LAKEVIEW — Classically trained chef Kelly Ijichi just wants to have fun making the food she loves to eat.
Luckily, Ijichi’s been able to do that as chef and owner of Mom’s Chicago. The pop-up serves Ijichi’s take on the Japanese-American comfort foods she grew up with, including items like deep-fried Spam musubi, strawberry Kit Kat doughnuts, matcha mochi waffles and chicken katsu sandwiches.
“It’s homestyle food. It’s the things I grew up eating that were second nature,” Ijichi said. “Those were never the things I saw at Japanese restaurants, especially after going to culinary school and eating at these beautiful restaurants.”
Mom’s Chicago opened in 2019 as a food vendor in Politan Row, a now-closed West Loop food hall. In 2020, Ijichi moved into the kitchen of Bridgeport’s Marz Community Brewing Co. for a food residency that ended this October.
Ijichi’s newest project is a weekly bento pop-up that started in December at Konbini & Kanpai, 1433 W. Belmont Ave., a craft sake, beer, wine and Japanese snack store in Lakeview.
A new menu is released Tuesdays, and guests can pre-order bentos for pickup on Saturdays at Konbini & Kanpai.
“The bento program is really different from what we’ve been doing in the last year-plus at Marz, and I’m excited to introduce this type of Japanese food to the people that have been on this journey with us,” Ijichi said.
Ijichi was born and raised on the Northwest Side, the daughter of second-generation Japanese Americans.
Ijichi’s mom was born and raised in Chicago. Her dad’s family moved to Chicago from Ohio, where they had resettled after the closure of Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a concentration camp in Wyoming that incarcerated more than 10,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.
In Ijichi’s family, food was central to everything, whether it be a family gathering or the Midwest Buddhist Temple’s annual Ginza Holiday Festival.
“My family, my extended family, we love food. It’s a big deal. When we gather, there’s always an embarrassing amount,” Ijichi said. “Everyone freaks out that there’s not going to be enough, when it’s always, truly, the opposite.”
The food that Ijichi’s family cooked also uniquely reflected her family’s Japanese-American heritage and Chicago roots.
“I grew up eating Spam and rice and teriyaki hot dogs and rice. Those were things my mom and grandparents would throw together for us to eat,” she said.
Of course, the teriyaki hot dogs were Vienna Beef hot dogs. They were cooked in teriyaki sauce, often served with rice and a fried egg, Ijichi said.
“Calling it Japanese-American comfort food is really important. It’s not strictly sushi, or strictly any type of traditional Japanese food,” Ijichi said.
Ijichi draws on those childhood memories for the menu at Mom’s Chicago, seeing it as a way to honor her Japanese-American history and to keep the traditions alive for the next generation. She adds her own twists to some of the recipes.
“Like the Spam musubi, for instance: We bread it and deep fry it. It’s very different from what you would see at your Japanese community picnic,” she said. “We’ve also made Japanese hot dogs, and we put hot dogs in some of our pastries before.
“Because we’re in Chicago, and Chicago loves hot dogs.”
Growing up, Ijichi always had a passion for cooking, but it wasn’t until she participated in a high school culinary apprenticeship program through the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts that she decided to pursue cooking as a profession.
She worked in several Chicago restaurants after earning a degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University, but she knew she wanted to start her own business.
In 2016, Ijichi met baker Amy Lecza while they were working at Korean-American restaurant Parachute. The two hit it off and started a pop-up called Hungry As F— as a side project outside of work.
“It was an outlet for us to be creative,” Ijichi said. “It was always just fun. It was extra work for sure, but it was always a good time.”
A few years later, a friend told Ijichi about a spot for a food vendor at a new food hall, Politan Row.
“I kind of just went for it,” she said, and she opened Mom’s Chicago, which was named after the fact that all her close friends called each other “mom” endearingly.
Ijichi jokes that at the time, she had “no idea what [she] was doing.” A lot of her knowledge was learned on the job, and a lot came with the help of friends and the Japanese-American community, who have been her “greatest cheerleaders from the start,” she said.
The entire opening staff for Mom’s Chicago at Politan Row were friends and friends of friends. Community organizations like the Japanese American Service Committee and the Midwest Buddhist Temple helped by inviting Mom’s Chicago to cater fundraisers and events, Ijichi said.
Now that Mom’s Chicago is more established, Ijichi is able to return the favor, volunteering to cook at many of the Japanese-American events she grew up attending.
“Keeping the relevancy of the food is so important to me, and the food events, they have to keep going,” she said. “To be a part of it now, and to be able to help these communities in their fundraising and to support them now in the way that I was supported when Mom’s first opened, is one of my favorite things about doing [Mom’s Chicago], honestly, and it’s why I want to do it in Chicago and not somewhere else.”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: