It’s all relative, but it was a different world two months ago for Phillipe Sobon and Cynthia Orobio as the couple’s food stall, Polombia, was just taking off inside Politan Row food hall in West Loop. Orobio is from Colombia and Sobon is Polish-American and grew up in Jefferson Park. Sobon is a self-taught chef and a finalist on season five of Masterchef. It was Orobio who devised the idea to combine their heritages into a menu that fused dishes like pierogi and empanadas.
“We try to make sure everything works,” Sobon says. “To make sure that people are having a dish they would really never get at any other place. It’s not Polish or Colombian.”
The couple met at a dinner party in 2019. Sobon says he would eventually ask Orobio out via Instagram and now the two have created a small business. But as Polombia was poised to take Chicago by storm in October, McDonald’s announced its workers would not return to their West Loop headquarters until 2021. That was a huge blow for Politan Row, which shares a building with the Golden Arches. Workers from the fast-food company were regular customers at Politan Row, and without that revenue stream during COVID-19, it make little sense to stay open. The food hall told vendors it would be closing until next year. That left vendors, including Sobon and Orobio, without a home for their food like arepas topped with Polish sausage with aji and a sauerkraut-like pickled slaw.
2020 has been the year of collaborations for restaurants and as Polombia contemplated its future, a new opportunity popped up. West Loop neighborhood Facebook groups had been commenting on the Politan Row story immediately after its closure. That drew the attention of Anna Kamilis, an industry veteran who worked with Gibsons Restaurant Group and has since opened a restaurant in the West Loop called the Outpost Mexican Eatery. Kamilis’s restaurant isn’t open on the weekends, and she figured that she could offer her restaurant up to one of the vendors orphaned by Politan Row. She posted a comment with an invitation to anyone interested. Kamilis feels she had a responsibility: “A lot of us can’t survive,” she says. “I’m about to cry. We’ve only been able to count on each other and evveryone is helping each other with everything.”
Sobon saw Kamillis’s post and wrote her back the next day: “Oh my god, it was a no brainer,” he says.
Sobon is from the Northwest Side and Kamillis is a South Sider. Chicago’s Polish community is famously large, and while the city’s Colombian population isn’t talked about as much, it’s one of the larger ones in the country. For Kamilis, meshing the two cuisines sounds like a uniquely Chicago concept that she wanted to support. The “Kielbasa Perro” is a prime example of that: a Polish sausage not quite dragged through the garden Chicago style, but with toppings like pickles, aioli, and a pineapple glaze that plays a terrific homage. This isn’t the first time a restaurant has fused Polish food. In Bridgeport, Kimski chef Won Kim stuffs Korean bulgogi into his pierogi.
Polombia and the Outpost worked out a pop-up agreement where Sobon and Orobio offered to cover utility costs while they’re in the kitchen. The pop-up is indefinite and Sobon says they still have an agreement to return to Politan Row when it reopens, but that’s something they can’t bank on. At the Outpost there’s no formal contract; it’s just industry helping industry.
Kamillis leases the Outpost space and after seeing the success with Polombia, her landlord relayed that he’d love for another tenant to similarly pop-up next door at the empty storefront at 518 W. Harrison Street. Interested chefs could contact Kamillis at Outpost for more info.
Polombia customers can now order on Tock and when they pick up their food, they’ll meet Orobio and Sobon who could be wearing a few artifacts showcasing their heritage. The two often coordinate and wear their respective country’s soccer jerseys. Sobon is thankful for the partnership he’s built with Kamillis, but he’s also frustrated by the government’s lack of support for his industry. He’s not impressed at the response by any level of government.
“The only people who you can really depend on are Anna and other restaurateurs,” Sobon says. “Because you can’t depend on the government, and that’s the saddest part.”