Like Ryan McCaskey of Acadia, before he was the chef of a new place in the South Loop, Efrain Cuevas was… a guy who wished his South Loop neighborhood had more places to eat. In the case of Cuevas, the proprietor of the longrunning underground dinner club Clandestino, his hope was (and still is) eventually to open a European-style cafe. But in the meantime a friend took him to see a bodega— a New York style-combination of mini-mart and sandwich shop— in an apartment building at 611 S. Wells, which had recently closed. The equipment was gleaming new, the decor wasn’t bad at all— what it needed was someone like Cuevas making food that would draw folks from all around the neighborhood. Well, that and a new name— the current one, East Coast Pantry, was generic and out of place. And that’s where you come in, Grub Street readers. Read Cuevas’ story, and then post your name suggestions in the comments or send to firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you come up with the perfect name and Cuevas adopts it, he will treat you to lunch for four with all the extras (hint, he’s got a really nice beer selection).
“I never particularly wanted a restaurant,” Cuevas says, “but the neighborhood needs a cafe, a place to hang out.” The bodega did give him one opportunity he’d been thinking about— a job for Mariely Santiesteban, a longtime employee at Clandestino who started as a dishwasher and worked her way up to sous chef “and pretty much running the kitchen,” he says. She goes to Lexington College, an all-female hospitality school, at night, and since Cuevas has a day job making organic food for students at the Academy for Global Citizenship, a sustainability-focused public school on the southwest side, he would devise the menu and she could run the bodega during the day.
“I looked at the kitchen and saw a big opportunity to make a neighborhood place and have some good food coming out,” Cuevas says. “I thought about doing things in a more healthy way, using natural meats, not making a ‘ooh, what’s in this thing?’ type of sandwich.” For his primary meat supplier, he settled on Thumann’s, a New Jersey-based deli meats company which recently entered the Chicago market. “I talked to a lot of people and they were the best in terms of being the most all-natural, healthy meat short of all-organic.” There are also homemade touches, most notably the pulled pork on his Cuban sandwich which is smoked for him by his friend and Clandestino collaborator Willie Wagner of Honky Tonk BBQ. He opened last week with a menu including sandwiches, salads, flatbread pizzas and gluten-free wraps, plus coffee and pastries at breakfast, but he plans to expand into soups at lunch and brunch on the weekends.
Beyond the food, the beer selection has come up to speed very quickly, the Bud and Miller Lite sitting alongside Goose Island’s Matilda, beers from Arcadia Ales and New Holland and other craft brewers. (True to bodega style, he’ll sell individual bottles, as well as sandwich-and-a-beer specials.) What he hasn’t started yet is clearing out the rest of the shop, which is still full of Wish-Bone salad dressing and Campbell’s soup, but which he intends to make more like a gourmet grocery store. “This area doesn’t need another 7/11— it needs something more personal, tailored to people coming in to the Loop from down here to work,” Cuevas says.
So that’s the story of what is currently, but not for long, East Coast Pantry. What would you call it? Post your suggestions below, or send them to email@example.com.
See the menu here.