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Richard Sandoval's Latin Food Court Plan Could Give Big Boost to Block 37

 Chef Richard Sandoval with food concepts from his Las Vegas cafeteria that he hopes to feature at Block 37.
Chef Richard Sandoval with food concepts from his Las Vegas cafeteria that he hopes to feature at Block 37.
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Richard Sandoval Restaurants/Facebook

DOWNTOWN — If the enthusiasm for Eataly is any indication, chef Richard Sandoval's plan for Block 37 could be a big hit — especially for those who work and shop at the struggling State Street mall.

The native of Mexico recently leased more than 20,000 square feet of space at the mall, where he plans to build "a hub of Latin American cuisine" that he hopes to open in November.

The epicenter of his food hub will be on the third floor — which is largely empty — and will seat 250-300 customers.

"There's going to be about 11 kiosks that will be serving different types of food, so you'll be able to come in and kind of walk to whatever kiosk you want," he said. "If it's a torta, you go to one side; if it's a ceviche, you go to another. We'll have a meat station, Mexican pastries and chocolate and a coffee station."

 Chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval plans to open a Latin American restaurant, food court and boutique grocery store concept in Block 37 in November.
Latin American Dining Hub Bound for Block 37
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The concept already has been compared to Eataly, which features several restaurants and sells groceries. Like Eataly's Baffo, the concept would feature a tapas restaurant that serves cocktails and wine in "a white tablecloth environment."

Sandoval compares his idea to Richard Melman's foodlife at Water Tower Place, where Lettuce Entertain You "built a small market where food is made right in front of you." But foodlife "is more continental" and more international than what Sandoval has planned.

"There's nothing like this for Latin America," Sandoval said.

The prospect of a busy new food court opening on the third floor of Block 37 was welcomed by Ladies & Gentlemen, a salon that attracts both walk-ins and regulars to a level that is otherwise underused.

"We're definitely optimistic that it will bring in more business," assistant manager Francesca Magee said Monday. She called the plan a "great thing."

Sandoval's food emporium would also have a presence in the mall's lower level along the Pedway, where customers will be able to pick up a rotisserie chicken or other food that's "easy to grab as you're catching your train" in the connected Red Line and Blue Line CTA stations, Sandoval said.

The Pedway level has seen businesses come ago and still has a few empty storefronts.

Vincent Tan said he had "mixed feelings" about Sandoval's grab-and-go outpost on the Pedway next to Tan's long-standing Simply Thalia.

"Obviously we want to attract more people" to the Pedway, Tan said. "At the same time, we want to be able to sustain the number of people coming" to his Asian-fusion restaurant, he said, of the competition that could accompany Sandoval's project.

But "any growth in this space is a good thing," Tan said. Business was steady when he opened in the new mall five years ago, and growth has been "exponential" since then, he said.

Scott Shaffer, who works near Sandoval's planned Pedway site, said the area was packed during rush hour thanks to the connecting CTA station.

Lunch hours aren't typically as hectic, he said, but he'd welcome new dining options that bring in crowds midday.

"We'll always take more places to eat around here," he joked, referencing himself and his co-workers.

Also like Eataly, hard-to-find regional ingredients will be available in a specialized grocery section.

"You're not gonna go there and do your weekly grocery shopping," Sandoval said. A small counter that seats seven will be used for cooking lessons and demonstrations.

Sandoval said he's especially excited about prepped cooking kits he'll sell at Block 37, which he hopes will ignite a passion for Latin American cooking among Chicago foodies.

"If you want to make guacamole, you will be able to grab a kit that has avocados and directions of how to make it," he said.

Sandoval doesn't mind the comparisons to Eataly.

"It's a good comparison in the sense that Eataly showcases everything about Italy," he said. "You know, olive oils, pastas, in a retail space, but also in a culinary way. I think obviously we're going to be different, but in a similar vein, it's a hub of Latin America."

But Sandoval does anticipate one aspect of the business where he has serious competition with the River North food hub.

"Eataly has such a brilliant name," he said. "When you take that as a benchmark, it's hard to come up with something that great. ... I mean, 'Eat-aly.' It's brilliant. We have to have a name, and it has to encompass so much, and tell everyone what it is, and also be easy to pronounce.

"It's a work in progress," he said. "We have a few options we're kicking around."

Block 37 management could not immediately be reached for comment.