While large restaurant groups are eating up space along Randolph Restaurant Row, La Josie provides a family-owned alternative in the West Loop at 740 W. Randolph St. Owner Jose Barajas, who also runs El Solazo near Midway Airport, grew up working in his family’s kitchens, starting in high school working inside his aunt’s restaurant, Taqueria Los Comales on 63rd and Albany. His uncle, Camerino González, founded the Los Comales chain that consists of about 20 locations.
But today, they start playing with the big boys as their new restaurant soft opens on Chicago’s highest-profile strip of restaurant real estate. Barajas’ formula is to use family recipes perfected through the years, originating from Jalisco, Mexico, focusing on simple and authentic meals. The menu will feature tacos, tortas, and his mother’s special gorditas. They’ll offer late-night items well past midnight and serve weekday lunch.
Helping Barajas in the kitchen is chef Saul Chavez who worked with the Mercadito group. Barajas’ mother, Martha Gonzalez, will also be around. Barajas points out that he doesn’t have much when it comes to a formal culinary education: “All I have is a big heart and a will to do,” he said. “I taught myself; I read a lot of books to learn about new flavors.”
La Josie is named after Barajas’ aunt, a woman he described as a second mother. Josefina Villegas died in 2015, and she’s remembered as a kind-hearted woman who helped the family’s street-vending tortas business, making the salsas and packing up the bags before the vendors took to the streets. Now Barajas is living the American dream with his second restaurant.
La Josie features two neon signs in Spanish. In the front bar it’s “hoy por tí,” which translates “today’s for you.” The sequel, in back, reads “mañana por mí.” That translates to “tomorrow’s for me.” Two bars sit on the first floor in the 5,000-square-foot space, while a few tables and a bar fill a rooftop space that will open in a few weeks. Contractor delays snarled the project, but Barajas enlisted Aida Napoles to design the space which has room to grow. He also plans to run a catering business for off-site events out of the basement. Eventually the 1,700-square-foot second-floor could become a mezcal bar or a private-event room.
While the design portion of the project was new to him, he’s confident about the food which will use simple and authentic Mexican flavors: “The food was never in question,” he said. “We were going to cook what I was cooking my entire life.” The restaurant’s drinks come from the Femme du Coupe cocktail consultancy.
Randolph Street’s demographics differ from the South Side neighborhood where El Solazo sits, as many big-time groups—even Rick Bayless’—have locations in the trendy West Loop. Barajas called his first restaurant “the engine” that makes his new plans possible, and wonders why it doesn’t receive as much love when Chicagoans talk about their favorite Mexican restaurants. He’s hoping that good food and good service will continue to bring him success.
Barajas and his mother came over from Mexico in 1988. That was possible by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 which provided amnesty to undocumented immigrants. President Reagan at the time said the law could open the door to citizenship for immigrants who arrived years ago and had grown their families’ roots in America. He also took the time to acknowledge the importance of immigrants, in the face of ongoing concerns and protests about human rights in America.
“The quality of work, just their work ethic and what they bring...I’m appreciative,” he said. “It’s something hard to find...it we lost the ability, if we lost access to the people that are the backbone of the industry, it does get concerning. I’m just hoping for a great solution.”
Check out La Josie’s soft opening today and the grand opening on Friday.
La Josie, 740 W. Randolph St., hours not listed yet.