The empty River North storefront belonging to the city's only Chili’s (excluding O’Hare International Airport) is about to get a new tenant. Brightwok Kitchen, a fast-casual Asian restaurant, aims to open a second location by early July at State and Ontario streets. The 1,500-square-foot restaurant is smaller than Brightwok’s Loop location and will focus more on to-go orders and the early evening dinner rush for downtown workers needing a quick meal to take home.
The landlord has divided the space for two tenants at 631 N. State Street. Brightwok, which takes part of the space, has a 100-percent gluten free and vegan-friendly menu. Co-owner Jeremy Klaben said the tofu — supplied by Phoenix Bean in Uptown — routinely outsells steak as the protein of choice for his assembly line stir fry restaurant.
It’s unusual for a fast-casual restaurant to have a seasonal menu, but Brightwok has committed to that by swapping out produce and sauces every three months or so. One example of a rotating item is a Brightwok’s street corn, the restaurant’s spin on elotes. Corn cobs are dressed with a spicy garlic sesame sauce. Klaben plans to bring that item back in River North. They’ll also have new drink options at the new locations. Think kombucha, sparkling water, and more. They’ve also hired Andersonville craftsman Michael Newman to create custom furniture pieces for the restaurant.
Brightwok debuted in 2015 in the Loop and has found a niche in catering. Klaben said they fill orders as far as Evanston. The restaurant has evolved over three years as Klaben and chef Kolter Livengood have figured out what works and what doesn’t. The two take pride in their unique restaurant. The sauces and food radically differ from a mall Chinese restaurant.
“Our decision to go completely gluten free and entirely dairy and peanut free was big,” Klaben see. “That’s a commitment that we have held strong on for three years.”