It’s a pandemic pivot fairy tale in Wicker Park for Rodolfo Cuadros, the owner and chef of Amaru, a popular Latin restaurant that opened in 2019 in neighboring Bucktown. As COVID-19 suspended indoor dining, Cuadros and other restaurant owners last year searched for new ways to generate more money. He would partially convert Amaru into a ghost kitchen for a new restaurant, Bloom Vegetarian Kitchen, cooking up a meat-free menu with global flavors.
“Our goal was to encourage families to try different and healthier foods,” Cuadros says.
Bloom became a pandemic hit and catered to folks with allergies. As meat prices increased last year, shifting toward more vegetables was also a shrewd business move. Cuadros, a former Carnivale chef, established a brand and ESPN personality Sarah Spain even named Bloom her top new restaurant of 2020. The feedback’s been so positive that Cuadros secured a separate space for Bloom. Bloom Plant Based Kitchen should open in early July at 1559 N. Milwaukee Avenue inside the space formerly occupied by Links Taproom. It’s a short walk to Amaru so Cuadros can check on both his businesses.
“We’re just an underdog story,” Cuadros says. “I think we have something special, we’re just so excited to offer something completely different.”
The Amaru team quietly closed Bloom’s operations in March as they planned the move from Bucktown to Wicker Park. Cuadros says the idea for Bloom was not born out of the pandemic; the timing was coincidental. The new venture scratched an itch for flavorful vegetarian food with a menu like hand-pulled kelp noodles and samosas. Cuadros isn’t bashful about injecting pan-Asian, South Asian, and Latin flavors into American plant-based cuisine, a genre that’s often boring. Cuadros says the menu and its 23 items are all new. Staff will also serve cocktails.
Cuadros saw the virtues of eating less meat while at home with his family where they follow a plant-based diet four days a week. He’s felt much better since start the regimen and feels others are making similar changes to their diets. He also has a good friend, James Beard-nominated chef Horacio Rivadero, who helped Cuadros develop the meat-free menu. Rivadero works with chef Matthew Kenney’s Miami restaurant, Plant Food + Wine, has won over Florida critics since it opened in 2016.
Kenney has gone on to open a Chicago location — Althea is a fine dining restaurant spaced inside Saks Fifth Avenue’s Magnificent Mile location. Althea and Bloom represent outliers among Chicago’s plant-based options, Cuadros says. The community is too focused on vegan junk food. Pandering to those tastes, Bloom’s menu originally offered a meatless burger.
That burger was supposed to serve as a gateway for customers unsure of making changes to their diet. Instead, Cuadros discovered it was the least popular dish on the menu. They dropped the burger off the menu. The lesson here is when folks are presented with better options to push them out of their comfort zones, they’ll actually take them.
Cuadros also acknowledged price as an obstacle the keeps customers away from plant-based restaurant. For example, cassava flour, made from fruit that is often used as a substitute for traditional flour (it’s useful for grain- and gluten-free pastas), is not cheap. He says Bloom will stay affordable.
The restaurant’s success has soften the pandemic’s blow — Cuadros says he hasn’t taken paycheck in more than year. This is more than a gesture, as Cuadros isn’t the CEO of a massive company. This isn’t a faceless ghost kitchen: “The people who put in money are cousins, brothers, mother,” Cuadros says. “So it’s all family, it’s not an investment group.”
Bloom Plant Based Kitchen, 1559 N. Milwaukee Avenue, planned for a July opening.