She said that there is a Cuban restaurant in Chicago’s Near South Loop. And so I smiled. I remembered her telling me about a certain Venezuelan restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, immediately west of Chicago proper. And so I smiled. I also recalled her telling me about the buffet at one of the hotels that is walking distance from our office. And I smiled even more. A flash of recommendations that she had given, all appetizing to the palate, appealing to my culinary sensibilities, and every one worthy of return trips, came to mind in a flash. And I continued to smile. Then I decided that I would follow-up on her most recent suggestion and sample some goodness at this highly recommended Cuban eatery after work. Still I smiled.
Tucked away at 26 E. Congress Parkway between State Street and Wabash Avenue is Cafecito, one of Chicago’s top — if not the absolute top — Cuban restaurants. With a loft feel and plenty of comfortable table and lounge seating, you almost get the impression that you have entered a fancy loft in Chicago’s Loft District. But, no, you will have walked into a food heaven that will dazzle you with only the best eats that your teeth will sink through. Having had high expectations from the top marks my co-worker had given, I was certain that this would be a Friday evening spent well.
Upon entering, the manager was on the telephone taking an order for take-away. After finishing he asked me if I had any questions — an indication that he was open to answering any questions I may have had, something that is missing in customer service at many restaurants these days. Having been informed that the restaurant specializes in Cuban sandwiches, I was okay with relinquishing my vegetarianism for a meal. So, I began placing my order. My request was going to be odd and I gave the disclaimer up front: I have a bizarre request. I know I want three sandwiches, but I don’t want all three whole. Could I get half of a ropa vieja for here and half for take-away? I would also like half of the jerk chicken sandwich for here and the other half for to go.
There were a few seconds of what may have seemed like indecisiveness and then the owner asked if I had any dietary restrictions, after which I told him that while I am primarily vegetarian, I will eat seafood, chicken, and occasional beef. He said that I would not go wrong with tilapia. So, I ordered a tilapia sandwich, half for eating at the café, half for take-away. And I concluded my order with a cappuccino. I paid a rather small price for the amount of food that I had ordered and moved over towards the lounge sofa to get comfortable. She did not tell me that I was going to fall in love with the place.
The three halves of the sandwiches came wrapped as though I was taking them for to go. I unwrapped the first sandwich, the tilapia sandwich, and gave pause to capture the delight before me on camera before gobbling it to completion. Click. Click. Change angle of shot. Click. Click. Napkin on lap. Pick up sandwich. Bite. Chew. Swallow. Moan. Bite. Chew more. Swallow. Smack end of coffee table and make declaration of, “Oh my God!” The meatiness of the tilapia. The spicy peppers in the mayonnaise. The softness of the bread that did not have me feeling like I was tearing a quilt with my teeth. And me thinking that she never told me not to avoid sitting next to the window because pedestrians would see me going through spasms of food rapture. The fact that the cappuccino was so reminiscent of how correct it is done in Europe made matters worst. Why oh why do I torture myself so full and complete with such edible delights? I downed the tilapia sandwich half in silence, with interspersed sighs and moans of happiness.
Bliss kicked in after I unwrapped the second half of a sandwich. I applied my ritual. Click. Click. Change angle of shot. Click. Click. Napkin back on my lap. Pick up sandwich. Bite. Chew. Swallow. Lean back on couch with my eyes rolling in my head. Continue. The ropa vieja was out of this world. Slow roasted skirt steak. Sweet plantains. Black beans. Tomato creole sauce. What a product. What a sandwich. What a pleasure it was to make your acquaintance, ropa vieja. I hope you did not think I was so rude the way I snacked on you without asking if you wanted a break from my teeth gnashing away at you they way that I let them. But she did not tell me that you were so satisfying and that no one would really care if I showed my appreciation by fumbling around in a daze from such appreciation for how great you tasted. After all, I was not the only one experiencing bliss. The sips of cappuccino still did not make my happiness presentation sitting at the window any better.
I should have stayed away from the third half of sandwich. Click. Click. Change angle of shot. Click. Click. Cleaner napkin on my lap. Pick up sandwich. Bite. Everything went out the window, as they say. The jerk chicken sandwich was so wrong. It had no business tasting so damn good, not at all. The Caribbean jerk, the marinated chicken, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and habanero lime mayonnaise were a combination that exploded with flavours of mildness and spices at the same time. How could that be? How could a sandwich have a mild nip to it and a kick at the same time? Now that is what I call fusion that works and leaves you utterly rumpled on the floor. I washed it all down with the final sips of cappuccino while turning my face from other patrons so that they would see my ridiculous smile. She did not tell me that I may need to work on curbing my food enthusiasm in public.
The manager had come over to where I was seating to ask me if I was enjoying my food, after which I promptly said, “And you know it, clap your hands,” and then clapped my hands twice. Great food does that to me sometimes and I have absolutely no control, I will admit. When he had told me that the café had been open for two years, I was quite surprised. Then again, I never walk the short stretch of Congress Parkway between State Street and Wabash Avenue. He went on to explain everything from the preparation of the food to the bread used to his hopes of opening another café in the downtown area to the intended expansion of the menu. If what I had tonight is reflective of what to expect at the other anticipated restaurant and additional menu items, then I am confident that Cafecito will be the best thing outside of Cuba. Before the manager had walked away to help some other customers who had entered, he offered me a suggestion for a pastry with guava and cheese and a café con leche. I accepted. She did not tell me that I would be so well fed before leaving.
I sat for a moment to let the sandwiches and the cappuccino go down. To pass time, I clicked a few more photos of the restaurant and then pulled my Kindle from my book bag to read some of The Girl Who Played With Fire, which is starting off better than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — shameless plug. Then the pastry and the café con leche came. Click. Click. Change angle. Click. Click. Pick up pastry. Bite. Moan. Moan. Sigh. Moan. Fumbling. Fidgeting. Exhaling. I am so sorry, but it is incredibly wrong the way good food brings me satisfaction. Yes, we have to eat to survive, but that pastry brought about a bit of enjoyment that I do not like to display in public. It was not perverse, but I have not known such love in a long time. That pastry was my lover for this evening. And like the cappuccino, the café con leche did not make it any better. I watched the owner prepare the café con leche. He had made his own sugar at the café and having it in the coffee as a sweeter — instead of the devil’s sugar called high fructose corn syrup — really gave the café con leche flavour that would have been messed up otherwise. It was a while before I had finished savouring the pastry and the coffee. There was no rush. She did not tell me that the desserts were so blooming magnificent.
The best Cuban sandwiches. The best cappuccino I have had this side of the Atlantic Ocean. The café con leche running neck-and-neck with the same from Logan Square’s Café Con Leche. A pastry that gives any French patisserie a run for its game. Prices that fit your budget. Ambience. And management that apparently makes it a point to get to know the customers who patron the café. I know where I will be going on a regular basis. What more could you want? What more could you ask for? Hmm. I will ask my co-worker because she knows where food addicts like me can get our culinary fix.