By: Alicia Leitzen & Chris O’Brien
To be clear, I love fast food. I have nothing but nostalgia toward Arby’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell. I celebrate the McRib and I’m not above a trip to Long John Silvers.
But my nightmare is walking through Chicago, in a post-COVID world, and all the great mom and pop restaurants are replaced with fast food joints. In this scenario, I’m like George Bailey running through Pottersville.
Where’s Black & Caspian?! Where’s Stella’s Diner? I don’t want a Filet-o-fish!
At times, this nightmare feels far off in the distance. A new spot like Empanada Mama & The Pie Man opens up and there’s a moment of David vs. Goliath victory.
But then I’ll see Avenue Tavern close its doors. The annual pumpkin carving replaced with a “For Lease” sign and I can already picture a Wendy’s drive-thru.
It was on one of these disheartening days when I received the following email.
Let me introduce myself, my name is Ksenia. Leyla from Black & Caspian referred me to you.
I would like to tell you about a new restaurant. Together with my husband and his partner, we opened the House of Fire restaurant (hausoffire.com), which works for delivery and pick up.
We were created in the hard times, but we believe that “Food has a healing power, both mentally and physically.”
I texted Alicia from the team at Long Overdue and we hopped on a Zoom call with Timur and Ksenia.
By the end of the call, fast food Pottersville felt like a distant nightmare.
From Russia (to Chicago) with Love
Timur, like Leyla over at Black & Caspian, is from Azerbaijan – a small country over by Turkey. He moved to Moscow when he was little and went to school there. He met Ksenia and the two were friends for awhile before they started dating.
Timur, always a big dreamer, shared his idea for the future.
“I said you want to open a restaurant in Chicago?” Timur recalled. “She said no, not really. And then she came here.”
Timur started at a small restaurant in Grayslake. He moved to Palatine, went to a local community college. When he moved to the city, he worked in a small butcher shop in the Ukrainian village and then worked for the Boca Restaurant Group; first at Momotaro, then at Little Goat. When Pacific Standard Time opened in 2018, Timur started working there until the start of the Pandemic.
Momotaro. Little Goat. Pacific Standard Time. Timur’s resume reads like a Chicago restaurant bucket list. These are incredible spots, but Timur always dreamed of launching his own.
“This has always been the goal for me, do my own thing, do my own place,” Timur said. “I went into kitchens because I wanted to learn and the financial perspective. But the career ladder, you know, go into supervisor and then sous chef and then kitchen cook to back the supervisor is exhausting. And I told myself, I set a goal that, let’s say, by 28 I’ll do this. I’ll have my own kitchen, have my own restaurant.”
Timur’s vision was to create a menu of Azerbaijan-inspired cuisine. The cooking in Azerbaijan revolves around vegetables, lamb, and chicken. Pilaf and rice dishes are also popular.
“The ideology behind the food is to make it fresh every day and make it affordable. I’ve worked in many places where everything is expensive. And I love those menus. But my goal was to make sure you can feed people and not charge them too much money and give them the food so they understand it. It’s important that the person understands the food, the flavors of it.”
The Pandemic hit and Timur’s vision for House of Fire wasn’t squashed, if anything, it spurred him further into action. Down the road, Timur envisions a brick and mortar spot where people are coming in, but for now he and Ksenia (plus their sous chef Eduardo) have their delivery only version up and running. Ksenia is using her background in PR and marketing to get the word out.
The most enjoyable part of the call was hearing Timur describe the food. He talked about each dish like it was a painting or a film he was working on. His whole creative process – going to local farms, buying things from Arabic shops, importing the rice – there’s nothing fast food about this kitchen.
Downside for me, I’m out in the suburbs right now, which is just a little out of Doordash’s reach. So Alicia got the best part of the article: tasting the food.
Words to describe the food:
- Healthy options and alternatives
House of Fire has tons of delicious offerings. What I liked most was how the food felt familiar and yet exciting and new at the same time. House of Fire’s dishes include ingredients we all know in a different presentation. The most obvious examples of this, for me, were the KuKu and the Gurze (Azeri dumplings). KuKu is a fresh herb omelette with pomegranate and served cold. It was a refreshing and unexpected twist of flavors and yet felt familiar enough that I wanted to dive right in.
The Gurze was very comparable to most other steamed dumplings I’ve had, however, I had never had dumplings filled with lamb. Again, it was a tasty twist on another familiar dish.
A huge plus – the food from House of Fire is comforting but not heavy. The cauliflower nuggets are a more healthy (and still delicious) alternative to other fried foods. They came warm and crispy and tasted especially yummy with the sauce that came with them (these can also be done gluten free).
Additionally, the Chicken Doner was packed with fresh, crunchy veggies and juicy chicken on a perfectly toasted bun. I ate the whole thing without feeling too full or greasy afterward. Similarly, the Qutabs, which are little pockets of dough with different fillings, were also very comforting but light and airy like a snack. The minced lamb with spices Qutab was definitely a favorite.
Overall, I highly recommend ordering from House of Fire. It’s a lot of fun to try a variety of their appetizers which are both reasonably portioned and priced, making it super easy to get a smattering of many different flavors. My fiancé and I have already added this to our list of restaurants that we cycle through in the city.
House of Fire isn’t Timur’s only idea. Like the team over at DryHop Brewers, this is just the beginning.
“I’m working on a second, well, second and third concepts that I already have. I have them ready. One is called ‘The Happy Bowl.’ Basically, all it is, is a bowl concept. Nothing new. It consists of like Middle Eastern items, you know, rice and stuff and different proteins. The third concept is called ‘Thank the Bird.’ It’d be fried chicken sandwiches. Like Southern fare. Different kind of small bites and stuff like that. Everything made from scratch.”
What’s nice about the kitchen/delivery setup is Timur can already experiment on these other ideas. Launching a second one wouldn’t be that difficult. Ksenia creates another website. Timur sets it up on Grubhub. He could start cooking for both.
And I was thinking about this, how Leyla and Ahmet (Black & Caspian) already have a second project in the works. How Oreste (Empanada & The Pie Man) has created multiple concepts over the years. By comparison, McDonald’s or Arby’s can easily pick a spot, move in, there’s a system in place and not much risk. But they can only be a McDonald’s or an Arby’s. They don’t have “The Happy Bowl” or “Thank the Bird” as their second and third pitchers in the starting rotation. Restaurant people never run out of new ideas. Their creativity is the secret weapon against Pottersville.
And for whatever reason, this reminded me of another classic black and white movie, Ma Joad’s famous speech from The Grapes of Wrath.
“Why, Tom – us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone. Why, Tom, we’re the people that live. They ain’t gonna wipe us out. Why, we’re the people – we go on.’
‘We take a beatin’ all the time.’
‘I know.’ Ma chuckled. ‘Maybe that makes us tough. Fast food joints come up an’ they die, an’ the food’s greasy and always the same. But Tom, we keep a-comin’. Don’ you fret none, Tom. A different time’s comin’.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
Individual mom and pop restaurants come and go, but none of them fail. The “For Lease” sign isn’t the end, because each restaurant is like a menu item and until the people run out of ideas, there’ll always be a second, third, fourth chance. The dream just evolves and flows into new opportunities.
Someday, in a post-COVID world, we’ll walk through Chicago and pass by House of Fire; right next to Thank the Bird, The Happy Bowl, and whatever new idea Timur and Ksenia have cooking up in the kitchen.
Last year, right before COVID, I wrote about the Black & Caspian restaurant and decided I’d keep writing these profiles and just see where the writing journey went. The result was an incredible experience, one that will become a book released in the first half of 2022. Here are the other articles below:
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 1)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard intermission)
- Chicago, Argentina (Part 2: The Family Behind Tango Sur)
- Chicago, Argentina (Kierkegaard Finale)
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