I promise I’m not just going to write about food hall vendors for the rest of my life, but this summer it feels like I could. Much more so than the three-year-old Revival Food Hall, which largely enlisted established chefs and concepts, the folks behind the three-month-old Politan Row have tapped into promising and unsung local kitchen talent.
Their achievement is even more remarkable considering that Politan Row is a chain consisting of (for now) four food halls in three major U.S. cities that began with New Orleans’s Saint Roch Market just over four years ago.
But it was a local, Margaret Pak, of Politan Row Chicago’s Keralite Thattu, who clued management in to Randi Howry and Kelly Ijichi, two chefs who have worked and lived together off and on since 2016, when they met while working at MFK.
Howry and Ijichi hooked up with Pak through the collaborative pop-up series Hungry as F*ck, where they originated the dish that would give birth to Mom’s: deep-fried Spam musubi, a Hawaiian snack of sushi rice and Spam wrapped in nori. It’s just one of Howry and Ijichi’s tributes to what they call Japanese comfort food. But in some ways it’s a full-circle embodiment of yoshoku—a branch of Japanese cuisine that adapts Western dishes—which could arguably be traced back to the mid 19th century. Now characterized by dishes like Okinawa taco rice, kare raisu (curry rice), and omurice (rice omelet), yoshoku was cultural appropriation back when it was cool.
Spam wasn’t around back then, but that’s when red meat became legal in Japan, which made possible tonkatsu, the crunchy, panko-breaded pork cutlet drenched in brown Worcestershire-spiked sauce. Its descendant is the katsu sando, a katsu between two cottony white squares of shokupan, Japanese milk bread, swiped with the sauce and given vegetal crunch with chopped raw cabbage. In the last year or so, cheffy interpretations of this Japanese convenience-store standby have been appearing all over the country.
Judging from Instagram, Howry and Ijichi’s katsu sando is one of the stars of the food hall. In cutaway, it certainly arrests the eyeballs, and all one’s attention once in the mouth—two cirrus clouds sandwiching a strata of Sichuan-chile-spiked mayo, acidic tsukemono-style pickled cucumbers, cool shredded cabbage, pea greens, and hot, crunchy pork.
Howry and Ijichi planned to bake the softly sweet, spongy milk bread in-house, but demand wouldn’t allow it. Instead they make several trips each week to the Korean Crescent Bakery in the Assi Plaza in Niles, where it’s baked every day. A plan to make soba noodles from scratch was set aside as well, but it’s hard to tell that the cool, slippery buckwheat noodles they serve are a commercial brand, particularly if on one of our punishingly hot recent afternoons you’ve dipped them into their limpid, chilled dashi, sparked by grated wasabi and ginger, and more pickles.
The chefs do roll the dough every few days for their house-made udon noodles—fat, springy, square tentacles they press out over a stringed Italian chitarra pasta maker, then serve in hot dashi with a slice of soy-mirin-sake-marinated beef short rib, crunchy tempura crumbs, and a jiggling soft-boiled egg that begs to leak its golden interior into the brew.
Like many of the vendors at Politan, Howry and Ijichi have a tightly focused menu, and nearly everything on it is essential. Dipped in togarashi-sriracha mayo, the Spam musubi is an Insta-ready riot of textures and flavors: fatty, snappy, salty, crunchy, and soft all at the same time. Sweetly roasted “happi potatoes,” drizzled with Kewpie mayo and tonkatsu barbecue sauce and topped with a dancing wave of shaved bonito flakes, are a tuberous take on the street pancake known as okonomiyaki, while the chefs’ version of gomae, often a dense, murky spinach-sesame salad, is a market-driven rogue, in July broccoli tossed with sweet and nutty sesame sauce and a crunchy black-sesame brittle spiked with a tingling dash of togarashi.
A trio of pastries beckons from under glass: a small football of panko-fried milk bread that contains a core of savory vegetable curry; a square of chewy, mildly sweet coconut-butter mochi that in some ways resembles a Saint Louis gooey butter cake; and a big, flaky cream puff that is meant to rotate flavors but for now, by popular demand, is filled with purple ube cream.
Succulents potted in the familiar blue-and-yellow tin signal the nostalgia for Spam that Howry and Ijichi have been conjuring since their pop-up days—which they say aren’t over. But they’ve also talked for years about opening a Japanese-style diner, which if it happens—and they say it will—would be a brand-new form of yoshoku. v