Rick Bayless Opens Lena Brava And Cruz Blanca In Chicago

Mexican master Rick Bayless will open his new Baja seafood and beer spots this week

Things are a bit frantic this week in the world of Chicago dining. Hundreds of chefs and industry folk have descended upon the city for the James Beard Awards (which were last night). In the midst of that chaos, one of the city's best-known restauranteurs, Rick Bayless, is planning to open two new projects: a restaurant called Lena Brava and a brewery and Mexican brewpub called Cruz Blanca.

Both places, which are located next door to one another on Randolph Street will open on Thursday. "I plan to be happy in a few days," Bayless says, perhaps only half kidding over the phone. "They share a lot of the back-of-the-house facilities. So if one's ready, so is the other. We'll see if it's possible [to do a double opening] later this week," he adds.

Leña Brava's Fish | Photo: Courtesy of Galdones Photography

Lena Brava (which translates to "ferocious wood") is dedicated to the seafood-focused cooking of Baja, which Bayless says he has been enamored with for several years. Dedicating a season of his TV show "really convinced me there was something magical," he explains. Part of that magic comes from cooking entirely over a wood-fueled live fire. "We have no gas hookup in the kitchen, just a hearth. If you want to boil water, you need to start a fire," he explains.

The team will be using the open hearth and a wood-fire oven to cook dishes like black cod al pastor, an octopus riff on carnitas and butter roasted plantains with homemade cheese. The kitchen will also turn out several raw dishes including ceviches made with fish from Baja. It's all paired with wine produced in the region's up-and-coming Valle de Guadalupe.

Meanwhile, the drink offerings are hoppier next door at Cruz Blanca. The menu's focus is on six house-made beers and six "guest brews," made with local malt and hops from Michigan that lean on an Alsatian beer tradition. Bayless says everyone associates Mexico with beer, but "until the mid-1800s, there was no beer in Mexico." When the French conquered the country in the early 1860s, they brought with them a beer tradition, and brewer Emil Dercher opened a brewery in Mexico city shortly thereafter in 1869. Its name? Cruz Blanca.

Bayless's beers will be paired with Oaxacan-style tacos—which means a sort of do-it-yourself taco platter for diners. "There's a part of Oaxaca City where you purchase meat from a vendor with a charcoal grill. They put it on a platter, and then you go to someone else to buy salsas and another person to buy tortillas," Bayless says. Though diners here won't have to go to multiple places to source their tacos, the ingredients will come unassembled, letting diners mix and match as they please.

Here's hoping Bayless and his team survived the Beard madness (including the industry bash they hosted). As Bayless said, he plans "to be happy in a few days."