“There’re a lot of people on the attack in today’s America. If we want to show a face that people maybe don’t often see, food is a good way to start that conversation.”
That’s how chef Rodolfo Cuadros describes the motivation behind Amaru (1904 W. North Ave.), a new restaurant coming to Wicker Park. He says the menu will combine Latin American cuisines with flavors popularized by Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States.
Cuadros, who was the long-time chef at Carnivale in the West Loop, is setting out on his own for the first time with Amaru. The restaurant is in the old Lokal space, unrecognizable after a complete gut rehab (“more than down to the studs”). The concept, which Cuadros calls a “labor of love,” has been developing in the back of his mind for years, but he waited until his children were out of infancy before jumping into a new venture.
In fact, his kids have influenced some of the choices he’s making at Amaru, especially its playlist. Cuadros sounds almost as excited talking about the music at Amaru as the food: He plans to play plenty of Portuguese and Spanish hip-hop, which will progress in intensity throughout the evening. Families who dine early can do so without quite so much noise; for example, brunch — Cuadros’s favorite meal to share with his family — will be built around the sounds of Chicano funk.
What about the food? The menu is still in progress, but Cuadros’s overall goal is to showcase lots of grain- and vegetable-driven dishes inspired by native cuisines, plus anything else he likes to eat. His plantain dish is inspired by an Ecuadoran technique of wrapping shrimp in plantains and frying them, but Cuadros’s version (pictured above) is a play on bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed with sweet chorizo and wrapped in bacon. He brings a similar twist to his “very traditional” charcoal-cooked chicken by bringing in the Japanese charcoal traditionally used in robata grilling.
“I love Indian food, Japanese food, everything – and this is about being Hispanic-American, which means taking a little of everything and mixing it together.”
The cocktail program will skip the tequilas and mezcals that you’re probably used to seeing at Latin spots and focus on what Cuadros thinks is the “most overlooked spirit out there”: rum. He plans to stock an extensive selection of rums from all over Central and South America and use that selection as the base of the cocktail menu.
Construction is finishing up now, and the restaurant is aiming for an early July opening. While Cuadros is happy to talk about electrical contractors and permitting, he keeps coming back to his motivations for working on the restaurant.
“The political climate for the last few years has been really challenging for me and my family,” says Cuadros. “It’s taken me a long time to realize that I can be extremely proud of being American and Hispanic at the same time. I want to share that with our customers.”