Señor Pan Cafe, Cuban Food Bliss

Señor Pan Cafe

The thing about engaging strangers in conversation and they finding out that you are more of a fan of seeking restaurants that deviate from group think, they offer suggestions that put you in the path of authenticity. While recently switching between English and Spanish with a friend talking about wanting to find a restaurant in Chicago’s Humbolt Park area, some Cubans who overheard the conversation quickly recommended Señor Pan Cafe at 2615 W. North Avenue. This was not the first time I had received a recommendation for this cafe from Puerto Ricans or Mexicans, so hearing it from Cubans meant it moved to first place in my “Must Go” list. And upon entering and hearing the rapid fire Spanish at most of the tables spoken by Cubans, I’d hit oro (gold).

Cafe Con Leche

Cafe Con Leche

The temperatures in Chicago had been doing the warm temperature, chilly temperature waffling and today was a day where it was mild in the sun and chilly in the shade. On the way to Señor Pan Cafe, much of my walking was in the shade, as were the bus stops. By the time I arrived, I needed a little something to defrost. Cafe con leche was my beverage of choice and a very good one. I should have known when I told the server that was what I wanted and the response I got was a smile and, “Muy bueno.”

For a starter, I ordered plantanos fritos y frijoles negros. The thinly sliced, fried plantains looked a tad bit too perfect. The texture and flavour spoke to just how perfect they were. Crispy such that they didn’t get soggy, I used them to dip the black beans that had enough seasoning without crossing the line into ridiculous. I could have had this appetizer in an entrée size.

Plantanos Fritos y Frijoles Negros

Plantanos Fritos y Frijoles Negros

I had already settled on ordering a sandwich. Many of the sandwiches on the menu were pork-centric. The one sandwich that I knew I could fall back on was the ropa vieja, since it had a recipe of shredded beef in a tasty tomato sauce. Dios mios. At most Cuban restaurants where I have gone, the ropa vieja sandwich had plantains in the recipe. That was not the case at Señor Pan Cafe. That was not a problem either, as the sandwich was substantial, and I had ordered the small version of the sandwich. I had finished all of it and all of the plantanos fritos y frijoles negros. There was no room for dessert.

Ropa Vieja

Ropa Vieja

Señor Pan Cafe is small, so consider going with a small party if you’re interested. With me being conversational in Spanish, I had a little more conversation with the server and a few others in the restaurant than I probably would have if I had not switched into Spanish. For example, although I did not order a dessert, when I had inquired about a certain dessert on the menu, everyone behind the counter was telling me to get the flan instead when I returned. They also told me to come for breakfast, which goes well beyond, “Thanks for coming and we hope to see you again soon.” I was one satisfied customer. And since I did exchange email addresses with the Cubans who recommended it, I sent them a note to thank them. The quick response I received: When are you going again?

Senor Pan Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Riques Cocina Mexicana

Riques Cocina Mexicana

While passing through Chicago’s Uptown neighbourhood, there was a moment of wanting some Vietnamese food from one of the many restaurants along the Argyle-Broadway stretch. With it being hot and humid outside, I decided against a pho and knowing how much I love spicy food, I opted against any peppery dishes. During my indecision, I had wandered over towards Sheridan Road and walked up on a Mexican restaurant named Riques Cocina Mexicana at 5004 N. Sheridan Road. I settled on returning to the area for Vietnamese food another day. For this day, Mexican would suffice.

Horchata

Horchata

To somewhat take the edge off of the balmy feeling from outside, I had a horchata. It was clear from the first sip that this was not horchata from a bottle. I kid you not when I say that I could have ordered a jug of it for taking home.

Chilaquiles Roja con Pollo

Chilaquiles Roja con Pollo

To keep from stuffing myself, I passed on ordering an appetizer and ordered a main dish of chiliquiles rojo con pollo instead. Shredded chicken, scrambled eggs, and toasted frijoles in a red sauce topped with queso fresco were all I needed to satisfy my craving. Having had chiliquiles at numerous Mexican restaurants in Chicago since I moved to the city in 1995, I can honestly say that this was the best that I have had. And the side of frijoles and sweet plantanos made for an excellent lunch option.

Plantanos y Frijoles

Plantanos y Frijoles

As filling as the chiliquiles were, the dish was not so heavy that I did not have any room for a postre. I ordered a “la dona” noir, which was hot chocolate, cacao barry, and espresso. Just to be different, I asked for it to be prepared spicy with ancho and chipotle chilis. Needless to say, I got something spicy when that was what I was initially trying to avoid doing. The drink was outstanding. But what made me dance in my seat was the flan de elote. I am now addicted to flan with corn in it. The texture is not smooth the way regular flan is and it is not as sweet either, but it is still a fiesta on the tongue.

"La Dona" Noir

“La Dona” Noir

Flan de Elote

Flan de Elote

Riques Cocina Mexicana is a cozy restaurant with plenty of seating. Having gone during the middle of the day, there were several parties of individuals. With food and service being as great as what I experienced, I am sure there is a crowd during the evening seating. Although the plating looks more appealing than what you get at traditional Mexican restaurants, the flavour is absolutely true to Mexican cooking. When I eat enough to the point of stumbling out the door like a drunkard and needing to have a nap, it is definitely good. Believe me when I say that I stumbled to the el station, dozed on the el, napped on the bus, and slept well when I arrived home. I had an uninterrupted dream about Riques Cocina Mexicana.

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El Cid, Nobleman, Logan Square Restaurant

El  Cid

When summer arrives, I usually like to bike to other neighbourhoods in Chicago and have a brief walkabout. There is usually some new discovery or me finding something that I missed during my first visit. With Logan Square going through so many changes, I decided to take a stroll through my neighbourhood to see what was new and to also check out something old. This past Sunday, I finally went to what I imagine has been a staple in Logan Square — El Cid at 2645 N Kedzie Avenue.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

With nice weather, mildly humid from passing rain storms earlier in the day, I took advantage of the outdoor seating. I had a taste for a flight of mojitos, but the server recommended a margarita instead. His recommendation was a winner, and I paced myself downing it while devouring a basket of chips with a side of tomatilla salsa and another side of pica de gallo. The tomatilla salsa had a bite to it, a strong indicator that it may not have come from a jar. The pica de gallo was a winner. I swear it was doctored up with a mole and much like cilantro, mole goes great with everything.

Margarita

Margarita

There was so much on the menu that I had found appetizing. Being quick, I ordered vegetarian chimichangas. Served with dollops of sour cream and guacamole, these rolled tortillas stuffed with black beans, tomatoes, onions, rice, and cheese were fantastic street food snacks for my outdoor sit-down. By the time I had finished the basket of chips with salsa and the chimichangas, I was completing my margarita. I ordered another one.

Vegetarian Chimichangas

Vegetarian Chimichangas

Another appetizer I tried was a tamale. Delicious! There was nothing store-bought about the tamale. Not only did it come wrapped in a corn husk, but it was packed full of taste. My server had warned me about the red sauce. He mentioned that a dab will do you. The sauce was of the variety that people trying to prove a point will try. It has been loaded with habanero peppers. Nevertheless, I recommend the tamale. The red sauce looks good on the side only.

Tamale Con Salsa

Tamale Con Salsa

For an entrée, I settled for a seafood option. There was a salmon plate that came with Spanish rice and frijoles. Topped with a garlic salsa, the salmon was juicy and tender. The food smelled so good that I didn’t photograph as many shots as I normally do. And once I had my first fork of salmon along with some rice and the frijoles, I had declared the dish a winner, definitely not the usual enchiladas, tacos, and the like.

Salmon a la Parrilla

Salmon a la Parrilla

I went with a traditional Latin American dessert option: flan. This flan had coconut in it. And given the additional ingredient, one would think the texture would be coarse. No, the flan was smooth as a quesillo. It felt like slicing through melted butter and it tasted like bliss. I made a note to myself to be more aggressive in the gym this week. Flans are not necessarily friendly to the cholesterol and a third margarita isn’t particularly helpful when you’re trying to flatten your tummy.

Flan de Coco

Flan de Coco

El Cid has been on the Logan Square landscape since I moved to the neighbourhood several years ago. I was always under the impression that their doors opened at 5:00 PM, so I passed by it during the day on weekends and thought nothing of it. Yelp should update its page to reflect the proper time. At any rate, the service was top, the food was worth several more visits, and the price was extremely reasonable. I’ll have to remember El Cid, the idol of Spain, for the next time I return to the namesake on N. Kedzie Avenue. I’m sure he’ll pass my mind briefly before my third margarita.

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That Little Mexican Cafe, a Bryn Mawr Favourite

The Little Mexican Cafe

For my birthday weekend, I took a few days off following the weekend to have some proper time for myself. That meant staying up late, sleeping later in the morning, and eating, the latter being a given. I had been going to the Bryn Mawr corridor for quite a bit of dining options. I had gone to Little India Restaurant on Friday and to Little Vietnam Restaurant on Saturday. Isn’t it cute how the restaurants have “Little” in the names? Well, only a block away from both is a restaurant named That Little Mexican Cafe at 1055 W. Bryn Mawr Avenue. Having acknowledged that I have become a fan of the other two “Little” restaurants, I had to see if That Little Mexican Cafe would become a big part of my life.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

This is not a hole-in-the-wall. I guess it falls more in line with being a medium-sized restaurant with hole-in-the-wall authenticity. The atmosphere detracts from it falling into the big box category. You do feel like you have gone to a friend’s home, mostly from the setting, and that is a very good thing if you rank customer service over ambience. There were complimentary chips and salsa that I later raved about to friends endlessly later in the afternoon.

Guacamole

Guacamole

With me doing something like an extended birthday celebration from the weekend, I still had a Frankenstein monster appetite. Considering this was a new restaurant to me and my intentions were to try something I haven’t had from any other Mexican restaurants, I was still curious as to the guacamole. I’ve had so much guacamole that I should be tired of it. But the tableside guacamole that I got at That Little Mexican Restaurant is the BEST that I have had outside of Distrito Federal. This was chunky guacamole, not puréed. They recognized that avocado already has a creamy texture, and chose not to mess that up by turning it into a coarse pudding.

Taquitos Pollos

Taquitos Pollos

The next menu items I wanted to try were taquitos pollos. Imagine small corn tortilla chicken tacos fried to a perfect crisp. Served over a bed of lettuce, tomato, and crumbled cheese, these are fantastic snacks. I was expecting only a few, no more than four. There were eight. And by the time I finished gnashing away on those little treats, there were only a few shreds of lettuce on the plate. I have had taquitos at several Mexican corner stores that were tops and some from a few Americanized restaurants that failed. The taquitos at That Little Mexican Cafe rank up there with “worthy of ordering.”

Cazuela Camarones

Cazuela Camarones

Not wanting to order a chicken or beef dish that would have left me stuffed, I ordered a cazuela camarones. Plump shrimp in a spicy red sauce served over Spanish rice never tasted better. The sauce had a smoky flavour that made the dish reminiscent of a barbecue.  I was not expecting such a pop to the dish and it may have been because I had been so accustomed to ordering tacos, enchiladas, tostados, carne asada, and Tex-Mex that I missed trying other fare like the seafood dish that I was completely enthralled with. For full disclosure, I ordered some more for take-away, along with another side of rice and the delicious black beans.

Arroz con Frijoles

Arroz con Frijoles

 

By the time I did my slow walk out of That Little Mexican Cafe, there were two main things that stuck with me. They do the best guacamole in Chicago. I will go even say that it is better than any guacamole I have had in America, so far. Second is that menu items outside of the usual Mexican fare are outstanding, really, really, very outstanding. Another thing I noticed is that the flavours are not watered down. My server did warn me that the cazuela camarones was spicy and I was very happy that the order went through accommodating my request for the dish to be spicy the way it is served in homes in Mexico. With reasonable prices for the meal, especially given how much I had eaten and ordered for take-away, there is nothing little about That Little Mexican Cafe.

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¡Que Rico! ¡Que Bueno!

Que Rico

Chips and Salsa

What do you do on a sunny Saturday afternoon when the sky is blue, the few clouds that are fluttering about are wispy feathers that look dreamy, and the leaves on the trees remind you of pumpkin pie and crayons the colours of red, yellow, brown, and orange? You rake leaves? You jump in the leaves? You walk hand-in-hand with your lover down the lane? You sit about and be thankful that the temperatures are still in the mid 60′s? Well, if you are me, you are probably out and about hunting for some food. I had made a bet with my international traveling wife during our last international jaunt. I had agreed that for every pound she takes off, I will add a pound. Last report, she had taken off a few pounds, which meant that my current bout of weight gain that has me struggling to get into some of my pants needs to step up. So, when I found myself in front of a certain Mexican restaurant that had the earth tones of the autumn colours, imagine my surprise when I had found an option for adding a pound or two for this particular day.

On the corner of Oakley and Roscoe at 2301 West Roscoe Street is ¡Que Rico! Talk about getting the whole decor of a Mexican establishment right. And with Halloween approaching, there was the whole setup of ghosts, ghouls, witches, skeletons, and pumpkins placed strategically throughout the restaurant. Upon entry, and it was during the middle of the afternoon, I was rather shocked to see that the place was empty. Many restaurants seem to open at 4:00 or 5:00 PM on Saturdays, so I had initially thought they were airing out the place in preparation for the evening seating. But, no, there just were no patrons yet and perhaps most were on the east end of the Roscoe Avenue stretch that attracts a lot of pedestrian traffic. The server had stated that they were indeed open for business and gave me my pick of tables. I chose a window seat.

Sopa de Tortillas

To the table came chips and salsa. The chips were not the neat, flat tortilla corn chips that you get in Frito Lay’s bags. Many were folded, some had been contorted, and all of them were warm. You can’t pour a bag of chips into a bowl, warm them up, and not expect some weird texture after they start cooling off. The chips remained crispy from the time they reached the table until I had finished all but crumbs. The salsa had raised some suspicion at first. I was thinking salsa from the jar and then the peppers slowly started creeping about on my tongue. I have had the “spicy” brand of salsa from the jar and it was still mild, so the complimentary salsa I had this day was either doctored or homemade. I would like to think the latter was the case because there was the authentic flavour that I could taste, much like the homemade salsa I have had at several of my friends’ homes.

I started with a sopa de tortilla. I have never ordered sopa de tortilla — tortilla soup — before and was pleasantly surprised that chicken broth with a tomato base, caramelized onions, chihuahua cheese, peppers, and corn tortillas could be so blooming delicious. We’re talking a fiesta. By the time I had gotten down to the last few slurps, I had dubbed the soup as my autumn Latin soup. It could be the colours of autumn that gave me the hint. Then again, it could have been the mildly spicy flavours that would be perfect for preventing a cold or keeping the body heated during the chillier times of fall and winter that will keep me hankering for cups and bowls of this delight.

Camarones al Ajo

One Latin American dish that has never failed is camarones al ajo. This plate of plump shrimp in a tomato-based sauce over melted cheese with Spanish rice, refried beans, and salad left me smiling and bumbling. The one time I probably could have gotten away babbling twaddle in English and I was instead giving commentary rather fluently in Spanish. Oh how the waiter got a laugh out of that before he was a bit inquisitive as to how my Spanish had such polish. It’s like those people who had surgeries and then awakened with accents so very different from what they had before going under anesthesia. While I am moderately conversational with Spanish, I apparently had not only correctness with words but also an accent. Food is not supposed to do that to me. I am finding it increasingly hard to fight, though.

Now, only an hour had passed and I was a bit full from having engaged the soup and the entrée with a pause of fifteen minutes after each. It was time for a postre. No flan para mi. Favor, no churros. Instead, I had pastel de piña. To have ordered that without first thinking about how I would say pineapple cake in Spanish first was an indication of how fast I tend to switch into languages. The pastel de piña came with a light caramel sauce, baked pineapples, and a fist size scoop of vanilla ice cream over a slice of yellow cake. Along with the cake, I had a cup of Colombian coffee. Gracias, Juan Valdez. It probably would have been nice to have had some Mexican hot chocolate to stay with the whole Mexican theme. Sigh. Sometimes there are modifications made and the ideal gets smashed. And if the food is really great at the restaurant, you eat enough that you are smashed also, such was the case with me.

Pastel del Piña

For a restaurant that has all the trimming of ambience, great service, and pretty good food, it is very bizarre to note how empty the place is. It very well may be the timing of day, as big box restaurants have a tendency to fill up later in the afternoon and early evening hours. It may also be that most of the restaurants that cater to pedestrian movement are a few blocks east of where ¡Que Rico! is. Several reviews I have read hint at the price being more than what is expected for the output and having a disposable income puts me at a disadvantage for moaning about cost. ¡Que Rico! is neither a corner taqueria nor is it Charlie Trotter’s. You have to experience the restaurant for what it is worth. I walked, or rather waddled, away a stuffed man and still had enough cash to get cheese on my Burger King whopper afterwards. Wait! I don’t each burgers. Scratch that last thought.

Que rico. Que bueno. ¡Bomba!

Precious Memories

Pico de Gallo

Are there times when your mind wanders back to something that brought a smile to your face and you wish that you could return to that time and live through that smile-inducing experience again? Are there moments when you recall a certain dish that was so good you found yourself thinking that it would never be as good as the first time? Are there times when you pass by places and find yourself captivated by something you saw in the window briefly? I have those deja vu episodes all the time. Mostly my precious memories involve food. And, yes, I smile. This was the case recently when I was in Oak Park going to a certain wine shop to buy a bottle or two of wines. On my way, I took the scenic route and to my wandering eyes should I espy a Mexican cafe. Nothing spectacular, rather small in size, I recalled my days of living in Chicago’s Rogers Park where I had my pick of Mexican holes in the wall that served food so delicious that it had dawned on me several months after constant visits that my Spanish had improved.

Quesadillas Con Arroz, Frijoles y EnsaladaFresh Mex Cafe at 1110 Westgate Street is immediately off of Marion Street, a thoroughfare where you can find a plethora of cafes, restaurants, and specialty boutiques. With only a few chairs for seating and rather cramped, it was also a bit reminiscent of some small shanties where I had been warned not to go in Mexico City when I was there years ago with work. American accent intact, I ordered quesadillas con arroz, frijoles, and salad. And there was no way that I was going to have anything to drink other than a pineapple Jarito. For all you lovers of high fructose corn syrup in your beverages, get your fingers around a Jarito that gets its sweetening from cane sugar. You will thank me.

Truly Fresh Mex Cafe is about authenticity. I started with chips and salsa. The chips were not unflavoured Dorito’s — absolutely not. These were fresh and a bit warm, which was all the indication that I needed to realize that they were made in-house. The pico de gallo, although looking rather pedestrian, had a kick to it that made me want to dance the mariachi music playing in the background. Chunks of fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and jalapeno peppers were all that I needed to have me no longer wanting any kind of salsa from a jar. Then the quesadilla with all the trimmings came. Chihuahua cheese between corn tortillas and cooked on a griddle were served up with Spanish rice that was neither al dente nor mushy. And let me not forget about the frijoles with extra crunch tortillas and the salad that came with a dollop of sour cream and a grande scoop of guacamole. Mind you, the guacamole was just avocado and tomatoes, no extra additives, but the taste was perhaps ten notches past divine. No mentira. With pineapple jarito in hand, my lunch was complete. I had not just entered a restaurant, but I had gone into some Mexican’s kitchen and had a taste of home.

Flan

There were only two dessert options on the menu. One was a flan. The other was tres leches cake. The main plate was so filling that I opted for the flan. Accented with a thin caramel glaze and topped with a cherry, this flan was so creamy that you would have thought that it was custard. There was a texture akin to the lemon in the lemon meringue pies that I bake. Only in Mexico where no one spoke any English — or tried — have I had flan that heavenly. It may sound cliché, but I didn’t know what to do with myself, everything was so remarkable on my tongue. I think I discovered some secrets, whatever they may be.

Fresh Mex Cafe is indeed a hidden gem. On a side street that enters into a stretch for a parking lot, you could pass by it and think that it was one of the few businesses that have closed. There are no fancy signs, flash, fanfare, or indicators to grab the attention. Much like me on the day that I went, you have to casually stroll through the area and take in the scenery slowly, not in a rush. And once you go inside, be prepared to be served some outstanding comida de concina por Mexicanos quienes saben comadia buena.