As Chicago’s weather warms up, the goal for Stephanie Izard and Boka Restaurant Group is to make the city forget about polar vortices, dibs, and winter potholes by giving them a pisco sour to hold in one hand while they sink their teeth into a piece of a spicy, citrus-laden piece of tiradito at their new Peruvian restaurant. Cabra opens on Thursday in Fulton Market on the roof of the Hoxton hotel, 200 N. Green Street. The opening gives Izard her fifth restaurant collaboration with Boka.
Izard is among the most famous chefs in Chicago, known for Girl & the Goat on Randolph Restaurant Row and her TV victories on Iron Chef and Top Chef. She is going from the Chinese flavors at her most recent opening three years ago, Duck Duck Goat, to Peruvian food at Cabra. Summer rooftops in Chicago call for lighter bites with bright flavors, and that’s why Izard said Peruvian food made sense on the Hoxton’s roof. She spent two weeks with other Boka staff traveling through three Peruvian cities: Lima, Arequipa, and Cusco. Another celebrity chef, Andrew Zimmern, connected Izard and her crew with a friend in Peru. That friend helped Izard find restaurants to inspire the Boka crew. The research and development was similar to how Izard and her team approached opening Duck Duck Goat.
Knowing that, there’s bound to be questions about authenticity, and Izard is aware of that. When Duck Duck Goat opened in 2016, marketing was careful and used “reasonably authentic,” which diffused potential accusations of appropriation. Izard knows a two-week visit isn’t enough to gain a mastery of Peruvian food.
“I’m not trying to be authentic in any shape or form,” Izard said. “I’m not Peruvian, I don’t think I can make Peruvian food as well as anyone in Peru.”
The interest in Peruvian food is natural, Izard said, pointing to the global influences on the menus at her other restaurants. Customers can find Chinese and Korean flavors at Little Goat and others. While Peru’s culinary influences are diverse, Izard said she’s leaning toward the Japanese impact. There’s a whole snapper cooked in Japanese-style curry. While Peruvian cuisine is full of Chinese influences, Izard feels it’s too reminiscent of American Chinese food. That could be redundant as Izard and Boka do have that reasonably authentic Chinese restaurant nearby, also in Fulton Market. That means no arroz chaufa on Cabra’s opening menu.
The heart of Cabra’s menu is cured fish. Tiraditos are commonly described as Peruvian-style ceviche. But tiraditos aren’t traditionally marinated like ceviche, and it’s sliced different. The selections will rotate and the opening menu includes hirame (purple sweet potato, aji amarillo, whey leche) and tuna (serrano-cilantro, passion fruit, jicama). There’s shrimp and even a duck ceviche on the menu. Perhaps goat tartare would make it on the menu, to keep in line with the goat references at Izard’s restaurants — in case her fans didn’t know, “cabra” means goat in Spanish. There is a smoked goat empanada.
Bigger plates include chicharron del puerco, a skin-on pork shank that Izard said was very popular during friends and family services. Izard, the chef who made roasted pig face popular at Girl & the Goat, will serve beef heart at the new restaurant.
Boka’s drink director, Lee Zaremba, also traveled to Peru and is working on an arsenal of beverages. He’s also in charge of Boka’s basement bar at the hotel, Lazy Bird. Izard said they’ll have plenty of pisco, but she’s also partial to the Peruvian beer she drank while traveling. They’ll have that for customers at Cabra. Boka will also open a Mediterranean restaurant, Cira, on the hotel’s ground floor from chef Chris Pandel.
Taking another page out of Duck Duck Goat’s opening playbook, Boka split Cabra’s staff into groups to share what they learned in Peru. Staff had to do book report-style summaries to demonstrate they understood the differences in aji and citrus.
The peppers are especially key to the bold Peruvian flavors that Izard wants to replicate in Chicago. Izard also wants to bring back some of the textures to the states. She affectionally referred to one of the dishes as a “crunchy potato situation.” Salchipapas is a street food dish that’s popular at Peruvian fast food restaurants. The main components are thinly sliced beef sausage served on a bed of french fries. Cabra’s will use fried chorizo, and tater tots instead of fries.
Izard’s fans are among the most loyal base in Chicago. And on Thursday they’ll get another hotly anticipated restaurant from their favorite chef. Cabra debuts on Thursday, and will also be open for weekend brunch. Read the menu below.