Avondale’s Eastern European restaurant Little Bucharest Bistro was supposed to close last year, but plans didn’t work out and owner Branko Podrumedic kept his 50-year-old restaurant open. Now he says Little Bucharest has served its last dine-in meal and won’t reopen after Illinois’s stay-at-home order is lifted. The restaurant is offering curbside pickup and delivery until April 30. The planned closure isn’t entirely due to the coronavirus. Podrumedic is ready to retire as a new owner has a Mexican restaurant ready to take over the space.
Mis Moles, an “upscale, refined Mexican” is planned for 3661 N. Elston Avenue. The new restaurant, designed to celebrate seasonal and regional moles, will open when officials deem conditions safe from the novel coronavirus.
The new restaurant is from Geno Bahena, a chef who spent more than a decade cooking at Rick Bayless’s Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. Born in Mexico, Bahena has cooked in at last 13 Mexican restaurants around town. Bahena started helping his mother and grandmother make mole when he was 10 years old.
“Mole is something that I’m so in love with,” he says. “When I was growing up, moles weren’t an every day meal because of the preparation required...to have mole, we had to have a big celebration, and in a small town, sometimes things like that didn’t happen often.”
What sets Mis Moles new establishment apart is the chef’s selection of seven moles, one for each day of the week. On Sunday, for example, Bahena will feature a mole rojo (dried anchos and guajllos chiles, tomatoes, tomatillos, plantains, sesame seeds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, Mexican chocolate, herbs, spices) with chicken, duck, or quail; Wednesday’s special is a mole manchamanteles (chile ancho, chorizo sausage,plaintains, pineapple, sweet potato) with duck or chicken breast.
For Podrumedic and Little Bucharest, it’s the end of an era. Over the last few years he’s watched other old-school European establishments like Harwood Heights’s Polish smorgasbord Old Warsaw Buffet and German stalwart Mirabell Restaurant close in Avondale. He wants to retire.
“Little Bucharest has a storied history, first in the Lakeview neighborhood and most recently in Avondale, and we would be lying if we were to say that COVID-19 is the only reason we are closing, but it is definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Violeta Podrumedic, the owner’s daughter, writes in an email. “We have taken the last month to really try and envision reopening after this shutdown and find it virtually impossible...anyone that has a family business knows just how much blood, sweat, and tears, along with hard work and love, it takes to keep the business growing.”
Known to fans as “Mr. Branko,” Branko Podrumedic opened Little Bucharest Bistro on Ashland and Wellington avenues in spring 1970. A decade ago, he relocated the restaurant to Avondale. This is Podrumedic’s second attempt to step away from the restaurant industry. In August 2019, he partnered with chef Phillip Martinez, who aimed to open a new American restaurant called Gurst. The partnership fell through and the restaurant was back on the market in October.
Sad that their regulars didn’t know their most recent meal at the restaurant would be their last, Podrumedic and his family want to offer one final service to the city: he’s offering free stuffed cabbage to any hungry Chicagoan via curbside pickup on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, a final act of solidarity with the neighborhood that supported him.
When the stay-at-home order is lifted, customers will see a dining room with stained glass windows and exposed brick, seats 80, with an additional 20 spots in an outside patio. Bahena, inspired by the color palette of Mexico City’s Museo Frida Kahlo, outfitted the dining room in “sun-baked” blues and “rosa Mexicano” pinks with touches of white and brown.
The restaurant will also feature a large selection of non-mole dishes such as Borrego en Salsa Borracha (leg of lamb, pasilla chiles, beer, tequila, roasted garlic) with “cheesy chilaquiles,” and Nopales Asados con Mariscos al Chipotle (seared scallops, Maine crab, chipotles, sour cream, fresh thyme, wood-grilled nopal cactus paddles, roasted potatoes). The restaurant will offer alcohol, but Bahena says he wants to keep the selection narrow: customers can expect Mexican beers and wines, plus margaritas and a few brandies, vodkas, and tequilas.
Though he’s trying to think positively and stay focused on getting the restaurant ready, Bahena said he is nervous about opening a restaurant on the heels of a pandemic. Until then, he’s stuck in a waiting game until health officials say it’s safe for restaurants to resume dine-in service.
Mis Moles, 3661 N. Elston Avenue, opening TBD.
Correction: April 16, 2020 5:55 p.m. This article was changed to show that Little Bucharest Bistro is offering delivery and curbside pickup until April 30.