Unlike most new restaurants, which are cursed with delays, chef drama, and staffing troubles, Mundano seems to have been blessed by serendipitous timing. Chef Ross Henke practically went straight from an acclaimed stint at Quiote, which closed in August, to Mundano, a Lincoln Park restaurant that will offer modern American food with Latin influences.
Growing up in the south suburbs, Henke recalls jokingly that the closest he got to Mexican food was “ground beef in a flour tortilla.” His first job during culinary school was at a Naperville country club, but Quiote was really his first exposure to the cuisine.
“If you give me a cuisine to [cook], I’m going to do the research and learn how to do it. I didn’t expect to go full-blown Mexican in my career, but it landed with me,” Henke says.
All said, Mundano isn’t going to be Quiote’s second act. Henke describes the offerings as “New American, with some leaning on Latin ingredients and techniques.”
While Henke was out of work after his stint at Quiote ended (the restaurant was evicted after piling up a mountain of debt), a friend connected him with owners looking to open a new restaurant in the Blanchard’s former space on Lincoln Park Way. They haven’t messed with it too much, beyond freshening it up.
“The space was beautiful before anything had been done to it,” Henke says.
There, Mundano will serve an array of 15 to 18 dishes, which will be as uncomplicated as Henke can make them. “I want to make craveable food that people don’t have to ask how to eat. The more you have to think about the meal, the less you’re going to enjoy it,” he says.
Henke singles out the bread course at the top of the menu as one that particularly exemplifies this approach. Mundano’s bread is served with salsa macha (an oil-based salsa thickened with nuts and seeds), filled with garlic, and topped with pecorino.
Other unexpected combos fill the menu: cured trout with beef-fat–smoked oil (which Henke says is achieved by flavoring the oil with binchōtan charcoal so that “you get the grilled meat flavor without any meat in it”); a pot-au-feu that’s “French onion soup meets chili” and served with marrow bones, roasted and raw turnip, and burnt onions; and coriander and cumin lamb served with scallion pancakes that will “play from Middle Eastern to Mexican” on the plate.
An important but often overlooked aspect of opening a new restaurant is the culture created among staff. To that end, Henke has brought in a former Quiote colleague, Trista Baker, to run front-of-house. Baker is also the founder of a nonprofit called Restaurant Culture Association (RCA), which creates model policies to make food workplaces safer from harassment. RCA helps restaurants with training and policies, but this is the first time Baker has been back in a leadership role since she started the organization.
Mundano hopes to create a casual, comfortable environment — a big change from the fairly upscale former tenant of the space. Prices will be reasonable (Henke is aiming for a $50 check average), and the vibe will be jeans and caps, hip hop and world music.
The restaurant is scheduled to open in late January.