First Look: Celebrity Chef José Andrés Brings Jaleo to Chicago
Classic Spanish cuisine strikes gold in River North.
The Spanish word “jaleo” can be translated to “revelry, commotion, fuss,” and it’s taken years for award-winning Spanish chef and humanitarian José Andrés to bring the hubbub to Chicago. Jaleo’s fifth location worldwide (the first opened in Washington, DC in 1993, when tapas were an unfamiliar concept stateside) landed at 500 N. Clark Street in River North in July, taking over the gorgeous corner space formerly occupied by Naha.
The vibrant Think Food Group creation’s 240 seats spill over onto Clark street. Designed (like many of Andrés concepts) by Barcelona-based firm Capella Garcia, the medley of bright tomato and melon hues and organic shapes includes honeycomb light fixtures, a functioning foosball-turned-dining table, a polka-dotted bathroom, and teardrop-patterned hydraulic cement floor tiles. Throughout the art-filled expanse, Spanish Avant Garde joins Mediterranean surrealism in breathtaking matrimony.
The menu is packed with Iberian flavors and ingredients that will ring familiar with anyone who has visited Spain. Tomato-y gazpacho, fried chicken croquetas, and patatas bravas served with garlicky aioli and a lick-your-plate-good spicy sauce make a bold and lusty start. Of particular note: A wide selection of hard-to-find Spanish cheeses, each paired with its own fruity condiment and served with a pile of addictively crunchy picos.
Ramon Martinez, culinary director of all five Jaleo iterations, has been with Think Food Group for 15 years, working alongside Andrés in developing dishes and ensuring quality remains high. Each summer, he travels to Spain with the team to taste new products and discover new vendors for the ever-evolving menu. Ideas and innovations stem from trips to producers, farms, and markets. A perfect example is the prized hand-cut jamón Ibérico—offered at 36 or 48 months of age from acorn-fed, free range Spanish pigs. “A trip with José is a magical experience,” says Martinez. “I share José’s passion for bringing authentic Spanish ingredients to the US, and sharing with Americans the gems of regional Spain.”
Giant paellas get the tableside treatment, spooned up by servers in epic proportions. And don’t expect the typical saffron-yellow rice dotted with wilted peas—at Jaleo, the arroz a banda con gambas y sepia is shallow, toothsome, and studded with cuttlefish and head-on shrimp. Those tasty crustaceans can also be ordered with garlic and olive oil “a la Zahara,” presented in a rustic cazuela.
The arroz rabo de toro, a Chicago exclusive inspired by the bull-fighting tradition of southern Spain, is a nod to the Midwest’s penchant for meat. According to Martinez, the oxtails are braised in the oven for four to five hours to release their natural gelatin and fat, which in turn lends a rich, “meloso” (AKA mellow) texture to the rice. There are plenty of greener options on the sprawling bill—Andrés most recent cookbook is titled Vegetables Unleashed, after all—each of which embodies the chef’s desire to promote traditional ingredients, techniques, and flavors. Says Martinez, “José often says about cooking, ‘There’s a right way and a wrong way, and we are not going to cut corners to do it the wrong way.’”
The earthy croquetas de pollo follow suit. “Like my grandmother made them, we boil chicken on the bone, reduce the stock to make a glaze, and then create a bechamel—there are no frozen croquetas at Jaleo,” assures Martinez. “And the sofrito [a tomato and onion sauce often used as a base] has to cook for eight hours.”
Martinez and Jaleo Chicago head chef Justin DePhillips have over a dozen new dishes queued up for the local debut, including a pork cheek paella, a scorpion fish mousse, and a yet-to-be revealed pulpo dish set to hit the menu in the coming months.
On the drinks side, the beverage program is stacked with Spanish-style treasures. Expect an elegant, all-Spanish bottle list from sommelier Jordi Paronella; cava by the glass or porrone; Asturian cider; Txakolina, the fizzy Basque wine; cañas of Spanish beer; multiple sherries and vermouths by the glass; sangría on tap; and a trio of fun gin and tonics. Terrific cocktails like the Media Combinación, a potent mix of vermouth, gin, and Cynar capable of knocking the common negroni off its pedestal, spice up the offerings.
Desserts include a not-to-be-missed Basque cheesecake (baked for two in a rustic paper package), plus a not-too-sweet flan from Andrés mothers recipe, embellished with a big squirt of crema catalana on the side for extra yum.
Later this year, Pigtail, a cozy speakeasy downstairs from the tapas bar, will also join the party, stocked with piggy-pink barstools and a menu of pork-centric snacks and clever cocktails. To complete the Think Food Group’s colony of Spanish concepts in Chicago, Bazaar Meat, Café by the River, and cocktail lab Bar Mar are scheduled to open this fall in the Loop’s Bank of America building, in partnership with Gibsons Restaurant Group.
Jaleo is currently open Wednesday through Sunday from 4 pm to 10 pm. Reserve via OpenTable.