Man gets an appetite. Woman gets an appetite. Man and woman grow tired of listening to their bellies rumble. Man and woman notice there are two bottles of wine that have not been opened. There is a restaurant that allows customers to bring their own spirits — we’re not talking astral world spirits and things that go bump in the night. The man and woman make a date for some Cuban food. Neither is disappointed at the end of the evening. They may be slightly tipsy from too much food and drink, but they do not know what disappointment means or feels like.
A college classmate had given word that she was moving South to start her own catering business. Well, what better way to have a send-off than to go to one of Chicago’s finest restaurants. Being a serious foodie, but one to let a celebrant have her moment, I deferred to my classmate for a recommendation. Cuban, she said. Having gone to a Cuban restaurant and written about it, I was fine with going to the restaurant, but I was not necessarily sure I would journal this one. So, I stopped. I thought. What the hell, I said to myself. I would write about the experience and the food journal would now include two Cuban restaurants where I have gone. What a fantastic idea it was.
My classmate and I met at Habana Libre, at 1440 W. Chicago Avenue in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village. Nice and quaint on the inside, you know you’re walking into a hole-in-the-wall. I actually prefer such establishments because you get the absolute best dishes in these kinds of eateries. Much like many Latin restaurants in Chicago, you can expect to hear a great deal of Spanish spoken. Because it’s not a Let-Us-Entertain-You kind of arrangement, the seating was extremely intimate and the atmosphere was completely absent of the sports bar effect that you almost get at many larger restaurants. Add to the fact that you can bring your own beverage, and you have the makings of a great evening.
Because my classmate and I are individuals who are full of life, we started off with a round of appetizers, of course. We had three flavours of empanadas — pollo (chicken), camarones (shrimp), and queso (cheese). Buying empanadas at these Latin restaurants is becoming a problem because all of them have lip-smacking delights for the tummy and I can’t go to all of them without indulging myself into oblivion. The fried plantains with garlic was necessary. Forget about potato chips. The plate of fried plantains would be a welcomed side order to any burger. The garlic in garlic oil was a nice addition, one I will gladly indulge in future Latin restaurant jaunts. The third appetizer was a ridiculously huge plate of fat green plantains served up with another dip of garlic in garlic oil. No one should ever complain about not being able to find anything tasty on a bill of fare from a Cuban restaurant after feasting on these little wonders. I will have to admit that no vampire would dare approach us with a desire to bite either of us on our necks after all of the garlic we ate. Hell, dragons that scorch the villages of peasants and evil politicians would have run from us even.
The restaurant had begun to fill up as we completed the round of appetizers. Having arrived at 6:45 PM, getting a seat was no problem. We soon discovered that around 7:30, the empty seats were being warmed by festive diners, birthday boys, friends, lovers, enemies who took rests to enjoy good eats, and two individuals who were about to get in over their heads — or bellies rather. So, we sat back, polished off a bottle of Merlot that we had brought, and decided it was time we thought about the entrees that would go with the second bottle of wine we brought along. Neither one of us is a prude when it comes to good food and fine wine.
We ordered ox tail stew that came out in a gravy that needs to be put in a bottle and sold at a premium price. Yes, there are countless people who will say, “I’ve had the best ox tail stew ever made” — yeah, right, in one ear and out the other. I am not one to say that I have been a fan of ox tail, period. I probably would have eaten a plate of grits first, but I am going on record by saying that I do believe the ox tail stew we had at Habana Libre might beat any plate of grits that any master chef can work wonders to concoct. They had to have slow cooked that ox tail like what those of you who are Jamaican or who have been to Jamaica have tasted. Heaven. Delight. Rapture. Damn good. And don’t even think about saying, “I’ve had the best ox tail stew ever made.” I’m not hearing it. As a side order with the stew, we had black beans and rice along with plantains. The black beans. I could write a book about how good those were. No salt. Far from bland. Scooped up with the rice, and eaten along with plantains that could result in a fight if someone were to pick them from your plate, this was what perfect means.
The big surprise came with the arroz con pollo. Having had arroz con pollo before, I figured it would be a slow simmered chicken served up with white rice cooked in some herbs and spices. Simple enough, right? Hell, no! The arroz con pollo came out in a communal bowl that you’d have to carry with both hands like you’re carrying a tub. Let me just tell you that the smell was enough to bring Bin Laden out from his hiding spot. And the taste? All I could do was hum. Another scoop of food into my mouth and I’d hum. On occasion I’d smack the table while my eyes were rolling in the back of my head, but that was okay. The turmeric. The cilantro. The succulent taste. The chicken that we had to use our fingers to keep on our forks before putting the delightful scoops on our tongues and cursing with pleasure — I mean delight; no, I mean rapture. The only unfortunate thing is that we did not know was that there would be so much arroz con pollo. We could not finish it all. But that was okay. Nothing like a little take-home to have for lunch or dinner the following day. Actually, it would carry over for two meals, not just one.
Habana Libre is perhaps one of Chicago’s many hidden gems. Clearly it is well appreciated by those who go there. The service far exceeded anything I could have expected. Considering my classmate and I were there for well over three hours and neither the owners nor servers were trying to rush us, that made the dining experience that much more enjoyable. We got to sit and partake of the loving from the kitchen to completion. And the bill? Believe me when I say that I am going back. At the waiter’s recommendation, I shall try the paella on my next return. Not only was pulling out the camera to take photos of the food a catch-point, speaking Spanish with the owner and waiter was a plus. Recibí un regalo después de comida.