All I want to eat right now is the ceviche at Sueños.
As with most versions of the dish, you’ll find small pieces of raw fish in a citrus-heavy liquid. But this one also balances that cutting acidity with a nuttiness spiked with spice, along with fresh fruit aromas that mingle in the background with a haunting haze of smoke. Crack off a piece of the tostada on the side, scoop up some cubes of pristine snapper, and then marvel at how the cooling crunch of each bite transports you to some sandy sunshine-drenched beach. Note how the multiple interlocking layers of flavor would happily stand up to any fine dining dish.
If you couldn’t tell, it’s my favorite dish of 2022 so far.
That’s not bad for what is technically a pop-up restaurant at Soho House. I honestly wasn’t going to visit Sueños, because I knew it had only a six-month run. Then I stumbled onto some of the restaurant’s Instagram photos and couldn’t resist the subsequent craving. Turns out, I’m not alone, as the packed project will continue to operate at Soho House until at least early 2023.
According to chef Stephen Sandoval (no relation to Oriole chef Noah Sandoval), his version of the Peruvian-style ceviche tastes complex because it is. The process takes days, starting when the kitchen gets fresh snapper from the Gulf of Mexico. “We break down the fish in-house, and then hang the bones over the wood-fired grill to smoke,” he said. “Then we marinate the bones in lime juice.” To the strained liquid, he adds a host of other ingredients, including roasted tomatoes, green olives, ginger, fermented habaneros and olive oil.
We last saw Sandoval as the executive chef at Leña Brava, which opened as Rick Bayless’ wood-fired ode to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. (After a partner dispute, Bayless exited the project in 2020.) But Sandoval’s infatuation with Baja started long before then. He grew up in San Diego and made regular trips across the border because his dad owned a car wash in Tijuana. “He would always send us to go get tacos and tostadas,” he said.
After getting his culinary degree, he spent time at the acclaimed State Bird Provisions in San Francisco. But when he returned to Southern California to help his family, he started thinking about the food he wanted to cook. “I had an epiphany that I could discover my heritage through food and cooking,” Sandoval said. “My dad’s side is from Mexico. My mom’s side is from New Orleans, with roots back to Galicia, Spain.”
This has led to cooking stints all over the globe, including Mexico City, New Orleans, Barcelona and even the Argentine province of Mendoza. But he always returns to Baja. “I think it’s a really exciting time in Baja,” he said. “For years, the food wasn’t as recognized in Mexico as places like Oaxaca and Puebla. But Baja has a ton of seafood, and it has strong Japanese and Chinese influences. There’s this passion and creative freedom that chefs have there.”
It was also around this time that he first met Bayless. Over email, Bayless said he met Sandoval while co-leading some culinary tours and classes in Mexico, and he was immediately impressed. “I knew he was interested in more than just a superficial understanding of the country’s cooking,” Bayless wrote. When Bayless decided to open Lena Brava in 2016, he asked Sandoval to join the opening crew.
Sandoval likes to describe Sueños as “borderless Baja,” which explains why a Peruvian-style ceviche sits next to Mexican and Spanish-influenced dishes. As for what to order, I’ll offer only this piece of advice: Eat all the seafood you can.
The Chingon oysters from Baja pair a fresh and floral cantaloupe mignonette with the plump and almost buttery mollusks. The tuna tostada features thick slices of the dark red fish on a crunchy fried tortilla spread with what Sandoval refers to as a diosa roja, which is a combination of aioli, buttermilk and a house-made salsa macha. (I’ve already noted salsa macha is the hottest Chicago salsa of 2022, and it pops up all over the menu here, adding a richly spicy and nutty presence to everything it touches.)
Soft-shell crabs show up in Sandoval’s very untraditional version of a Caesar salad, which was invented in Tijuana. “I realized that when fried, the crabs were like big croutons, so a Caesar dressing would work with it,” he said. It does. The crackly crustaceans rest on a bed of the creamy, umami-packed dressing, while some preserved Meyer lemons and mint add a necessary burst of freshness.
The succulent kanpachi collar features a glistening dark red guajillo chile glaze with hibiscus pickled radish and more of that excellent salsa macha. (Only a limited number are available each night, so grab one if you can.) The pescado taco is his version of the ubiquitous Baja-style fried fish taco. Most versions prize the crunchy batter above all else, but while crisp, the beer batter coating here remains light enough so the cod remains the star.
Nearly every restaurant has to have octopus these days, but Sueños’ version is one of the best. The pulpo skewers feature remarkably tender nuggets of octopus interspersed with some of the creamiest butterball potatoes I’ve ever tried. “I love potatoes,” Sandoval said. “I always make sure to have some on the menu.”
You’ll find some wondrous potatoes on the skirt steak entree, cooked in duck fat no less. (It’s OK to order one dish that doesn’t have seafood.) But the steak also shows how Sandoval combines the primal attraction of wood-fired grilling with the preciseness of a polished chef. Instead of focusing all of his attention on getting a heavy char, the meat tastes more like it was kissed by the flame, leaving it juicy and with a delicate smoky aroma.
The cocktail menu by Danielle Lewis offers some surprising choices. While you can get a solid margarita on the happy hour menu, my favorite drink is called the gintonic, a variation on a gin and tonic. Gorgeous looking, with subtle floral notes, it pairs extremely well with these dishes. I also enjoyed a glass of the L.A. Cetto Cabernet, made in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe.
The only weak point is dessert. Both offerings I tried, a respectable flan and a slightly more ambitious peaches and cream dish, were fine, if not up to the rest of the menu.
Thanks to some colorful artwork hung on the walls, Sueños feels more like a permanent resident than a temporary guest. It’s located on the second floor of Soho House, the Chicago outlet of the international members-only club. While I’ll personally never be cool enough to join (or rich enough to afford the dues), Soho House does allow riffraff like me to drop by for dinner. To the club’s credit, the staff is remarkably friendly to nonmembers, as long as you don’t try to sneak up to the higher floors. Still, it’s hard not to feel a little out of place. The first night I visited, I locked up my bike next to a gleaming white McLaren, a car brand so outrageously expensive I’d never heard of it before. (Looks like one can be yours for only a few hundred thousand dollars.)
Even as Sueños’ stay was extended into early next year, Sandoval is currently looking for a permanent space for the restaurant. In the meantime, he’s launched a tasting menu experience, called Entre Sueños, which I haven’t tried, but takes place one or two times a month.
While this pop-up might not be exactly what Sandoval wants long-term, the food served right now is simply too stunning to ignore.
2nd Floor of Soho House
113-125 N. Green St.
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Tribune rating: Three stars, excellent
Open: Wednesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Prices: Starters, $10 to $24; main dishes, $18 to $42
Noise: Conversation friendly
Accessibility: There is elevator access to the second floor, along with bathrooms on that level.
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.