by Tony D’Alessandro, a former contestant on the reality show “Hell’s Kitchen.” His top sellers include fish and chips, Angus burgers and fish tacos. He also serves French fries topped with foie gras for $12.
“In a fancy restaurant you’d probably pay $35 or $40 for that,” D’Alessandro says.
Big & Little’s has 10 stools for customers and an open grill, just like a typical hot dog stand.
“I love feeding people for cheap,” says D’Alessandro. “Fine dining, that would have been nice, but it’s not really my style. Everything on my menu is what I love to eat.”
Familiarity and comfort are definitely part of this trend. But a much bigger part has been the economic downturn that began a few years ago, chefs say.
“One-hundred percent,” says Kim. “The prices are what they are because I wanted to make it accessible.”
Acclaimed chef Rick Bayless opened Xoco in River North more than a year ago. The main lunch items are Mexican-inspired sandwiches and salads, with soups served after 3 p.m. Xoco also turns out made-to-order, “bean-to-cup” hot chocolate.
White porcelain plates and proper glasses are the norm at Xoco, but diners must stand in line and pay before their food arrives, just like they would at a fast-food joint. But 15 bucks at Xoco buys a lunch that is easily twice as good as a meal that costs half as much from a traditional fast-food chain.
Bayless also operates an express lunch counter in the seventh-floor food court at Macy’s on State Street, where his celebrated chef neighbors are Marcus Samuelsson (Marc Burger) and Takashi Yagihashi (Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi).
Last week, Bayless opened the first of two similar counters at O’Hare Airport.
Paul Kahan, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Blackbird, Avec and the Publican, serves tacos and tostadas for $3 each at his Wicker Park bar and taqueria, Big Star.
Graham Elliot of Graham Elliot restaurant opened his River North sandwich counter, Grahamwich, in December, and he promises more locations.
Food trucks gaining
The only problem with some of these places, if there is a problem at all, is that there is often a wait. Lines snake out the doors at certain hours, ironically making this “fast food” not-so-fast.
Demand is high, and why shouldn’t it be? A top chef designing a full meal with quality ingredients for less than $20? Fans say that’s worth standing in line for — even if it means sometimes standing out in the cold.
Tell it to the food truck pioneers who stand out there with you. Phillip Foss, the outspoken chef formerly of Lockwood in the Palmer House Hilton, has been braving the cold next to his Meatyballs Mobile all winter. Last week, he added a second truck; he’s even talked about delivering sandwiches on his bicycle.
Legislation is being considered in Chicago that would allow for cooking in trucks; for now, truck operators can sell only pre-cooked food. In the case of Meatyballs, that translates to one more opportunity to enjoy the food of a master for less than 10 bucks.
On a recent frigid Friday morning, under the L tracks at Monroe and Wells, Foss sold out of his inventory of 100 meatball sandwiches in one hour. In the next 15 minutes, he turned down at least a dozen more people looking for lunch.
“I’m sorry,” Foss, his stocking cap pulled down over his ears, said to his hungry, would-be customers. “I’ll make more next week.”
Foss says he doesn’t miss the high-pressure environment of a fine-dining kitchen, and even though his dining room is now a public sidewalk or someone’s work cubicle, he can continue to cook at a very high level.
“You can still put the same flavors in a sandwich that you would in a formal dish,” he says. “I think what has been lacking in the comfort food realm is creativity.”
Burgers and beyond
Even the city’s most hallowed dining institutions recognize the draw of simple food.
Tru surrendered part of its kitchen last year to make room for M Burger, which counts chef Jean Joho of Everest as a partner. M Burger gets its name from Joho’s French-tinged pronunciation of “hamburger”; it specializes in juicy burgers served in paper pouches.
A “single” at M Burger costs $2.49. Even a decent hamburger is a deal at that price. This one’s a steal.
DMK Burger Bar in Lincoln Park is owned by veteran fine-dining chef Michael Kornick of MK. The atmosphere is casual, but it would be a stretch to call it a fast-food restaurant. At Bayless’s Xoco, food runners deliver orders to diners; at DMK Burger Bar, there is a full-fledged waitstaff and the regular crockery and cutlery of a casual restaurant.
Nonetheless, DMK features a chef who has earned three stars from this newspaper now turning out hamburgers (made with grass-fed beef), fries and milkshakes.
The burger bar is about to get a sibling, a fish-focused restaurant directly next door. And M Burger recently opened a second location in River North.
Kim, too, hinted at another project in the works for Chicago “more for the home cook,” not necessarily a restaurant. And he still has hopes to add to the Urban Belly family, “maybe [in] Chicago, maybe the West Coast.”
But fine dining? For him, those days are over.
“We’ve been to the mountaintop,” Kim says. “We know what is the best.”
Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer.
Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer.