In the hands of chef James Martin, a simple sandwich is transformed into a fine dining experience. In his jewel box of an eatery located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, guests at Bocadillo Market enjoy dishes that merge the flavors of Martin’s South Carolina roots with that of Spanish cuisine.
“Bocadillo is the Spanish word for sandwich,” he explains. “When my wife Jessica and I got married, our honeymoon was in Spain. We’ve been there a few times now. Anytime we travel, we love great food. But we also look for the most humble ingredients.”
When it came time for the couple to visualize a restaurant concept, they turned to the popular Spanish sandwich as the backbone of their menu. The result is a dining experience where everyone feels invited.
The South Carolina and Spain Connection
“My mother and I went to a farmers market in Washington, D.C. We generally went to Eastern Market on Capitol Hill. In South Carolina, my mother’s side of the family lived practically on a farm,” recalls Martin, who was born in D.C. and raised in Landover, Maryland.
The chef’s roots to South Carolina food culture and hospitality came via parents who were both native Carolinians. “I grew up traveling to South Carolina quite a bit, whether for summer trips or holidays,” he shares. It was during these family gatherings that the budding culinary pro grew to love dishes like lima beans and ham hocks, greens and rice, lots of rice.
Then, during his professional culinary training, Martin took note of the similarities between the ingredients and techniques used in South Carolina and Spanish cuisines.
“I’ve been cooking in restaurants since I was 15 from fast food—like Checkers and Five Guys Domino’s—to working at Michelin Star restaurants. I saw a lot of connections with the ingredients that we cooked with in the South like paprika, which is a very important ingredient in South Carolina but also in Spain,” he notes.
Martin also points out the impact of North Africa on southern Spanish cooking, particularly the use of spices like saffron, cumin, coriander and bay leaves. “That’s a really important piece of how I cook today,” he says. “For our smoked lamb bocadillo, I get the lamb from a local farm I’ve been working with for six to seven years now, Slagel Family Farm. We smoke that [lamb] in-house with our signature Andalusian spice, which is inspired by southern Spain and by north Africa.”
An Accessible Concept
But if you think Spanish bocadillos are the only offering on the menu in this gem of a restaurant, think again. Like the varied talent of its owner/chef, Bocadillo Market transforms itself throughout the day. “I wanted to create a more accessible concept, to allow people to gather differently throughout the day,” says Chef Martin. “[And] I’ve wanted to show the world who I am as a chef and being able to use my skills and gift that God gave me.”
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In the mornings, the vibe at Bocadillo Market is more casual, with offerings of pastries made in-house and a selection of coffees. “Spain loves coffee. But one of the biggest reasons we [serve] coffee is because my wife loves coffee,” says the chef.
Afterward, he reveals his wife and partner Jessica Neal’s training as a former barista has taken the restaurant’s coffee game to a new level. “She knows how it should taste; she knows different techniques…And, I think coffee really invites people to the table because that’s the start of the day.”
To go with the excellent coffee served at Bocadillo Market, the chef suggests trying Extremadura almond pie (a menu classic best described as an almond custard), banana walnut date bread (a favorite with guests), churros & chocolate (a Spanish churro with warm chocolate sauce) or chocolate chip cookies Saffron (the name says it all).
From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the bocadillos take center stage. The current menu spotlights six savory Spanish sandwich offerings, all made with passion and love, as Chef Martin describes. The bocadillos offered include The Jamon Serrano (boasting Spanish olives, Mahon cheese, Piquillo peppers), crispy calamari (served with herb aioli, Piparra peppers, lemon), Spanish chorizo (filled with sobrassada sausage, goat cheese, acorn squash and avocado), grilled cheese & tomato (the Spanish rendition of a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato, basil and Manchego cheese) and the smoked lamb bocadillo described earlier.
“We get a lot of our ingredients locally. Our vegetables right now are grown mostly locally,” says Martin. He cites the eggplant melt bocadillo, for which almost 90 percent of the dish—except the cheese from Spain—comes from Gary Comer Youth Center, a Chicago Southside organization that offers several programs, including those in the areas of culinary arts and urban agriculture.
“So the eggplant is grown locally right now [as well as the] basil, the heirloom tomatoes. And so with that dish, we season it with love and Spanish oil, oregano and chili flakes. We cook it properly and add caramelized peppers and onions,” describes Martin.
Bocadillo Market Fine Dining Experience
For the dinner service, Bocadillo Market morphs one more time into a fine dining establishment. “You have a little bit more creativity and it allows you to use a lot more techniques,” observes Chef Martin about the dinner service. And from the menu, Chef Martin calls out the crispy artichoke toast and the Iberico pork paella.
“Some of my favorite ingredients are artichoke and mushrooms. So that’ll always be on our menu in some kind of way. Right now, we’re doing an artichoke, mushroom toast with salsa verde, black truffles and rosemary honey that we get from Gary Comer Youth Center and then we add duck eggs from Slagel Family Farm,” describes the culinary pro.
A signature dish worth trying: Chef Martin’s pick is the Iberico pork paella, a nod to the South Carolina low country rice dish perloo. “We’re actually getting the pork from a Spanish breeder from Texas. It’s an Iberian pig, the breed is from Spain, raised in Texas. And it’s the pluma, which is the top end of the loin, that melts in your mouth like a filet. It’s actually probably more tender than a filet,” says the chef.
“We still cook it medium, medium rare and, generally, none of our clientele—maybe two out of a 1000—will tell us to cook it well done. The dish comes with seared cabbage cooked in chicken stock and pickled snap peas tossed with bulb onions.”
A Curated Spanish-Themed Market
As for the market portion at Bocadillo Market, that’s a special section found in the restaurant curated by the husband and wife team. “Everything in our market is pantry-focused or charcuterie,” shares Chef Martin. Perusing the well-edited market shelves, one can find Spanish chorizo (a pork sausage from the Iberian Peninsula), jamon serrano (cured ham), and aiolis. There are also home-cooking ingredients like rice, vinegars and Spanish olive oil. Currently, shopping the market section of Bocadillo Market is best done in person.
“We’re a little old school; we like more of a personal touch. It’s easier to shop in person since things go in and out of stock—especially since we import it all the way from Spain,” says the chef. “But as we grow, we’ll definitely establish more of an online platform.”
Having been open a little over two years, Bocadillo Market has managed to establish itself as a neighborhood favorite, thanks to the hard work of Chef Martin and his small but mighty team of twelve culinary professionals.
“We put it all in one [the restaurant and the market] because we wanted to create a neighborhood restaurant, a place that really drives and builds community,” says Chef Martin. And though there is currently only one location for this Spanish-inspired restaurant, the chef/entrepreneur envisions expanding when the time is right. “One of my goals is to create sandwich shops—bocadillo shops,” he shares. “I want to feed more people in Chicago.” Now that’s a goal sure to build community for sandwich lovers everywhere.