Photos courtesy of La Josie.

The One Who Keeps the BookChicago

How To Get Into Mexican Hotspot La Josie – and What to Order Once You’re In


A buzzy Mexican restaurant and agave bar on Randolph Street’s Restaurant Row, La Josie has become a reliable neighborhood staple to unwind after work, celebrate special occasions, and enjoy creative food and cocktails. It’s also got some serious culinary cred: the restaurant has received a Michelin Bib Gourmand every year since 2019, and has one of Chicago’s best mezcal beverage programs, with more than 100 mezcals and other Mexican agave spirits like raicilla and bacanora behind the bar.

La Josie is named in honor of chef-owner José “Pepe” Barajas‘ late aunt Josefina Villegas, a kind-hearted street taco entrepreneur who gave Barajas his start in the industry with a dishwashing job. Barajas caught the restaurant bug early, opening his first taqueria as a teenager, and credits his aunt with teaching him about work ethic. “I grew up calling her mom,” he says. “She’s my mother’s sister, and she helped with the day-to-day responsibilities of raising a boy when we moved to Chicago together.”

In this installment of The One Who Keeps The Book, Barajas shares with us how to get a table at his perpetually busy spot — and what to order once you’re in. 

Don’t miss out on the excellent cocktail selection.
Don’t miss out on the excellent cocktail selection.

Resy: How many seats are there at La Josie? 

Pepe Barajas: The restaurant is split into two sections, and we have about 160 seats in total. The front section is more of an open kitchen, family-style dining experience, with a banquette that seats 12 for a larger group. It splits into a back bar which is home to one of the bigger and better-curated agave spirits selections in Chicago. The seating here is made up of mostly countertop or high tops. Our rooftop bar opens up in the summertime with 45 seats, and we have a separate bar for the rooftop with a slushie machine. We have plans to enclose and expand the rooftop next year so we can utilize it year-round.

When do reservations drop on Resy?

We put our reservations up six weeks in advance. We want to accommodate guests and give them the best possible experience, so the last seating we accept a reservation for is 9:15 p.m. or 9:30 p.m.

How quickly do seats usually book up? 

We offer an amazing happy hour so that books up pretty quickly. Our earlier reservations through the dinner rush are booking up nicely. It depends on the day of the week, but if you’re looking to come in in the beginning of the week you can get a reservation within a few days. If you’re looking for a Friday or Saturday night, I’d try to book at least a week in advance.

Do you save any seats for walk-ins?

Definitely. We don’t commit to putting everything online, because we always want to have the flexibility to accommodate walk-ins. Bar seats are walk-in only and not bookable on Resy. Last orders for the kitchen are 30 minutes before we close, and the bar stays open until we close.

Can you order off the full menu at the bar? 

The bar team is 100% trained to do food and beverage, so everything on the menu is available at the bar.

Can people have a drink at the bar while they wait for their table? 

Absolutely. It’s first-come, first-serve at the bar. If you’re looking to learn more about mezcal, Tequila, or any agave spirit, the bar team would love to share their passion and knowledge. If you arrive early for a reservation and want a cocktail while the rest of your party arrives, or if you want to linger for one last drink after dinner, you’re always welcome to join us at the bar. 

A sampling of tacos.
A sampling of tacos.

How many covers do you typically do per night?

Weekdays we typically do around 250 to high 200s, and on weekends we’re anywhere between 300 to 400 covers. Summertime gets a little busier, but that’s just an average.

What do you think is the best table in the house?

I would say it depends on what kind of experience you’re looking for. We train our hosts to anticipate the preferences of guests, so if you’re looking more for a quiet dinner and you want to see the food come out and see our chefs and kitchen perform, then I’d say the front room is the best seat in the house for you. But if you’re looking to let loose a little more and be in a livelier space while enjoying mezcal, then I’d say the back room is better for you. We like to ask and make sure our guests have the best experience.

Do you have a space for larger parties? 

We do have a semi-private dining room in the back room, a huge communal table for 12. It is an elevated and tucked away space, so you have a lot more privacy there and we can control the volume specifically for that room. You have your own coat rack and table for gifts. We typically have DJs on the weekends in that back room that play through the whole space. 

When is a guest most likely to get a Notify alert?

Right after 4 p.m. That’s when our host team gets focused on seeing what we can accommodate if we have any cancellations or if we find some time slots that haven’t filled up and we can take on a little bit more. If it’s a larger party size, you can expect an alert from us anywhere from 3 to 5 p.m. The Notify list is something that we’re proactive with, so we’re able to get a lot more guests seated during the week. On the weekends, we have a high level of reservations and foot traffic walk-ins, so it’s rare that we’re able to squeeze guests in.

Chef-owner José “Pepe” Barajas.
Chef-owner José “Pepe” Barajas.

Let’s talk about the food. What are some of your most popular items?

We have a really nice balanced menu, and our seafood dishes are really popular. Our ceviches and camarones a la diabla always go fast, and the striped bass zarandeado, which is one of my favorite dishes on the menu. We make all of our tortillas in house and that goes a long way in the texture and flavor of the dishes. Almost all of the dishes have their own unique, homemade salsa. Everything you try will have many layers of flavor.

How often does the menu change?

Our menu changes seasonally, so we are doing four major updates a year. We utilize as much seasonal fruit, vegetables, and fish as possible. We just started our winter menu a few weeks ago, in early December. 

The new tlayuditas are really good – it’s a nice option to share with everyone and my favorite is the cecina, a steak that’s popular in Guerrero. We marinate it, slice it up, and cook it on the plancha so it has a nice tenderness, and serve it with tres quesos, pibil-style salsa, avocado, pickled red onion, and frijoles. And we add homemade chorizo too, so it’s a nice hearty dish.

We’re doing a vegetarian Mexican squash dish too – roasted halved squash finished on the oven with a nice char and soft texture, stuffed with a mushroom huitlacoche sauce. It’s like a vegetarian take on a tampiqueña. 

Are there any specific dishes that are inspired by your aunt?

The tamales coloraditos that we do for the holiday season. That’s my favorite dish that my aunt and I ever cooked together. We use three different chiles and colorado is the term for how bright red the sauce comes out. Our tamales are only available in December and the beginning part of January. We also like to showcase them for Restaurant Week so we do plan to offer them for Restaurant Week 2024.

We’ve been offering tamales for the past four years at La Josie and every year they get more and more popular. People are reaching out and asking when they’ll be available or if they can get them for catering. I try to follow all the steps as much as I can, but I also utilize my chef vision to enhance some of the flavors. For example, the original recipe from my aunt uses pork, but I end up using short rib. This is a recipe from our family that’s been passed down for four generations and there’s always been one family member who picks up the recipe and keeps it going. I hope to continue the tradition. 

The moody interior in a rare quiet moment.
The moody interior in a rare quiet moment.

Any new drinks to get excited about? 

We are working on a champurrado cocktail, which is a very popular chocolate-based drink in Mexico. That’s going to be a brand new drink. We rarely bring cocktails back from past menus. For the most part, we like to keep challenging ourselves and learning new things. 

What about some of the specials you offer throughout the week, like Taco Tuesday and Tardeadas on Sunday and Monday? 

Tardeadas cater to our industry friends who have Sunday and Monday off, and folks who are looking to celebrate at the beginning of the week but finish up earlier. You’ll be home by 9 p.m. but still have a great night out.

We have been doing Taco Tuesday since we opened in 2016. Normally, our tacos come in orders of three, but for Taco Tuesday we do orders of two so you have a little more flexibility to try new things. I think it’s an amazing opportunity for us to build a regular crowd, especially on days where guests might not typically be looking to dine out. It gives us that opportunity to build the relationship with the neighborhood and gives us as chefs the opportunity to continue to play and learn and improve our knowledge.

Anything else about La Josie that you’d like to share? 

We have a lot of masa dishes coming onto the menu, like sopes and tetelas. We’re focusing a lot more on our masa dishes for the winter time, and hot salsas. It gets pretty cold here so we all enjoy something hot to warm the soul over the winter. 


Amber Gibson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in travel, food, and wine. Her work has appeared in Departures, Food & Wine, Saveur, Bon Appétit, and Travel + Leisure. Follow her here; follow Resy too.