Located on the northwest side of Chicago where Albany Park and Irving Park meet, the Kedzie Inn looks like any neighborhood bar with its worn hardwood floors, mini pool table, collection of vintage beer and its obligatory flat screens. Outside, its name sits proudly beneath a panel bearing the Pabst Blue Ribbon logo that lights up at night.
What sets the Kedzie Inn apart from hundreds of others like it, however, is that it’s the neighborhood bar of Mike Sula, the Chicago Reader writer who, since 1995, has been reviewing the city’s great restaurants. city in addition to telling the stories. of off-the-radar dining options and the people behind them.
Unusual foods are another area Sula has explored. His article “Chicken of the Trees” about eating squirrels, a story born out of his frustration with the furry vermin that eat the tomatoes in his home garden year after year, won him a James Beard MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award. in 2013.
Last August, Sula switched teams, so to speak, and became a part-time restaurateur himself when he, with the help of Kedzie Inn owner and friend Jon Pokorny, launched Monday Night Foodball. What began as a seven-week, limited-time pop-up restaurant with a rotating mix of industry folks – think classically trained chefs, caterers, self-taught cooks, home cooks, school graduates Culinary – celebrates its one-year anniversary this month with no immediate plans to quit.
Even before the pandemic, Sula and Pokorny had debated the idea of doing some kind of pop-up at the bar. Pokorny, fresh off his January 2020 win over Sula in the Kedzie Inn’s annual chili contest, was eager to brag about more food competitions. (For the record, Sula says, “I definitely hold a grudge, because I never won.”)
Once the pandemic lockdown hit with temporary restaurant and bar closures, the idea shifted to hosting the virtual chefs Sula had talked about in the Reader who channeled their creative cooking skills and their knowledge of social media to create and sell take-out and delivery. .
“They weren’t big name Chicago chefs with household names,” Sula says. “They were line cooks, bartenders and waiters making interesting, super creative dishes that would never have been greenlit in a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It was about personal concepts, collaborative mashups, homages to their grandmothers, and cuisines that don’t exist in Chicago.
When the pandemic restriction eased and with the reader’s encouragement and support, Sula and Pokorny started Foodball.
“For me, it was an opportunity to give these chefs a chance to cook by the minute, fresh from a kitchen instead of watching their food wither away in a polystyrene shell,” says Sula, who acts as as host, food runner and busser. “The Foodball was a chance for people to try their hot and fresh food.”
Pokorny adds, “It’s an opportunity for these chefs to do something they’ve never tried before and build their brand without having to come through the ranks of a top kitchen.”
To participate, chefs cover all food costs and provide all disposable items. The Kedzie Inn charges no fees, so participants keep all the money they earn. Added bonus: The bar has a large fully functional kitchen.
Pokorny sees the familiar vibe of Kedzie Inn as a plus for the unusual food featured at Foodball. “For a lot of people who had never tried a certain cuisine before, this is an environment to do so, because you’re in a neighborhood bar and it’s not intimidating.”
The Foodball menus featured cuisines from around the world as well as cuisines unique to Chicago and the people who prepare them.
Giong Giong, the first concept, featured Vietnamese and Guatemalan street food from chefs Jeanette Tran (private dining manager at Oriole) and David Hollinger (Aya Pastry). There was Malaysian food from Kedai Tapao, a Foodball favorite with repeat appearances. Galit Pastry Chef Mary Eder-McClure and Butter Bird Bakery’s Kat Stuerhk Talo tapped into their heritage with a Lebanese-Armenian feast. Mike “Ramen Lord” Satinover hosted two sold-out Foodballs, as did Ethan Lim of the famous Hermosa restaurant, which offered Khmer street food. Some chose to decorate the bar while others brought in live music and dancers. Others have added a charity component to their pop-up.
For all Foodballs, Pokorny either creates a specialty cocktail that complements the flavor profiles of the food served, or offers a beer from the country of the kitchen.
During its year-long run, Foodball has gained many die-hard fans, a mix of nearby residents, Kedzie Inn regulars and Sula enthusiasts, who learn about pop-up diners through its weekly Reader articles and their social media posts.
Jaime Levonian counts himself in the Sula fan club category. “I’ve been to many of the restaurants that Mike has promoted and found that most of the time I agree with his reviews. He’s become my restaurant guide,” Levonian said. Mike has always stood up for the little guy, the independents. I like that persuasion too. Out of the 40 Foodballs that have been held so far, Levonian has only missed three.
Foodball, however, is much more than the delicious food served on its paper plates. Week after week, it has become a vibrant source of stories of survival, reinvention, memories, family and reconnecting with its heritage, all told through the context of food.
Take, for example, Charles Worth of Umamique, who left a career in finance to focus on his smoking and barbecue business in 2019. Since then, Worth and Odesza, his 22ft red mobile road pit, have been very busy organizing catering and pop-up events. Umamique will be making their second Foodball appearance on September 19.
For SuperHai’s Jane Shang and Jordan Ross, who held a Foodball in July and host one every Wednesday at Ludlow Liquors, the pop-up format gives them the perfect system for their culinary passions, while allowing them to pursue other interests. For Shang, it’s graphic design, and for Ross, a former butcher at Publican Quality Meat, sharpening and restoring knives.
“The long term for a restaurant is really tough in the current climate with rent prices and everything,” Shang says. “We never even thought we’d get this far, so we’re grateful to be here.” Jordan Ross adds, “It’s been great working for ourselves now and meeting all these other cool people and finding a real supportive food community.”
Annie Xiang of Volition Tea, an importer of single-origin Chinese loose-leaf teas that has partnered with SuperHai and served mocktails, has similar sentiments about the pop-ups. “I think having a brick and mortar would bind me, whereas now I’m more mobile and can do more business development and browse more opportunities.”
To eat. Look. Do.
What to eat. What to watch. What you need to live your best life…now.
Joey Pham, who has “headlined” two Foodballs, including a Vietnamese-Italian mashup, and has helped others in the kitchen numerous times, appreciates the less stressful environment pop-ups can provide.
“We are in a time where people are recognizing that it is extremely difficult financially, mentally, physically and emotionally to maintain a brick and mortar business, let alone open one,” says Pham. “Part of the fun at Kedzie is that we can take our dream and our creativity and apply it somewhere overnight. There’s something truly magical about it.
And Pham isn’t the only one who sees the magic and possibilities of the Foodball experience.
“The question I asked the most during the lockdown was: what are you going to write about?” said Sula, who actually found he had too much to write about. “That summer there was a great toll in general as well as in the restaurant industry with people talking about fairness and reinventing the culture of toxic restaurants. I started to see people coming out of that. I didn’t think the restaurant industry in Chicago was dying. On the contrary, these people are the future.
The Kedzie Inn, 4100 N. Kedzie Ave, (773) 942-6771, kedzieinn.com
Lisa Shames is a freelance writer.
Big screen or home broadcast, take-out or dine-in, Tribune’s writers are here to guide you to your next big experience. Sign up for your Free Weekly Eat. Look. Do. newsletter here.