Clockwise from top left: andouille po'boy and fries, house-made Pink Panther soda; breakfast soul bowl; catfish and grits; greens Credit: Jamie Ramsay

When Lamar Moore took over the kitchen at the Currency Exchange Café in January, he did not mess with the greens.

That’s because the collards at this three-and-a-half-year-old Washington Park cafe taste like they’re made with some kind of magic. They’re not, but they are cooked down with Topo Chico, the ebullient Mexican mineral water that has staged an invasion of better bars and restaurants all over town.

The greens have a bite, and they’re tangy, sweet, and salty, and though you wouldn’t necessarily know they’re made with mineral water, at first taste they have same jolting effect on the brain’s pleasure center as a sharp pull of cold Topo after a few sips of cheesy-tasting mezcal. Moore says the mineral water does contribute to the overall flavor of the greens—which are purely vegetarian—but they’re also made with garlic, sriracha, brown sugar, and apple cider vinegar.

Something of an itinerant, Moore most recently took care of things at the Smoke Daddy but was also the opening executive sous chef at Gastón Acurio’s River North Peruvian restaurant Tanta. Now he’s simultaneously at work on opening a barbecue restaurant in Denver (though I wish he’d refocus that effort on one in the neighborhood to replace the long-gone Lem’s Bar-B-Q on State Street).

Moore does have some changes planned for the menu at @cexcafe, as it’s known on Instagram, and on his own carefully composed posts of dishes that will soon be coming forth from the kitchen. There’s a pair of cakey, moist, buttery drop biscuits topped with turkey sausage patties and over-easy eggs dripping with peppered sawmill gravy. There’s a trio of crispy Belgian waffles mounted with amber-colored chicken legs glazed with chipotle-maple butter. Another, unconventional variant on chicken and waffles features sweet potato waffles topped with country-fried chicken with cornflakes in the batter.

Those are all still to come. For now the menu’s tight breakfast lineup endures: pancakes, egg-potato-protein combos, and the signature breakfast soul bowl, the star of which is those greens, supported by eggs, roasted potatoes, and a choice of bacon or turkey or veggie sausage.

It all comes back to the greens, which, sourced from two nearby youth farms here in Washington Park and in Grand Crossing, are the backbone of the menu. They reappear at lunch alongside a thick jambalaya with chicken, kielbasa, jasmine rice, and a fried egg—the lunch soul bowl. And they come on the side of a hot cornmeal-jacketed fried catfish fillet that just begs for a searing splash of Crystal Hot Sauce.
You can find that catfish on a blue plate special with, yes, collards and red beans and rice with the option of adding a cornflake-battered chicken breast, which stars in its own sandwich tarted up with sport peppers. There’s also a catfish po’boy and a new andouille po’boy with grilled red onions and hand-cut french fries that indicate Moore is pushing things even farther south.

This is a bright, breezy, expansive space, with tables to spread out on and a long bar serving caffeinated drinks brewed from “Back of the Yards Coffee as well as less prosaic creations like ginger-turmeric chai, mint matcha lattes, or the pom pom—iced black tea, limeade, and pomegranate juice.

Reclaimed from its original identity as an actual currency exchange by artist Theaster Gates, the cafe is positioned between its sister art-book store, Bing, and the University of Chicago Arts Incubator, all part of the nascent Arts Block led by the school’s Arts + Public Life Initiative. In this context it’s difficult to look at the Currency Exchange Café as simply a restaurant. By definition cafes exist as places for socializing, for community, and for work, and the CEC accomplishes all of those things, occasionally offering music and later hours for special events. There’s even a garden space in the back where Moore will be mentoring teens to grow produce to cook in the cafe’s kitchen.

Food writers in recent years have bemoaned the decline of the classic soul-food restaurant in American cities, and Chicago is no exception to the downward trend: surrounding neighborhoods have lost theirs, including classics like Gladys’ Luncheonette and Izola’s. The great Miss Lee’s Good Food is still going strong just a block west of the cafe, but there’s no place to linger at that spot unless you want to eat your otherwise excellent herbal chicken and bread pudding al trunko on Garfield Boulevard.

I’m not saying the Currency Exchange Café fills the void for that kind of rib-sticking southern-born soul food. The cafe’s approach is lighter and more modern, but with Moore at the helm it seems to be going in the right direction.  v