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Katsuji Tanabe's new restaurant Barrio—his first in Chicago—is barely a month old, but Katsuji already feels at home in the Windy City. The former Top Chef cheftestant, who also owns restaurants in Los Angeles and New York City, says, "Definitely, I feel more comfortable in Chicago. People are extremely, extremely nice."
Barrio is a Mexican restaurant with Japanese influences; you'll find tacos, guacamole, and esquites on the menu, but sometimes with Japanese twists, like a dashi mayonnaise, togarashi seasoning, or a yuzu vinaigrette. There's also a Japanese-style grill called a robata, which turns out expertly charred items like lamb chops, scallops, and prawns.
What really sets the restaurant apart in Chicago's dining scene, however, are the homemade corn tortillas made entirely from scratch. "Definitely my obsession with tortillas has got to the level where we literally bring the corn from Mexico, non GMO, organic, heirloom, super, super interesting grains," Katsuji explained. "People are like, 'I have never tasted tortillas like yours,' and you know, there's a lot of Mexican restaurants in Chicago, but there's literally few restaurants that are doing the process that I'm doing. I'm doing the nixtamalization process, I'm doing the grinding, everything."
And the Windy City has welcomed Barrio—and Katsuji—with open arms, even if there was a minor disaster during the restaurant's opening party. "Literally we [had] over 800 people on line trying to get into the restaurant and it started raining like a monsoon. It was like raining on your wedding day," he lamented. "I felt like crying, but people were having so much fun that half an hour later I completely forgot about it, but that was like the weirdest thing. Literally, I have never seen rain so bad, and it lasted like two hours and then suddenly stopped."
Freak monsoon aside, it seems that Chicago is treating Katsuji well. "In LA, I can walk on the streets, nobody cares. In Chicago, I think Top Chef is a big deal, so everywhere that I go it's like, 'Oh chef, can I buy you a drink, hey chef, can I buy you something.' As Top Chefs, we are…and I hate the word, celebrities. In Chicago, people are excited about food."
He also loves the attitude towards food in the midwest, noting that portion sizes—and restaurant sizes—are much bigger. "In LA you have to cater to a lot of specific types. No gluten, no dairy, no flavor, no garlic, no chilies. In Chicago, they just want to eat, and they want to eat everything."
And those aren't the only reasons Katsuji is loving the midwest. "I definitely feel more in shape in Chicago than in LA, that's for sure," he said, laughing. "In LA, everyone's skinny. In Chicago guys tend to be a little more husky, and I'm a little huskier."
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