After three successful pop-ups last winter, longtime friends Israel Fernandez III and Wilfredo Bravo were ready for a permanent location, and had just found one, inside the Logan Square bar Spilt Milk. Fernandez had some much-loved family recipes for posole and barbacoa. Bravo had professional experience cooking with Rick Bayless. And as Mexican Americans who grew up in Chicago (Bravo moved here from New York City during high school), both were on a mission to modernize traditional fare into “dope tacos and bomb pozole,” to quote the restaurant’s tagline. Their timing couldn’t have been worse.
Fernandez and Bravo were all set to open Kumbala Pozoleria & Barbacoa in time for St. Patrick’s Day and, well, we all know what happened. So they regrouped and shifted their focus to carryout and delivery, opening in early June, just in time for the protests to roil the city. So the pair closed Kumbala, waited a few days, and tried again. It’s a good thing they persevered because, as advertised, their food is dope.
Bravo knows where to bring his cheffy moves. His vegan posole verde ($7.50) is fresh and bright, with appropriately chewy hominy and crisp-tender chunks of zucchini and chayote in a serrano broth enriched with pipián. And his chilled shrimp tacos ($8.50 for three) unite oil-poached shrimp with salsa macha for a luxurious texture and thrumming, subtly spicy flavor. (I wish we had gotten a double order of these.)
But this chef also knows when simple is best — namely, in the case of the barbacoa, which has all the little fatty bits and uneven shreds you want from this meaty classic. If the flavor seems beefier and deeper than you’d expect, that’s thanks to a good amount of short rib in the mix. You can get the barbacoa in a set of tacos ($8.50), but if you’re ordering takeout, just go for a full pound ($40). It comes with cabbage-citrus slaw, salsa verde, and more than three dozen white corn tortillas. You’ll be happily eating it for days and thinking, Take that, 2020.