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The Grub Game

Earth Market Fortifies the Neighborhood

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In May of 1997, Andy Kalish and Gina Marino-Kalish moved from Lincoln Park to Sheridan Park in Uptown. Andy, who had trained as a social worker, had recently started trying to make a living cooking. He'd cooked on and off in the past--his mother owned an upscale catering company back home in Michigan--but it wasn't until he and Gina got married that he decided to make a real go of it. They started a small catering company called Earth Market in their Lincoln Park studio apartment and, in early '97, began renting the kitchen of a local restaurant during off-hours.

When they moved to Uptown, he zeroed in on a small Wilson Avenue storefront that then housed a Chinese restaurant. "I thought it would make the perfect home for my business. Gina thought I was completely out of my head," says Andy. He became a frequent customer there, chatting up the owner and suffering through what he calls "some of the worst Chinese food I've ever eaten." Eventually he offered to buy the owner out. After brief negotiations, they bought the place and spent a month or so fixing it up, including installing professional kitchen equipment where previously there'd been only two woks and a single cooktop.

During the renovations, pedestrians often stopped in, enthused about what they thought would be a new restaurant. The couple was swayed by the inquiries, and Earth Market opened in December of 1997 as both a catering business and a full-service restaurant. But after three months, the combination proved too much to handle. "It was eating away all my time and catering profits," Andy says. They closed the restaurant to focus on catering, but after countless customer requests, reopened a few weeks later for Sunday brunch only.

Today Andy runs the kitchen while Gina handles operations and the front-of-house. They've also got a full-time catering manager and a staff of about ten employees. Andy estimates they serve an average of 400 people a week, and twice that in the summer.

He's proud of their contribution toward cleaning up this stretch of Wilson near Broadway. "When we first opened," he says, "every morning I was greeted by three or four guys sleeping in the doorway." This isn't the case any longer, partly because of Earth Market but also due to the area's overall increased level of commercial activity. In the last year Unique Findings, a gift shop, moved from Andersonville to the storefront next door and a Starbucks opened down the street. Andy isn't bothered by the presence of the latter, whose incursions into developing neighborhoods frequently draw fire from neighbors--especially in Uptown, where residents pride themselves on their unusually high level of involvement in local politics. When the store first opened some passersby made a point of coming into Earth Market for coffee, worried that the behemoth would hurt the smaller business. But, Andy says, "We just steered them back to the Starbucks, because we're not a coffee place!" The presence of other businesses on the block has brought a more watchful eye from the police, he says, and "just an increased level of comfort."

In February, Earth Market started serving lunch from 11 to 2 Tuesday through Friday. "We figure we'll provide the service to our locals," says Andy, "however few meander in. It helps us get exposure for our catering and Sunday brunch business and gives this place life." The limited menu features a few sandwiches like a chicken Caesar and a fresh sliced turkey on homemade harvest raisin bread with ginger-apricot mayonnaise. Daily homemade soups are also offered along with whatever specials they've got going for events they're catering.

The restaurant is full of appreciative regulars at Sunday brunch. "I credit the growth in my brunch business to the gay community here," says Andy, especially the Windy City Gay Chorus, who came in just about every Sunday. The bright, cheerful 50-seat room has full-length windows, handsome wood floors, exposed brick walls hung with black-and-white photos by Steven Gross, and tables topped with slender vases of fresh flowers. A bakery and carryout counter were recently installed just inside the door.

Most Sunday brunch customers come with paper in hand, settling in for a relaxing morning. The menu features something for everyone. One half is pitched toward meat lovers--there's "The Big Messy," a folded pile of fluffy scrambled eggs tucked into a large, flaky cheddar-and-bacon biscuit and topped with two thick slices of smokehouse bacon and a thick cheddar cream sauce. The Cuernavaca, a Mexican favorite, combines spicy chorizo and eggs with sauteed onions, vegetables, fresh homemade salsa, and sour cream and comes served with black beans and warm corn tortillas. There's also a weekly fish special--one week it was lime-grilled salmon with roasted asparagus, another week, lump crab cakes with spicy fresh tomato salsa.

Gina is a strict vegetarian, so the other half of the menu caters to vegetarians and vegans. There's a version of Cuernavaca made with tofu and rehydrated textured soy protein--earthy-flavored soy flakes--instead of chorizo and eggs. It's topped with shredded tofu jack cheese and sour cream made from rice milk. The banana vegan French toast, one of the most popular dishes even among carnivores, is two thick slices of homemade white bread soaked in a soy milk and banana mixture (with a few other secret ingredients that add to the texture) then grilled to give it just the right outer skin. For those with a sweet tooth, there's an "Oreganola parfait," which also can be tailored for vegans--granola is layered with yogurt, honey, and fresh fruit for a nice mix of tangy, creamy, sweet, and juicy. Future plans include expanding the bakery and carryout business, but dinner service isn't on the agenda--yet.

Earth Market is at 1224 W. Wilson, 773-561-2434.

The Dish

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--Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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