In early March, Shin Thompson’s Furious Spoon ramen minichain was humming, with five locations in the city and Evanston, and a new one set to open in Indianapolis.
“And then all hell broke loose,” says the chef who earned a Michelin star at Logan Square’s Bonsoiree and went on to open the ambitious but short-lived Kabocha, before turning to noodles in 2015.
At first he took a stand against carryout. The idea was to get in, slurp furiously, and get out. But demand was so high he devised a way to package all the components of a bowl of ramen separately so they wouldn’t suffer on the trip home before assembly.
It was a prescient adaptation, because even though he had to close three of his spots in March, the Lakeview and Logan Square Spoons are doing relatively well with carryout ramen, given the abhorrent circumstances most restaurateurs find themselves in.
But contraction also presented him the opportunity to flex. As a kid, Thompson spent lots of time in Japan visiting family—he spent his first two years there. He grew up on the country’s unique form of curry and rice, or kare raisu, thick and enveloping, mild, sweet, and warmly spiced, with fat chunks of meat, carrot, and potatoes, often topped with a thick, crispy, panko-breaded, deep-fried pork or chicken cutlet. It’s among the first examples of yoshoku, or “Western food,” adapted to Japanese tastes after Portuguese traders and English merchants were first allowed into the country in the late 1800s.
Kare is ubiquitous in Japan but rare in the midwest. Sure, a handful of Japanese restaurants around town serve it, notably Tokyo Shokudo in the Mitsuwa Marketplace food court—but no one’s a specialist. Thompson looked at dedicated curry houses in New York and LA and figured he’d be the first to bring it home. “I knew it was kind of an obscure concept that not everyone would necessarily be into or understand right away,” he says. “But I just didn’t see it here. And that kind of motivated me.”
Further, while you can buy shelf-stable blocks of additive-laden kare roux at Asian groceries and make it yourself (it is pretty irresistible), Thompson and his girlfriend and business partner, the chef Liga Sigal, wanted to make it from scratch with wholesome ingredients.
He’d actually been pondering the idea well before the pandemic but wasn’t sure it was a sustainable business on its own. But in the spring, when most restaurants shut down, he began experimenting with curries and planning his next move.
Virtual, aka “ghost” or “cloud,” kitchens were around before the pandemic too: delivery or carryout-only operations, often run out of shared spaces housing multiple concepts. Thompson knew he could test out the idea with relatively little investment or overhead. “You can really take risks that you normally may not have the resources for,” he says. “Since it’s a virtual restaurant, all the branding is done online. You’re not spending $250,000 to build out a restaurant that you find out six months later, ‘Oh this isn’t gonna work.’”
He laughed when I asked what his investment was: “It was cheap. Bare bones. Under 25K.”
Thompson and Sigal developed a base curry: vegetable stock thickened with blended caramelized onions, shredded carrots, apples, garlic, and ginger—no flour, unlike most kare—seasoned with a custom-made blend of 23 spices including cumin, coriander, turmeric, fenugreek, cloves, black cardamom, star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, and, of course, curry leaves.
Bokuchan’s (which roughly means “mama’s boy’s,”) opened for business in a former Eagle Insurance building next to the Avondale Jewel. The space, called Avondale Foods, is a two-floor, 42-kitchen shared space operated by Cloud Kitchens, a startup founded in part by ex-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (who resigned in 2017 amid a storm of scandal and crises).
I ordered a couple curries online with some trepidation. Sure, curry will travel well, but I was worried about the bag life of the tonkatsu pork cutlet and the extra fried chicken cutlet I’d ordered as a side with the beef curry. I showed up a few minutes before the app said my order would be ready. Drivers toting insulated delivery bags came in and out the front door, signing in on keypads. A flatscreen scrolled orders as they were ready, and a worker scrutinized each visitor’s phone before handing bagged orders under a plexiglass shield. North Pond it ain’t.
Apart from Bokuchan’s, I’d never heard of any of the restaurants operating out of this space. But there’s a Greek restaurant, a gluten-free specialist, a mac-and-cheese concept, Philly cheesesteaks, Sicilian street food, a national hot dog chain, and a Hawaiian plate lunch operation by the name of Surf’s Up Avondale.
Once I reached the comfort of my own kitchen, I opened the bag and all the components of my order were packaged separately. The curries themselves, speckled with add-ons, such as green peas, enoki mushrooms, or charred broccoli, were steaming hot in tightly sealed jewel boxes. Rice, shredded cabbage, and pickled cucumber salad had their own containers, while the cutlets remained hot and crispy, in ventilated packaging.
The Cheshire Pork tonkatsu kare is like a warm blanket, rich and gently spiced, while the beef curry is deepened and darkened by the deglazed fond from super tender chunks of Allen Brothers chuck roast. I didn’t try the Chicken Kamikaze curry, loaded with habanero-cayenne—the menu actually warns “DO NOT ORDER”—but I did get some Kamizake paste on the side, which blew open my doors of perception when applied to the last few bites of the beef curry.
Apart from a matcha chocolate chip cookie, it’s all curry, all the time at Bokuchan’s. There’s a vegan curry and a baseline chicken curry, curried udon noodles, and curried waffle fries. A few weeks ago there was a special squid curry, and last week there was a curry katsu burger.
That last item is a tell that Thompson isn’t stopping at curry. He’s planning a series of independent ghost restaurants in his 200-square-foot kitchen, maybe a Japanese-style burger concept, maybe bento boxes. “It might take me a few months, but I definitely have some ideas,” he says.“It’s all experimental right now, which is the fun part for me.” v