A convergence of events, including the actors and writers strike, has led three friends to launch a pop-up series so they can make ends meet.
The challenges aren’t dire — this isn’t a charity: “I just like hanging out, having a great time with my homies,” says Rafa Esparza.
Esparza, his brother-in-law Jorge Reyes-Ortiz, and Tony Balestreri are taking over Kimski’s patio on Tuesdays starting July 25 to grill smash burgers and perhaps bring back Esparza’s Malört Grilled Cheese. Esparza has dubbed the operation Broke Boy Burgers, and Reyes-Ortiz has already cooked up merchandise like sweet caps using the Chicago flag’s familiar blue and red.
Esparza, a veteran cook who co-founded Evette’s, is taking a break from the kitchen as working as a host at Longman & Eagle in Logan Square. He is one of the true personalities in Chicago’s restaurant scene, willing to spray his opinions on a variety of topics from social justice to questioning the Alinea Group’s choices. Balestreri has long been part of the Marz Community Brewing team, working at the South Side brewery and its sibling restaurant, Kimski. In 2020, he launched Tony B’s Steak Chips, a sweet and savory jerky-like snack. It wasn’t the result of a gamma bomb explosion like the Hulk, but the chips were a result of a happy accident. He’s currently appearing on Gordon Ramsay’s Food Stars on Fox which airs through August. Due to his contract with Fox, he’s limited to what jobs he can accept — he’s currently working selling merchandise in Wicker Park at the Golden Girls pop-up. He’s not a union member and bound by SAG-AFTRA’s restrictions. That’s the burden of being a reality TV starlet. But given Steak Chip’s success, Balestreri is careful who he partners with: “I’m not going to put where I’m going and where I want my business to go in jeopardy,” he says.
Reyes-Ortiz, a former Marine, is the wild card. Beyond a stint as a general manager at a Giordano’s in Lake Zurich, he doesn’t have food experience. He works in TV and movies as a rigging grip, setting up shots on cars and other locations. Before COVID, he says, he was working nonstop for two and half years. His credits include The Batman, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Power Book IV: Force. While his union doesn’t have authorization to strike, with the actors’ and writers’ labor action shutting down film and TV production in Chicago, he’s out of work for the time being: “It’s all up in the air, it’s dependent on when they want to come to an agreement,” Reyes-Ortiz says.
“People are losing their houses, probably the marriages, and their apartments,” he adds. “People are falling off their insurance because they don’t have enough hours.”
“It’s just a lot — [the studios] are making billions of dollars with record profits every quarter.”
Reyes-Ortiz says he saw signs of a strike starting in November and has about six months of savings. Esparza and Balesteri were already talking about teaming up before the strikes, and they happily welcome their third. Kimski’s Won Kim was dying to have a chef come in and work on Tuesdays anyway, Esparza says.
“It was going to happen regardless,” he adds. “It’s stupid easy, and I have a space, so that’s pretty much all you need these days to make any kind of money in anything, right?”
And so Broke Boy Burgers was born. Esparza and Balestreri will contribute their own burgers. Esparza says each member brings their own talents and the menu will change regularly. Most of the food is donated by buddies in the industry. Esparza is hopeful that Second City Prime Steak & Seafood will be able to sell its meats on pop-up days and he’s hopeful they can offer fancy wagyu burger upgrades. Balestreri will also make special potato chips.
There’s also a malört grilled cheese, something Esparza made for a Miller Lite event. It’s the de facto vegetarian option. He heats the malört to allow the alcohol to evaporate and then folds it into Merkt’s cheddar. He sears an heirloom tomato, adds garlic olive oil, and a few pieces of American cheese. Sometimes sambal will get added. That goes between Texas toast: “People lose their mind for that shit,” Esparza says… “This is just me playing around with some shit, and I thought it was funny.”
The trio doesn’t know how long the pop-up will last. Reyes-Ortiz is a graphic designer who hopes to sell clothing he designed online. He’s pivoted once to find his television and movie job. He’s willing do that again to support his family
“I had to shift gears to something that was solid, now this isn’t solid,” Reyes-Ortiz says. “So at this point, we’re just like, ‘you know what, we need to make some money.”
Broke Boy Burgers pop-up on Tuesdays, debuting July 25 at Kimski, 954 W. 31st Street.