José Andrés has been the king of Spanish cuisine in America for nearly the last 30 years, and Jaleo was his original concept in Washington, D.C. The restaurant is now nationwide (and soon to be worldwide; the Dubai location opens later this year) and the Chicago outpost opened earlier this month.

The menu is filled with Spanish classics like pan con tomate, patatas bravas, and paella, just to name a few, but these dishes have been perfected over many, many years by Andrés and his culinary team. Their man in Chicago is chef Justin DePhillips, who has worked for Andrés for years at different restaurants, most recently at the Disney Springs Jaleo in Orlando.

DePhillips joined the Chicago team when construction started in late 2019 — and then, for obvious reasons, everything was put on hold. After a long break, construction and development re-started, and the River North location was completed earlier this year. DePhillips used the time to re-examine many of the classic Jaleo recipes — the brand has a culinary “bible” filled with thousands of recipes accumulated over the decades — and worked with the team to strip them down to their base ingredients and build them back up, better than ever. “The food we are putting on plates in Chicago has the rough edges refined, and we’ve brought them back to what they are supposed to be,” explains DePhillips.

One example of this refinement is the paella, which is unlike any other I’ve seen in Chicago. At most Spanish restaurants, paella is a huge dish served for a large party, and has to be ordered an hour in advance so it has time to cook. But at Jaleo, it looks very different — rather than a pan stuffed to the brim with rice and toppings, this version is thin, dark, and incredibly flavorful. “A paella is supposed to be two grains of rice thick. Americans love seeing a dish that’s full of stuff,” laughs DePhillips. “So it’s interesting to present this massive pan with a thin layer of rice on it; it seems absurd to an American market.” The dish, he’s proud to say, now can be made from start to finish in 18 minutes but retains all the intense richness of flavor.

One refreshing aspect of Jaleo (especially for a Spanish food geek like me) is that it’s not trying to put a tortured spin on already-awesome classics. “One of the missions of Jaleo is to bring authentic Spanish food to the American guest,” explains DePhillips. “It’s not that we shy away from innovation, it’s that the authentic dishes of Spain are what they are, and we’re not trying to change them or Americanize them, but bring them over in their truest form.” Patatas bravas are just what they are supposed to be — the potatoes aren’t different shapes or covered in chorizo foam. They’re perfectly crisp double-fried potatoes served with a spicy sauce and a light aioli. Meanwhile, an heirloom tomato salad combines perfectly fresh tomatoes with Spanish tuna for a light but filling combination that would make the ideal lunch. Most of the ingredients are imported from Spain (even down to the super-crispy bread), but there’s the occasional Chicago touch. DePhillips modified one of the Jaleo classics, a market fish with stewed vegetables, to feature Lake Michigan northern pike. “It eats like a combination of a branzino and cod. It has the fattiness of cod, but the rich butteriness of branzino,” says DePhillips. “I knew it was a risk, because it’s not a Spanish fish, but it’s one of those little tips of the hat to where we’re opening, that still maintains the soul of the dish without compromising what it’s supposed to be.”

Probably my favorite dish on the menu (and this is coming from a writer who generally skips dessert) is the tarta de queso vasca, a goat’s milk cheesecake that serves two. Perfecting the recipe took DePhillips months. Making a small cheesecake that has a perfectly smooth interior and a burnt exterior is a challenge, but by using parchment paper and a special pan (and a lot of trial and error), he got it right. “It’s only five ingredients, but how you treat those five is everything,” he says. “And if that doesn’t speak perfectly to Spanish cooking, I don’t know what does.”