Can Mundano make Lincoln Park cool? The crew from the new casual, yet sophisticated restaurant that opened last week at 1935 N. Lincoln Park West, have worked in hipper areas like Logan Square and West Town. Now they want to bring a little of that energy to Lincoln Park and hope their approach to hospitality — where they’re empowering employees to improve working conditions — helps shatter any neighborhood expectations.
One of the year’s most anticipated openings, Mundano’s menu takes inspiration from Latin America with items including savory churros and Chinese dan dan noodles with lamb chorizo. But, as the noodles show, they’re trying to escape categorization. Chef Ross Henke had a successful run in Logan Square cooking modern Mexican food at Quiote. The experience running the kitchen of a popular restaurant gave him the confidence to branch out and pursue another areas. In recent years, thanks to the #MeToo movement, more female restaurant workers have been more vocal about poor treatment and restaurant and bars. Henke wanted to do more. He brought in a former colleague at Quiote, Trista Baker, to help create policies that would benefit staffers. They’re working on vocabulary to help set boundaries, using phrases to help facilitate better communication between management and staff. Words have power in showing workers they won't be ignored.
“I knew the culture I wanted to be part of and knew what I wanted to achieve in the kitchen,” Henke said.
Baker, who co-founded the Restaurant Culture Association — a not-for-profit that focuses on ending harassment within the industry — was an ideal recruit. Henke said he needed Baker to help servers and other staff at the front of the house, to create a place where workers are comfortable in sharing feedback without fear of retaliation. Having Henke, the leader of the kitchen, buy into the process was integral.
“You can’t build a house on sand,” Baker said. “We are already fighting such an uphill battle against decades of ingrained toxic culture within this industry. It’s already so difficult to implement that, if you don’t have leadership on board, it’s impossible to affect the culture of a place.”
The place is comfortable. Art from local artists, like Pizza in the Rain, Christina Daniel, and Christian Sanchez, hangs on the wall, and there are plants from Adams & Sons decorating the space. There’s a chef’s table and a separate bar and lounge area.
Beverage director Laura Kelton called her job interview “refreshing” as Henke wanted to make sure prospective employees were on board with the culture they hoped to create. Henke could tell some interviewees merely parroted talking points trying to impress management in their efforts to get a job. That attitude won't work at Mundano where Henke sees workplace culture “as important as the food and drink.” For example, they’re using a pooled tip system to ensure workers are treated more equitably.
Daniella Caruso is helping with the restaurant’s marketing. She’s a Chicago restaurant veteran who made waves last year for her activism in organizing fundraisers for Chicago’s oldest domestic violence shelter. Together, they’ve formed a dream team in hopes of creating a role model for other restaurants.
While Henke wants to address serious systematic issues that affect restaurants, he also has a playful side. The Catalpa Grove Pork Terrine is a dish inspired by Chicago-style Maxwell Street Polish sausages and McDonald’s cheeseburgers: “Both delicious things,” Henke said. The dish features rehydrated onions, like the kind of flakes in McDonald’s burgers, white sesame seeds like a Big Mac, and dill for the pickles used in both items.
“I wanted to put a terrine on the menu, but didn’t know how to do with without being pretentious,” Henke said.
The summer will give Mundano an unfair advantage with Lincoln Park across the street and Green City Market’s vendors close by. The team has pondered using social media to show how their chef will procure ingredients at the farmers market.
The drink menu will change, mirroring Henke’s food menu. The space has a sleek bar and lounge area separate from the main dining room, to the right of the main entrance. Kelton, who worked at Sportsman’s Club in Ukrainian Village, feels the Spicy Mango Paloma, which is based off a Mexican canned soda from El Jimador, will become a fan favorite.
Right now, it’s impossible to measure the affects of Mundano’s policies with the restaurant only about a week old. Once time passes by, Baker and Henke will be able to talk with a little more depth about particulars. But in the meantime, they have the challenge of running a new restaurant. There are other restaurant owners in Chicago — including Honey Butter Fried Chicken’s Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski, and Passerotto’s Jennifer Kim — that have also placed culture in the spotlight. Mundano hopes that they can further those efforts and bring something special to Lincoln Park, something that other restaurants will emulate.