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Two Fine Dining Chefs Tackle Katsu Sandwiches and Fun Japanese Fare

Cat-Su, a new delivery-only restaurant, opens from chefs who worked at Blackbird and Saison

A Japanese-style pork katsu sando on its side.
Cat-Su Sando will continue popping up around Chicago.
Charlie Metcalf/Cat-Su Sando

Japanese-style sandwiches, or sandos, and snacks are exploding in popularity in Chicago during the pandemic, and now two local industry veterans with fine dining chops are leaping into the sando fray with a pop-up they hope to transform into a physical restaurant. Cat-Su Sando, a new venture from chefs Will Schlaeger (Next, Saison, Blackbird) and Shawn Clendening (Oriole, Saison, Blackbird), debuted Monday as a virtual kitchen featuring sandwiches, grilled skewers, savory Japanese pancakes, and more.

A tall sandwich made with tofu.
“TBC Cat-Su Sando” (crispy tofu, charred brassicas, “Tofu-Q’,” pickled onions, vegan bread)
Charlie Metcalf/Cat-Su Sando

Customers can choose from five sando options, including the signature Cat-Su Sando (fried pork cutlet, Cat-Su sauce, fermented jalapeno, cabbage, milk bread) and smoked fish salad sando (smoked fish, marinated ikura, celtuce, yuzu kosho, barbecue shrimp chips, milk bread). There’s also some pretty traditional kushiyaki, or grilled skewers, okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), and snacks like onigiri (stuffed rice balls) and a “Green Eggs and SPAM” musubi (smoked SPAM, green tamago, nori). Wrap it up with packaged treats like Pocky and Hello Panda biscuits.

“We want people to appreciate SPAM,” says Schlaeger. “It’s pretty good!”

Schlaeger and Clendening bonded while working at Blackbird. The wish is to eventually open a restaurant, and running a ghost kitchen will hopefully allow them to build a foundation. Neither have visited Japan, but have seen the country’s influence on American restaurants: “Saison is pretty much a Japanese restaurant,” Schlaeger says of their time at the Bay Area Michelin-starred restaurant.

Schlaeger, who if Filipino, grew up in suburban Glencoe. Clendening grew up in North Carolina. The two say they’re not modeling their approach to Japanese food like Paul Virant has over at Gaijin in West Loop. That is, taking an appreciative outside perspective to Japanese cuisine and sharing it with Americans and homesick Japanese in Chicago.

A round savory Japanese pancake topped with green onion
Negi okonomiyaki (grilled Tokyo onions, potato, ginger, lime, scallion)
Charlie Metcalf/Cat-Su Sando

The chefs want to see how what they’ve learned in Michelin-starred kitchens will translate to fun Japanese food. The two don’t want to do a “bastardized” version of Japanese food, but want to have fun with the preparations.

Cat-Su’s menu riffs on yōshoku, or a category of Japanese food inspired by European and American dishes that’s designed to suit Japanese tastes — think omurice, a delicate and gooey omelette served over rice, or korokke, a popular spin on French croquettes. There are other sub-categories that feature more straightforward, less adulterated takes on Western dishes, but yōshoku bears a distinctly Japanese sensibility.

Carryout and delivery are available via UberEats.

Cat-Su Sando, 3220 W. Grand Avenue, Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.