Photo by Shane Harms
Owner and Chef Benjamin Kulikowski stands in the kitchen of his recently opened restaurant, Benito's Chicago Eatery

Benito's: Chicago cuisine in Ballard

When I entered the recently opened restaurant, Benito's Chicago Eatery, Owner and Chef Benjamin Kulikowski was all smiles and gleefully greeted me. He stood beneath lofty ceilings with hanging glass light fixtures and enormous exposed old growth wood beams.

As I sat down, he offered me coffee and cream with such cordiality that I was reminded of my own Midwest roots in Minnesota.

Having over sixteen years in the restaurant business, Kulikowski is originally from up state New York, but grew up in Chicago.

“I want have the kind of place where people sit down face to face and settle in while they drink a good cup of coffee – not cappuccino or espresso, but a good cup of coffee - and socialize with each other while they’re here. That’s why I don’t have wi-fi. I want people to talk to each other rather than type,” Kulikowski said.

Kulikowsk explained that his coffee was from Seven Coffee Roasters, a roaster found right here in Ballard. Like his coffee, Kulikowski derives a lot of his inspiration and products from local producers, like meats from CasCioppo Brothers and bread from Grand Central Bakery.

“I think Ballard’s farmers market is the best in the city ... I gather inspiration from the local market and look for what I can work with that’s in season, and what I can’t get in season I source from Chicago like the neon green relish and pickled serrano peppers.”

Benito’s offers Chicago favorites like Italian beef sandwiches with sautéed onions and pepper, or all beef hotdogs served on a brioche bun with traditional accompaniments like sauerkraut, sweet relish, and yellow mustard.

Kulikowski’s chef d’œuvre is his authentic Chicago style deep-dish pizza. Diners should be warned but not alarmed: the pizza takes from 30-40 minutes to bake in the large dual deck oven. The pizzas are baked at 500 degrees in seasoned aluminum pans and Kulikowski uses olive oil in his crust, not butter.

“The deck oven imparts a certain flavor that I can’t pin down ... a lot like umami, the oven adds a certain element of flavor that won’t happen in other cooking methods,” said Kulikowski.

Patrons do not need to fear the wait, though. Benito’s has appetizers on the walls, showcasing local artists in a variety of mediums like oil and watercolor.

Moreover, the drink menu is loaded with local favorites like Walla Walla’s Proletariat wines on tap and beers on draught that Kulikowski interpolates between Pacific NW favorites like Deschutes and Lazy Boy. Midwesterners will notice the varieties of Leinenkugel's Kulikowski features like the Honey Weiss.

As for the neighborhood, Kulikowski approves.

“I love it here in Ballard, it’s beautiful year round ... Ballard feels like the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago," Kulikowski said. "If all of Chicago crumbled and Hyde park was left to stand on its own, it could be its only city. And I think Ballard is just like that."

After moving here from Chicago in 2003, Kulikowski saw a hole in the Seattle culinary scene that he thought he could fill.

“When I moved here I only saw a few places in the city that offered authentic Chicago style food ... and everybody has their own style of preparations. So I saw my chance to offer my own take on traditionals like the deep dish pizza,” Kulikowski said.

With no culinary education - he actually has a degree in economics - Kulikowski got his start in the industry by originally filling in for a missing cook at a restaurant he was working for as a delivery driver. Later, he perfected his craft, working through the ranks and eventually becoming an executive chef at his family’s commercial food company.

Kulikowski may have found a niche in the culinary scene in Ballard, but his overall goal percolates on a much deeper level.

“If I inspire people to eat good local and organic food, then I have done my job,” Kulikowski said.

If you visit Benito’s, leave the computer at home, but bring a healthy appetite for locally inspired Chicago-style food and even better conversation with Chef Kulikowski, especially over a simple cup of coffee.

Benito’s is located at 6201 15th Avenue NW and is open Mon-Sat for lunch and dinner. Check them out online at www.benitoschicagoeatery.com.

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