Big things often have small beginnings. Even more aptly, big things have unexpected beginnings. Sobremesa is a restaurant story for the ages; one in which a group of friends (most of whom had minimal industry experience) joined together to form an underground dining concept that would eventually not only grow to something big, but beget Chicago’s hottest new sauce in more ways than one.
The tale of Sobremesa’s aji amarillo sauce, dubbed Aji Sobremesa, is a veritable culinary fairy tale. As some privy diners know already, Sobremesa is a supper club in Pilsen operated out of a private residence. The Latin-accented food by Gabriel Moya is among the brightest and most exciting in Chicago, and while many promising underground concepts like this typically aspire to brick and mortar restaurant dreams, the Sobremesa crew—Efren Candelaria, Felipe Cabrera, Mayra Estrella—had different ambitions.
In many ways, the aji amarillo that quickly developed a cult following at Sobremesa dinners predates the supper club itself. Moya began making the sauce for one of his dishes while working in Uruguay. Being half Argentinian and raised in Puerto Rico, combined with his relationships with Candelaria (half Colombian) and Cabrera (100% Puerto Rican), Moya had enormous Latin American experience to cull from. “His trips and friendships inform his memories of flavors,” explains Candelaria. “He came up with a dish, a ceviche dish, that he used this sauce on, and since he started producing it, that was a dish that would always go 86.” Come 2012, when Candelaria and Cabrera persuaded Moya to move to Chicago, he replicated the sauce for the very first dinner they served as Sobremesa. Served simply with long plantain chips, people clamored for it. Says Candelaria, “The food was amazing, but that first dish with the chips and the salsa was visually beautiful and flavor-wise like nothing I ever had.”
“It’s unapologetically hot, yet it’s flavorful. It’s not like habanero. It’s not heat for the sake of heat. It’s a way of enjoying heat responsibly.” So says Candelaria of Sobremesa’s aji amarillo, which was rapidly amassing city-wide acclaim. As demand reached a fever pitch, the team pivoted their initial goals of opening a restaurant to bottling and selling the sauce. “For me, it’s really inspiring that we went down this path, but it’s also incredibly obvious,” says Cabrera. “The first is to experiment and try new things and the second was listening to the community and understand what they like.” Years ago when Sobremesa originated, no one ever thought they’d become a sauce company. But the aji amarillo has been the one constant from the very beginning that people really loved and yearned for.
Maybe it’s the outside-the-box mentality of the Sobremesa brigade, seeing as 75% of the group does not come from the restaurant industry, that helped evolve the business in the direction its gone. Rather than fit into the expected template of supper club-to-restaurant, they looked for something else. Now that they’re not searching for commercial space for a restaurant, they can make something profitable without the burden of running a kitchen space. “It’s not a gimmick; we don’t do things different for the gimmick aspect. Our solutions come from a trail that connects the dots in a very non-traditional way,” explains Candelaria. When the sauce grows, they say they’ll implement a tasting room, like a taproom for a brewery, but they’re eschewing the financial onus of a kitchen. “The freedom that the underground kitchen gave us, that is a very powerful thing that allows us to do a lot of crazy things,” says Candelaria.
To make it in mass quantities, they source aji amarillo from Peru, a nation where the stuff grows like weeds. Funnily enough, the peppers actually grow better in Chicago than in Puerto Rico, where they look beautiful but lack flavor, though in Chicago the ingredient wouldn’t be viable due to its limited growing season. Though the recipe is kept close to the chest, it’s a vibrant yellow sauce made with Peruvian peppers and a punch of acidity and heady heat. Since last summer, Sobremesa has pared back on their events so that they could focus on the sauce. As the aji amarillo becomes available for purchase, they’re hoping to sell 50% of the inventory themselves, and then focus the other 50% on direct sale and through restaurants using the sauce. Adds Candelaria, “Before going full-on retail, we want to cement our presence in the dining scene of the city. We truly feel that’s where we come from, and that’s where this sauce first appeared.”
For the Sobremesa crew, the sauce is more than just an opportunity to fuel profit, it’s something much deeper. “It’s the perfect bridge between where we come from and this new place we call home, Chicago,” Candelaria says. “It’s the result of that dialogue we promoted during our dinners, bringing people together and solving the world by breaking bread.”
Sobremesa hopes to start selling the aji amarillo sauce in June. In the meantime, they’ve got plenty for people to consume at events, so stay tuned here.