If I were to face a firing squad at sunrise and the colonel were to ask me what I would want before I die, I would say, “I want another dining experience at a certain Ecuadorian restaurant in Chicago.” He would probably laugh and while everyone doubles over in laughter, I would tip-toe off and go back to the restaurant anyway.
Keeping in line with our quest for the almighty ethnic restaurant, we ate at La Peña in Chicago’s Portage Park at 4212 N. Milwaukee Avenue. For a restaurant as huge as La Peña, one would think the place was nothing more than a meet market for the after-five crowd. Add techno music and some preppies doing the Roger Rabbit and that awful arm-swinging dance that was so hip on American Bandstand. No, this place filled up in a matter of minutes as well as all the bellies of the customers.
Because I am on a health kick — insert laugh track here — I had a naranjilla, which is the most intoxicating kind of fruit juice you can have flow over the tonsils. Heaven, I say, this was pure heaven. Because my friend is a danger boy on his motorcycle, he simply opted for a diet Coke. For appetizers, we tried a sampling of three different Ecuadorian delights: empanada de verde, empanadita de harina de maiz con carne, and muchin de yucca. The empanada de verde was an Ecuadorian green plantain stuffed with chicken and served up with a spicy green salsa. The empanadita de harina de maiz con carne was a corn flour beef pie. While these were worth fighting over, the muchin de yucca was worth killing over. The muchin de yucca was a cassava potbelly stuffed with cheese. They served this up with a side of maple syrup. I am going back to this restaurant and load up on several of these delicacies because these would make ideal breakfast items. Forget about pancakes, scrambled eggs, and sausage. Dame muchin de yucca.
In the spirit of good eating, we chose two filling entrées to make sure our bellies would not growl for at least two days. We had a churrasco, which was a grilled rib eye steak served with a fried egg, French fries, avocado, and white rice. The other entrée was a llapingacho vegetariano. This entrée was a potato pancake with peanut sauce, a fried egg, avocado, salad, rice, humita (tamale with cheese), and sweet plantains. Because we refuse to let any inanimate object defeat us, we ate everything on the plates. Manners dictated that we should not lick the plates, which we did not, but it was tempting.
Now, no dining experience would feel complete without me taking pictures of the food. How else would I be able to show you, the reading audience, all the goodies that we sank our teeth into without complaint? There were plenty of eyes as I snapped shots. Even some muchachas walked over to the table and showed some skin. “Not here,” I whispered as I slipped them my number. “Call me.” One heavily muscle-bound guy — obviously overcompensating; ha, ha, ha — came to the table and threatened to punch out my lights because one of the women was his wife. Oops, that was from a scene in a rather bad 1980’s B picture show. The waiter did jokingly tell me that the manager said I must put my camera away because of copyright infringements on the food. I have gobbled up countless, tasty copyrights if that is the case. After I told him I write for a major magazine, he aided and abetted me in lifting a menu. Ahora soy un ladrón.
Dessert was worthy of the wave. [Do you remember that awful aspect of football? I cringe to reminisce.] We had maduro con queso (fried sweet plantain with cheese) and flan de coco (a coconut flan). I had another naranjilla to wash it down and my friend had another diet Coke. Now, while the flan was delicious, the texture was not smooth like that of a particular flan we had at a Cuban restaurant. Perhaps there was too much coconut and not enough egg. Then again, that may be a good thing so not to compromise a good cholesterol level.
To top it off, there was live music. I figured I would again take full use of the camera. No sooner had I pointed it towards the band than the one on bass screamed, “¡Mátelo!” (Translation: Kill him.) I quickly tucked the camera under my arm and dashed out of the restaurant, running down the street in a zigzag manner so that they, the wait staff, kitchen crew, and restaurant customers who joined in could not catch me. Soon there was a cadre of people from the surrounding neighbourhood who joined in chasing after me screaming, “¡Mátelo Matelo el hombre negro!” Oops. That was from a Saturday evening B picture show on Telemundo.
On Friday nights from 8:00 to 11:00 PM, Grupo Umbral plays Andean music. I am partial to acoustic guitars, having such a fondness for the sound in bossa nova music, so listening to the music was perfect. The one thing that truly made the restaurant authentically Ecuadorian was that Spanish was the primary language spoken. The waiter spoke Spanish at the table with us, not knowing that I do speak it myself — it just isn’t obvious when you look at me. The band did introductions in Spanish. The customers who came in primarily spoke Spanish.The measure of the authenticity of a restaurant is in whether the cultural representation of the patrons is present.
Would I go back to La Peña? You had better believe I would go back. The service was outstanding. Then again, any time I pull out my camera, we get VIP service. The food is certainly the selling point, though — huge portions, wonderfully seasoned, just delicious. For all we ate, and we have a habit of going overboard, the total price, tip, and tip for the band were not astronomical. Even an economical scientist and engineer such as my friend and I can attest to La Peña being necessary for those who have no compunction about enjoying good food. Just to think, I had the most wonderful dream about La Peña, among other things. “Aye, usted tiene una mente tan sucia.”