When Boonie Foods debuted in 2020, Joe Fontalera pumped some excitement into the Revival Food Hall with his Filipino American dishes, bringing global tastes to a food hall stocked with staples like burgers, Nashville hot chicken, and salads.
Revival needed to adapt during the pandemic in downtown Chicago without crowds of office workers eating lunch in the Loop. Along with vendors like Minahasa, which serves Indonesian food; and Art of Dosa, which specializes in Southern Indian cuisine; Boonie gave Revival robust dinner options for takeout and delivery. Night-time service represented a change in strategy for a food hall built for the afternoon crowd.
But despite success, Boonie’s two-year-run will end on Thursday, December 22, Fontalera announced last week. He tells Eater Chicago he’s bringing his silogs, spring rolls — and perhaps new favorites like dinugaun — to Lincoln Square where he’ll take over the Crab Pad, 4337 N. Western Avenue. Crab Pad’s original Logan Square location will remain open, but the second location will close on Saturday, December 17.
Fontelera will make some changes in Lincoln Square. He promises something big, including a name change. He’s not ready to share what he’s planning, but he’s excited.
Before Revival, Boonie popped up at the Logan Square location of Crab Pad, which is owned by Theresa Tran. It’s a family operation; Tran is married to Fontalera’s cousin. Tran says construction along Western Avenue hurt the restaurant, which opened on January 4, 2022. Winter sales have been especially brutal, Trans says.
Over Thanksgiving, Fontalera, already planning to leave Revival, proposed that he could take over the Lincoln Square location. Trance thought about it for a week before making a decision.
“I just had a lot of success with Joe, his brand, his drive and passion with food,” she says. “It’s a better fit for him and me.”
“I feel he can succeed over there,” Tran adds.
Crab Pad’s original location opened in 2016 along Milwaukee Avenue. It’s not a typical Cajun and Asian seafood boil restaurant, Tran says. There’s a focus on hospitality in a family-friendly atmosphere. Tran is especially fond of their build-your-own popsicles, “they’re essentially gelato” covered with toppings like Fruity Pebbles and chocolate and vanilla drizzle.
“Leaving the Crab Pad Lincoln Square was such a tough decision because I really wanted to make it work,” Tran added. “However, knowing someone like Joe who is talented, passionate, and genuine is coming into this space makes it easier to say goodbye. I wouldn’t want to give this space up if it wasn’t for someone like him because I know he will make great use of the space and do great as he always does.”
Tran has been a big supporter in pushing his cousin to hold pop-ups and to embrace his love for his culture. US soldiers coined the term “boonie,” a bastardization of an Ilocano word for “mountain.” Fontalera’s grandmother’s last name is also “Bondoc.”
Fontalera appreciates the support Tran has provided and wants Crab Pad’s last few days on Western Avenue to be packed. He’s the former executive chef at Arami — one of the city’s premier sushi restaurants — the time had come for yet another chapter in his career. Food halls are often a place where chefs can practice running their own restaurants without having to worry about paying electricity or other overhead expenses. Fontalera, like Tim Flores — the chef at Michelin-starred Kasama — is Filipino American. Both cooked from different cultures — Flores also prepared sushi for a spell at Mako in the West Loop — before seeing how mainstream American tastes were willing to embrace Fil-Am cuisine. It hasn’t always been about building confidence — customers have to show open-mindedness.
Beyond dinner service, Revival’s pandemic shift was to bring in fresher names. When the food hall opened in 2016, the vendor lineup included established names like Mindy Segal (HotChocolate), Smoque, and Furious Spoon. Finding investors proves a larger challenge for newer operations like Boonie. In that spirit, Fontelera is crowdsourcing to assist with moving expenses. His campaign is shooting for $15,000.
Lincoln Square is no strange to strong Filipino American options. For 17 years, the standout Isla Philippines called the neighborhood home. The restaurant’s new incarnation closed this year at the Urbanspace Food Hall in the Loop.
Meanwhile, Fontelera’s next endeavor should be one of the more exciting new restaurants of 2023. Stay tuned for updates.
Boonie Foods project, name TBA, 4337 N. Western Avenue, scheduled to open in 2023