“Am I at Chipotle?”
That was my first thought when I saw the line to get into Latinicity, Richard Sandoval’s new Latin food hall mecca located in the heart of downtown Chicago. A group of four really eager rubias cut me off as I was patiently making my way to the back of the line. Maybe they thought this was Chipotle too? Oh no, never mind. Same girls are googling Sandoval as we wait. A good use of time, I guess.
My second thought was: this better be worth it.
Contemporary food halls seem to be popping up everywhere these days, with places like Eataly and Cafe el Presidente taking NYC by storm, and the trend migrating over to Chicago, with a Chicago Eataly and the new, 6700 square foot Mexican emporium Cantina 1910 in Andersonville, among others. Even the gawd Anthony Bourdain is getting in on the action with a massive food hall set to debut in NYC in about two years. The trend – a revival of an old world way of shopping and eating – seems to reflect the preferences of today’s eaters, who want more options and variety in an immersive setting that is more casual than a full-service formal meal.
Latinicity, inspired by Chef Sandoval’s past restaurants and travels across Latin America, took note from what other successful food halls have done when plans for the 22,000 square foot space were under way. Their goal is to take Latin American cuisine and cater to the ultimate foodies, supplying them not only with elevated dishes but, also with atmosphere, location and a luxury retail experience.
The hype was intense, which is how I found myself in a line snaking around outside the front of the hall. But the throng outside was a little misleading; The hosts up front were merely trying to prevent the lines inside from getting ridiculous by letting groups of 10 or so in at a time, which I appreciated once I got inside.
Most food halls remind me of Saturdays spent at my local mall food court as a teenager–too many smells interacting with each other at once with a million voices shouting over another to be able to be heard discussing business over a lunch break. Latinicity did its best to abolish that stereotype with soothing salsa playing over the speakers and a comfortable feng shui set up, dividing the retail and food stations that make up the space.
The first thing you encounter inside is the retail space–which was slightly disappointing. When word of Latinicity’s “imported Latin goods” offering first got out, I got excited. Would there finally be a place where I could buy sofrito, masa flour, corn husks, etc. all in one spot and not have to run north, south, up and around the city? (Or maybe that’s just my struggle, as a Boricua dating a Mexican…)
Instead, the retail section was a very upscale import lounge of sorts, selling wine and spirits, Spanish paella rices and sausages, and exclusive spices. There were Latin American staples, such as Jarritos and Ibarra chocolate–sold for twice the price you can purchase them at any neighborhood grocery store. They also had churro makers and really cute souvenir mugs you could send to Grandma, so props to whoever designed their logo.
As I peeked around at what other people were eating, I realized I didn’t recognize any of the dishes. I saw women carrying salads with steak carefully laced on top, rolls of sushi, and bowls of what looked like butternut squash soup.
The different stands within the hall were labels I understood–taqueria, tortas, mariscos, ensaladas, cafe. But doing a quick walk around helped me realize that these weren’t supposed to be faithful, “authentic” executions of Latin American dishes, but rather plates inspired by the basics of Latin cooking. The Japanese influence in Peru? Enter sushi. The massive Mexican influence into American cuisine? Enter the chipotle infused and kicked up burgers. The fusion concept was probably most evident in the dish I decided to try, a torta called “pan de chicharron”, which wasn’t actually made with chicharron, but rather pork belly, sandwiched between perfectly soft bread, garlic aioli, thinly sliced sweet potatoes and some sort of relish. At only $9, I was impressed–the flavors all melded well and I was pleased by the incorporation of seasonal notes – but it wasn’t truly a torta.
Looking around the dining hall, with its gorgeous tall windows that showcase all of downtown Chicago’s skyline, I saw a mix of people; the majority were young business types eager to try something new for their lunch break, the others were young “foodies” ready and eager to be the first to instagram the new spot. I could count the number of Latinos actually dining in the spot on one hand, myself included.
I would come back to experience two other parts of the food hall: the coffee shop with cozy couches where you can lounge while sipping your cafe con leche (which would have been a good resting spot amidst the H&M x Balmain madness that was happening simultaneously just two buildings down), and the nighttime restaurant within a restaurant Pata Negra, which is supposed to be a modern take on the tradition of Spanish tapas.
Overall, Latinicity will succeed because of its location and the clientele it’s seeking to serve–business lunchers and tourists. But as grand as the spot is, it’s not a dining destination meant for the people that inspired its cuisine.