Latina sisters bring exciting new vibes to their family’s Mexican restaurant group in Chicago

Korina Sanchez and Samantha Sanchez have taken the reins of their dad’s Third Coast Hospitality Group, using all of the experience they acquired while growing up in the restaurant business.

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Sam Sanchez sits with his daughters Korina (center) and Samantha Sanchez at a table inside Moe’s Cantina in River North.

Sam Sanchez sits with his daughters Korina (center) and Samantha Sanchez at a table inside their family’s Moe’s Cantina restaurant in River North.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Raised in the restaurant business, sisters Korina Sanchez and Samantha Sanchez know what it takes to make it in Chicago’s vibrant dining scene.

After the height of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses all across the city — some for good — the two joined forces to create some new concepts in the city’s restaurant/bar scene. They enlisted the help and guidance of their father, restaurateur Sam Sanchez, who’s been working in the industry since he was a teenager.

Sam Sanchez founded Third Coast Hospitality in 1992 and has since opened several restaurants across Chicago, including Moe’s Cantina (with locations in Wrigleyville and River North), a Northern Mexican restaurant concept focusing on the signature mesquite-style barbecue characteristic of Sam’s hometown of Sabinas Hidalgo in Nuevo León, Mexico.

“We believe in ‘carne asada’,” Sam told the Sun-Times about his Mexican roots. “No matter what argument we have, we have a ‘carne asada’ as a place of gathering.”

Pescado (fish) tacos are among the entrees served at Moe’s Cantina.

Pescado (fish) tacos are among the entrees served at Moe’s Cantina.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

A carne asada is a Mexican party that’s full of music, tequila — and barbecued meats, usually marinated skirt or flank steak cooked to perfection on a wood or charcoal grill.

The family’s restaurants have been a popular “place of gathering” for Chicago foodies for years. It’s a sense of cultural pride and accomplishment born in the sisters.

Korina and Samantha learned how to walk in their restaurants, their father recalled with a smile. “[We] put aprons on them and they cleaned ketchup and mustard bottles for a $5 tip.”

They worked with their dad as young adults, too, learning how to do everything from serving to bartending and hosting and managing. In 2021, the sisters took over all business operations, while Sam took a backseat. He’s always available should his daughters need advice or a helping hand.

“I thought I was a team leader until they both pushed me to the side,” Sam said with a chuckle.

When Sam was a teenager, he’d leave his hometown to work in Chicago every summer. His first-ever industry job was as a porter at the Marina Towers, where he’d stock shelves and clean restrooms.

A self-starter, he’d worked all sorts of jobs at various Chicago restaurants, including doing maintenance, running food and washing dishes before he acquired ownership of and then sold John Barleycorn, a popular bar in Lincoln Park, ultimately opening Moe’s Cantina in Wrigleyville in 2005 at 3518 N. Clark St.

The Three Potatoes and a Chicken Walk Into a Bar is one of the appetizers served at Tree House.

The Three Potatoes and a Chicken Walk Into a Bar is one of the appetizers served at Tree House.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The brand now owns and operates two full-service restaurants in River North, including Moe’s at 155 W. Kinzie St. Next door, there’s the Italian-inspired Tree House restaurant. And upstairs is Tunnel, a nightclub popular among 20- and 30-somethings. The company is also the brand behind Old Crow Smokehouse, an award-winning barbecue restaurant in Wrigleyville at 3506 N. Clark St.

And separately, Samantha owns La Luna (1726 S. Racine Ave.), a contemporary Mexican restaurant in Pilsen.

Up until 2020, the second location of Old Crow Smokehouse in River North was a prime destination for live music, but with large gatherings out of the question, the sisters decided it was time for a re-brand. With their sights set on creating something fresh and exciting, Tree House was born.

The main dining room and bar at Tree House in River North.

The main dining room and bar at Tree House in River North.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“We wanted to open up something that was playful,” Samantha said. “People were just stuck in such a weird funk at that time. We were like, “how can we open up something that’s going to inspire people to bring their kids’ side out.’”

While the restaurant business is in their blood, the sisters said they were always encouraged to spread their wings and explore careers outside of hospitality.

Korina, 33, is an attorney who started her career working in medical malpractice defense and later corporate law.

“It was really fun and interesting, but I always knew that I wanted to end up back here and help the business,” she said.

Korina is also on the board of the Illinois Restaurant Association, where she hopes to create more visibility and opportunities for Latino entrepreneurs.

Samantha, 30, has a background in art and design. A Columbia College Chicago alum, she’s led the charge on all creative aspects at Third Coast’s restaurants, thinking carefully about plates, presentation, interior design, marketing and more.

She also tapped Chicago artist David Bozic to create one-of-a-kind pieces for Moe’s and Tree House.

“Other than just putting a basic design together, we think about how can we get people talking about the artwork,” Samantha said.

She added that what makes her job fun is getting to “be adventurous with our food and cocktails.” Moe’s Cantina and La Luna are “two different concepts, but they both get the job done. They both show different parts of Mexico and how we’re inspired by and really proud of it.”

The Queso Fundido is one of the appetizers served at Moe’s Cantina.

The Queso Fundido is one of the appetizers served at Moe’s Cantina.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Culinary director Marco Colin works closely with the Sanchez sisters to create the various dishes at the restaurants.

“Our dishes always start with something traditional,” Korina said. “And then we always try and make it slightly different than maybe what you’d see normally at another restaurant or even at home.”

At Moe’s, the sisters reworked their dad’s menu by streamlining it to align with food costs, especially after the pandemic. They put lots of thought into what could intrigue customers and get them curious about Mexican food and culture, while making sure that each plate was just as fun and vibrant as the next.

Their barkeeps work carefully to create cocktails that take the classics to the next level. The Oaxacan Old-Fashioned, for example, combines Casamigos reposado and Dos Hombres Mezcal with a cinnamon syrup and chocolate bitters.

The Oaxacan Old Fashioned cocktail is served at Moe’s Cantina.

The Oaxacan Old Fashioned cocktail is served at Moe’s Cantina.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Their best-selling drink is the Holy Water: a take on the skinny margarita that includes agave syrup with a rim of black lava salt that is sourced from Iceland. (Drink menu items are rotated every season.)

Encanto Agave Bar sits at the back of Moe’s in River North, where customers can enjoy free monthly mezcal tastings. Then there’s Cava Room, a specialty cocktail bar also in the shared space.

With the goal of opening up more restaurants in Chicago, the Sanchezes said that their primary objective is to continue to be somewhere people can go and “have a lot of fun.”

“It makes me feel very happy, because I feel like I’m doing more than just opening up a restaurant for myself,” Samantha said. “It does push people to want to pursue their dreams and not be as intimidated as it was before where [the industry] was more male-dominated.”

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