If you keep up with “Top Chef,” you probably can’t forget two-time contestant Katsuji Tanabe, the Mexican/Japanese chef known for his Latin kosher fare and snappy comebacks. Now, Tanabe’s getting fired up for his latest project: partnering with Chicago-based DineAmic Group to open Mexican eatery Barrio this summer. We talked to Tanabe about our city’s culinary scene, what we can expect from the new joint and the one thing you’d never guess about “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi.
SPLASH: How did your partnership with DineAmic come about?
KATSUJI TANABE: I was doing [LA Times’ The Taste] and I brought my tortilla machine, making them from scratch, when I met [DineAmic Group founders] Lucas [Stoioff] and David [Rekhson]. They came in and said, “That’s a good taco.” We became really good friends. They said they had an idea, and [asked] if I wanted to be a part of it.
S: You previously owned a Mexican kosher restaurant in LA. A non-kosher restaurant in Chicago is quite a departure.
KT: Chicago seems like the perfect place to open a non-kosher restaurant. It’s a foodie city and people are not intimidated by food here; people love to eat. The cooking events I do in LA, people are like, “OK, I’ll take a little bite.” People here are like, “Oh my god, that’s good. I want more. I’ll take three, four.”
S: What can you tell us about Barrio’s menu?
KT: The most important part of the restaurant will be the tortilla. I make them from scratch — I think 99 percent of Mexican restaurants in this country [use] store-bought tortillas. The tortilla is the foundation of a great taco.
S: What would we be surprised to know about Padma Lakshmi?
KT: She’s actually one of the sweetest people. She comes off really tough, but she’s very sarcastic and funny. We’re all under so much stress and everybody’s ready to kill each other, and then she would just make jokes. Sometimes, we’d go back to the house and Padma would send us six cases of wine. After the whole season is over, she’ll take us out for drinks or bowling. It’s like a family.
S: What’s the easiest Mexican dish someone can make at home?
KT: Egg tacos. Buy a corn tortilla, put a bit of butter or olive oil [in a pan] and scramble your egg. It’s one of the best tacos. My dad also used to make French fry tacos. You fry the potatoes and put them in a tortilla with salt. It might not be some culinary creation, but it’s good. Simple food sometimes is the best food.
Look out for Barrio (65 W. Kinzie), set to open this summer.