I spent the forty or so minutes I was there chatting with the guy behind the bar. His name was Ross. He was awesome. He knew his menu well, he knew beer, he had an easy laugh. He said his parents had owned a hot dog stand in Chicago, and he was excited when I added giardiniera and brisket to my bowl of mac and cheese. About 30 minutes into the conversation I realized he was Rooster. This was his place. I knew then and there I'd be back, and next time it would be for a story.
I posted a quick photo to Instagram and Facebook and within minutes I had a comment from a casual acquaintance of mine:
"Love that place, and they have an awesome staff," he said. When I responded in agreement he followed with:
"My first time there I talked to the owner the whole time. I had no clue he was the owner until about halfway through. He has a cool story about how he started the restaurant."
To say Ross Katz is a good guy is an understatement. Ross is a rare kind of person who is genuinely interested in other people and hearing their stories. If he gets to share his with them, even better.
Ross opened Rooster's Kitchen in the same spot where Regina Mehallick's beloved R Bistro closed in late February of 2016. However, Rooster's Kitchen is a far cry from the high-end style of cuisine R Bistro was dishing out — and that's okay.
"We strive to keep our price point reasonable and we have what I would consider everyday food," Ross says to me on my return visit. "You know, you can get a sandwich and some carrots and it's not going to be that bad. Or you can come in and get a salad and be healthy. It fits a niche that Mass Ave was sort of lacking on.
"Mass Ave has a lot of, like, date night concepts and so this has a more casual, bring the family, grab a quick bite, type of feel and the price point is key on that. We're using great, quality ingredients, but I never want to price it out of anybody's reach."
While he is keeping the price point in a place for everyone, he also is making the flavor profile easy for any palate. He tells me, "I wanted good, honest food and I wanted a comfortable feel, that's why the comfort food aspect comes through. It wasn't that I wanted to make a comfort food restaurant, I wanted to use recipes that are from my family and I wanted a sort of nostalgic twist to things to kind of make people feel more comfortable. So, with those two ideas in mind it kind of naturally progressed into a comfort food restaurant.
"But, I'm not always saying that is has to be just be comfort food. So as the menu develops and changes — which it will definitely morph into something different down the road — it may be less comfort food or more comfort food. What people seem to like is what I'm trying to capture."
This surprisingly seems to be the heart of Rooster's Kitchen. It's a place that came about from a series of ideas that morphed and changed into something different, and something ultimately better.
"I've always had the idea of doing my own restaurant," Ross tells me. And it doesn't come as a surprise when you know his background. Ross was raised in a Jewish household in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. His family had origins in the restaurant industry, his parents having owned that Chicago hot dog stand in their younger years.
"At first I was thinking I would just do a sandwich shop, but then I was like, I don't want to do a sandwich shop where I serve deli meat. You know this deli meat, vacuum-packed stuff really isn't that great for you, and it's not that great.
"And so the concept was, we will do a deli, but we will do all of our meats in-house. And then that grew to 'Well, if we're going to do our meats in-house, we should have entrees.' And then it was 'If we have entrees, then we should have servers.'
"And so it grew from this idea of having a sub shop where we do our own meats into this essentially the concept we have here."
Much of the concept stems from what Ross saw on his family's table. "What I had at home wasn't always the same as everybody else," he says, referencing his parents' aptitude in the kitchen. When most parents were serving their kids Hamburger Helper and going to Portillo's for a real Chicago dog or Italian beef, Ross' family was more-or-less running a professional kitchen in their home and to their table.
"We had things, like our house-cured giardiniera, that are family recipes that we have been making forever. A lot of stuff coming from a Jewish household too, like our brisket and a couple other things speak to that."
Of the giardiniera he takes particular pride, as he should, since the stuff is friggin' delicious. "I grew up with like a big jar of it in the back of the fridge and we'd always have it going. And then after a while family and friends would be like, "Mind if I take a little bit?" And then this little batch turned into bigger batches. And then it turned into where we were literally making garbage cans full of it. And then we'd jar it up and give it away at the holidays. Then we took it and used it here."
The brisket on the other hand, which adorns the glorious Mamma's brisket sandwich and also can be added to the top of the build your own mac and cheese, he readily admits he doesn't get kudos for. "The brisket itself I can't take any credit for, that was all her," he says with a laugh, referencing his mom. "Yeah, that was all her recipe."
Another surprise for Ross, and a lucky one at that, is just how well that mac and cheese has done. "The build-your-own mac and cheese has been a huge seller," he says. In fact it's what they're known for. "And it's funny because that was sort of an afterthought," he continues. "I thought about doing it as a side and after talking with Liz Biro at the Star she suggested doing it as an entree and I thought, 'We'll give it a shot and see how it works.' Now it's our biggest seller."
Much like the majority of the menu, the name for the place also stems from Ross' childhood. Rooster is a nickname he picked up as a toddler.
Ross gets excited when he says, "Coming down the pipe I will definitely have to do my own cured corned beef. I’ve done my own corned beef at home just for fun and it turned out really good and I was a big fan of it. So in March when everyone is doing corned beef and cabbage and all that we will have to do a big hearty corned beef sandwich or maybe a Reuben.
"When I first moved from Chicago I didn't know too many people here, and so being that I was a craft beer fan and that I was sort of in the craft beer industry, I started hanging out with guys that had good beer. Because if you're going to hangout with people, why not hangout with the guys with good beer?" he says with a laugh. These "guys" included Dave and Colt from Sun King Brewing and Jerry Sutherlin over at the newly opened Round Town Brewing.
"They're definitely represented on our tap list and the fact that I've kind of developed my taste for craft beer around that type of stuff, it's pretty evident on the list. I always want to be known as having an outstanding tap list. I want it to be well-rounded and I taste everything before it goes on tap."
The place is already getting a reputation for having a quality beer list, but it's not a watering hole. "We’re not really a bar scene, so we don’t get a ton of people hanging out just drinking for hours," Ross explains. "But, you know, the after dinner, have a beer or two and shoot the shit kind of crowd has been nice. I never want to be a bar bar and have to deal with a drunk crowd. It’s usually people who really appreciate their beer and they come in because we have something specific on tap, or they just come in knowing I’ll have something good on tap. And then it’s one or two and gone; because that’s all they need and all they want."
After about a twenty minute tangent into a craft beer convo, Ross gets us back on track by explaining his goal for Rooster's Kitchen. "Long-term I'd love to see this become a cornerstone kind of restaurant where people know it in the community," he says. "I want us to have great success and to be great community partners, you know giving back and being charitable. In the next coming weeks we're already looking at creating community partners and giving back to the city.
"We're wanting to grow that program and hopefully be able to spin off into other concepts. I'd love to be able to play around with different types of food and just kind of see where it goes.
"Like I said, a year ago I thought I was going to open up a sub shop and so it could all morph into something completely different. This is definitely not going to be my last restaurant. The restaurant industry definitely has got ahold of me and I'm in it for the long haul." N