There are a lot of cities in the world where you could dedicate yourself to eating nothing but street food and eat like a king for the rest of your days: Mexico City, Bangkok, Istanbul, Singapore, Austin, Los Angeles, and on and on. Chicago isn’t on that list. Yes, we have food trucks, but they’re crippled by an unfair law that inhibits them from thriving. We have sidewalk eloteros, fruteros, tamaleras, and taqueras, but they’re forced to exist as outlaws, dependent on the benign neglect of police and City Council members, and always vulnerable to their persecution. That’s about it.
No matter how much the national media dotes on the food in Chicago, we’ll never be considered great on the world stage as long as those in power refuse to allow this critical part of a vibrant city’s culture to grow.
For that reason, Chicago chefs—and food writers—tend to fetishize street food more than their counterparts in other cities. For chefs with brick-and-mortar restaurants, street food is an attractive pursuit because it targets a worldly local market that understands the appeal and yearns for it, yet can’t satisfy that hunger in its own city.
On the menu at Proxi, there are a few nods to ethnically disparate street-food icons (fewer than its preopening hype would lead you to expect). That’s “proxi,” as in “approximate,” or perhaps “surrogate,” and it’s the second restaurant from Emmanuel Nony and Andrew Zimmerman, managing partner and chef, respectively, of the long-running West Loop favorite Sepia. Whereas Sepia focuses on a straightforward app-entree menu, executed beautifully with fundamental, classic technique, Proxi has been billed as its casual little sister, inspired by global street eats, with a large wood-fueled hearth that blazes away in the open kitchen.
The standard bearer for this street-food focus is a take on elotes, something that makes me wince every time I see it on a restaurant menu. In this case, Zimmerman takes it around the globe, presenting tempura-battered corn fritters, shallow fried and garnished with Kewpie mayo, Grana Padano cheese, and the classic Mexican lime-and-chile-spiked seasoning salt Tajín, just to keep it real. There’s also something called “farmer’s market bhel puri,” a riff on the Mumbai beach snack that is, at present, a bowl of red potato, red onion, shaved radishes, tomatoes, and green mango, tossed with puffed rice, crispy chickpea bits, and fried lentils and seasoned with cilantro-mint and tamarind-date chutneys. It’s an explosive bite, but its crunchy components soak up the liquid fast. Don’t sleep on it when it hits the table.
To be sure, there’s a broad range of world cuisines name checked on the menu, just not things you’re likely to buy from a cart. For instance, the broad family of Thai dips known as nahm prik is represented here, with a relatively mild expression including pounded acidic white anchovy; roasted Anaheim, banana, and serrano chiles; shallots; garlic; and cilantro root. It’s all accompanied by pork rinds and a rainbow of crudite. Burrata shows up for duty studded with nutty, almost fruity sunchokes preserved with sherry vinegar; dusted with leek ash (a touch that provides more visual than gustatory appeal); and served with grilled sourdough. Another nod to Italy, roast baby potatoes “carbonara,” are lightly pan-roasted spuds with thick, chewy bites of pancetta, smothered in an aerated hollandaise with black pepper and Grana Padana.
Fat roasted oysters accelerate down the throat in a hot slick of butter compounded with ssamjang, the Korean dip based on fermented soybeans and chile. Another tip of the hat to Mexico, quite different from the one presented by Rick Bayless’s Leña Brava just down the street, is a whole grilled fish—in my case sea bream—marinated and dressed with guajillo and arbol chiles, tomato paste, apple cider vinegar, clove, cumin, and shrimp bouillon. It’s split and butterflied with the spine intact, providing access to the most luscious parts of the fish. Proxi checks in on the Levant too: a length of uncommonly thick and juicy merguez lamb sausage coils over eggplant aioli, crushed almonds, and cool sliced grapes and radishes.
Zimmerman’s gaze turns most toward southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, which contributes garlic-chile sauce to a pair of halibut collars; they’re dredged in rice flour and delicately fried—and full of collagen-rich flesh. An even more astonishing cobia fillet, at once meaty and delicate, bathes in a mild, gently sweet sauce scented by curry leaf and stained by tumeric that’s offset by crunchy bitter-melon chips—one of the best things I’ve eaten this year. Similarly, a jiggling-tender Wagyu beef short rib luxuriates in a saucier, nuttier version of a Malaysian-style rendang.
While the menu is nearly evenly divided between surf, turf, and vegetables, the fleshier side weighs in heavier with an enormous pork porterhouse with pickled mushrooms and a creamy roasted onion sauce, and a stack of lamb ribs rubbed with garam masala, smoked, then braised in coconut milk and served with Kansas City barbecue sauce spiked with mango pickle.
Pastry chef Sarah Mispagel checks in with a slightly overstabilized avocado mousse bedecked with texturally compelling crunchy-thin puffed rice crackers and black tapioca pearls, while a spiced chocolate semifreddo is thatched with the threadlike dough of the Greek pastry kataifi.
Cocktails by Josh Relkin are distinguished by refreshing fishbowl-size Spanish-style gin and tonics and drinks that somewhat mimic the worldly purpose of the menu: the margarita-like El-Otay!, made with tequila infused with grilled corn, and the Long Layover, a sherry blend amped by Feni, an Indian cashew liqueur. A robust cider selection includes some surprising choices like a wonderfully funky Chilean Quebrada del Chucao, while the affordable and approachable wine list is dominated, for now, by bottles from the Loire Valley, though most styles are represented.
Despite—or perhaps because of—Proxi’s stated goal to “scour the most culinary-rich corners of the globe,” it’s difficult to nail down a clear identity for the restaurant with so many of the plates crossing national and cultural lines, often in the same mouthful. But it is fun, and so well done that the rare misstep pales in comparison to the wild array of delicious successes that abound. v