There’s a history of Japanese immigrants in Mexico that has, for the most part, been left untaught in Chicago. Many arrived in the early 19th century and worked on coffee plantations and helped build railroads.
The cultures’ histories have inspired the owners of the Robey Hotel to open Valedor, a new lounge in Wicker Park slated for a mid-October debut at 1620 N. Milwaukee Avenue.
Santiago Leon is the managing partner of Spearhead Hosptality, the company behind the Robey Hotel in Wicker Park. He points out that Mexico City’s famous jacarandas were planted by a Japanese immigrant in 1930. The purple flowers bloom every spring, like cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., and are point of civic pride. Currently, there are about 80,000 Japanese immigrants living in Mexico. Leon also finds comfort that both Mexico and Japan are lovers of rice and found ways to drink the grain via horchata and sake.
“I’ve always been attracted to the Japanese culture,” Santiago Leon says. “I think that’s more of a personal thing to me more than it being [overly] present in Mexico.”
Valedor’s menu pushes boundaries with drinks like a flight of colorful sakeritas that come in cans or a boozy selection of Rare Tea Cellar teas meant to evoke a Japanese tea ceremony. A clarified tomato gazpacho comes in a porthole diffuser mixed with tequila and sake.
“I want to create something that is interesting enough that people will go out of their way to consider, but not necessarily something you plan for weeks ahead,” Leon says.
While the space focuses on beverages, the food also merges traditions. There’s fried lollipop katsu cheese sticks and al pastor-filled gyoza. The adventurous menu also includes a spin on takoyaki that takes phonetics seriously (the bite is called a “Tacoyaki”). Part taco, part quesadilla, Valedor’s chef mixes Chihuahua cheese, radishes, charred jalapeño mayo, and Kewpie mayo. They’ll also make milkbread on premises for a beef katsu sandwich. A spicy tuna roll uses chile de arbol instead of wasabi or sriracha to pack a different type of heat.
The plans are grand with management sinking considerable resources in gutting the former Fairgrounds Coffee & Tea space and turning it into a dimly lit den with custom video screens imported from London. The screens won’t have bezels providing a seamless display to show abstract video art behind the bar.
Leon and his colleagues at the Robey have seen how Wicker Park has transformed since the pandemic. This know-how is relevant to Valedor’s potential success. As Wicker Park changes, what will suit the area? At the Robey, they’ve adjusted their restaurant inside the hotel a Wicker Park’s Four Corner intersection to draw locals — they now serve all-day brunch. At Valedor, the drinks won’t be more than about $15, though large-format drinks will cost more.
In recent years, predicting what will work in the neighborhood has been tough. For example, across the street from the Robey, Nepali and Indian restaurant Vajra stands in a space next to the vacant Tapster self-serve beer bar space. The Vajra space has been a revolving door for years since award-winning Spring closed in 2010 after a nine-year run. On another corner, before Foxtrot opened a location, the owners of the Publican opened and closed a pair of restaurants without striking success.
Much to Leon’s chagrin, that’s caused many owners to play it safe, contrary to the spirit One Off deployed when opening venues like the Violet Hour, Big Star, and Dove’s Luncheonette. In some ways, Valedor is a throwback to those creative times. Leon is taking a big swing to create a destination in Wicker Park.
Leon admits the mixes Japanese and Mexican wasn’t his first choice for the space. He originally wanted to offer the city’s largest selection of agave spirits. But there wasn’t enough room for the bottles. After a few conversations, Leon began to lean into his visits to a Mexico City restaurant called Suntory Del Valle where they serve sliced beef ribeye cooked on a teppanyaki as tacos. They’ll do a similar item at Valedor.
“We found it very interesting how Mexicans and Japanese they share a few things, but not much,” Leon says.
But, apparently, there’s enough to inspire Valedor. Stay tuned for more details as opening day approaches.
Valedor, 1620 N. Milwaukee Avenue, planned for a mid-October opening.