Little Unicoco, Big Taste in Authenticity

Little Unicoco

A few weeks ago during lunch, I was reminiscing with a good friend about my days when I lived in Rogers Park. The neighbourhood has since changed. Old businesses have closed. New businesses have opened. The changing demographics of the old neighbourhood are bringing a new vibe. And with all of these changes is a wave of restaurants with international flare. My friend had mentioned that a new Nigerian restaurant opened next to my favourite coffeehouse. So, this week I was off to Little Unicoco at 1631 W. Howard Street.

Plantain Chips

Plantain Chips

Arriving during the mid afternoon, I had a seat in what is called the market area of the restaurant. The larger lounge area was on the other side of the walled partition. After placing my order, I had fried, sweet plantain chips. Forget about potato chips and fancy chips touting less fat and healthy options. The all-natural sweetness and pop in the fried plantains were a winning combination. I was glad to find that the market portion of the restaurant has these lovelies bagged for take-away.

Goslings Ginger Beer

Goslings Ginger Beer

Much like the most recent Doctor Who, I’m not always a good man. Having inquired about whether there was ginger beer for imbibing, the server informed me that there was. She even poured the beverage with care, as if pouring beer. But this was the good kind of beer. Nothing like the fizzy pop that you buy off the shelves at your local grocer, this reminded me of homemade ginger beer, the variety that people take time to boil with real ginger that they leave in and you get to enjoy somewhat as candy when you’re done downing the ginger beer. Being bad, I sent a photo to my food advisor, knowing how much she loves “real” ginger beer. I imagined her shaking her fist at her cellphone before she sent a text back to me with three words: Don’t tease me!

Meat Pie and House Sauce

Meat Pie and House Sauce

One of my favourite Nigerian snack foods is a meat pie. Bread is a vice and the crust in Nigerian meat pies is well past addictive. Filled with a nice amount of minced, ground beef, this is a food addict’s dream along with a tomato based hot sauce. By the third bite, I had decided that I would order several for take-away so that I could have them for breakfast over the next few days. The caveat is I will devour them all in one day.

Suya

Suya

Next to the table was suya. This is another snack food that screams “have at it and know that I am the best barbecue ever.” Sliced beef with Yaji spices on onions and tomatoes, the ginger from the ginger beer combined with the spices on the suya transported me mentally back to Lagos with my university classmates who knew where to find all the good street food.

Egusi and Pounded Yam

Egusi and Pounded Yam

The final dish was one that I have loved with rice. But on this visit, I had to lose my Westernisms and devour this dish with pounded yam rather than with the assistance of table utensils. Egusi soup. This bowl of spicy, pounded egusi seeds filled with fish and beef is my favourite Nigerian dish, with non-vegetarian pepper soup and isi ewu coming in next. I have enjoyed the spicy kick of egusi soup with rice whenever I had a chance to have a bowl placed in front of me, however, there was something about eating it with the pounded yam that made it taste like I was eating something from home.

Chin Chin with Nutmeg

Chin Chin with Nutmeg

As a wrap-up, the server asked if I would like to sample a dessert. You have not had a tastier snack until you have had a fried pastry called chin chin. I sampled some that had been flavoured with nutmeg. I remembered being gifted some from a classmate’s mother who prepared some for a care pack when I was leaving Nigeria to return to New York for an intern when I was in university. It was as if I had gone back to Ibadan in 1989 to relive that flight again.

Chin Chin

Chin Chin

Little Unicoco packs a huge punch with authenticity. Granted I went earlier in the day well before the dinner crowd arrived, the service was still top. The atmosphere was welcoming and even the owner walked to every table and inquired as to whether this was everyone’s first time having Nigerian food and if there were any answers he could provide. Now I have another go-to Nigerian restaurant in Chicago. Big ups, Little Unicoco.

Little Unicoco Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Going South, Cafe Trinidad

Cafe  Trinidad

With the constant drop in temperatures and snow piling up outside, I have been good about not rattling off the statement, “I will be glad when summer arrives.” Honestly, summer in Chicago on Lake Michigan is like having a gigantic magnifying glass over the city and all pedestrians are like ants. The temperatures go from one extreme to the next. And people in Chicago are resilient. Unless there is a certain threat of bad weather shutting the city down, life goes on. Well, let’s be real. When was the last time your appetite said, “I think I shall wait until you finish your brooding about cold temperatures and not having anything to eat”? I can’t speak for anyone else, but my appetite has a life of its own and I obey when it starts whining.

Homemade Ginger Beer

Homemade Ginger Beer

To force myself into a mindset of being in a place where there is warmth, I was on the hunt for some Caribbean food. Much to my surprise, I found a Trini restaurant on Chicago’s South Side. After moving from the South Side to flee painful memories, I had not made trips back except for church — and I drive like a bat out of hell to get back to the North Side immediately afterwards — and to Hyde Park. But I gave Cafe Trinidad at 700 E. 47th Street in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood some precedence. So, I grabbed my camera for some action journaling and still shots, and it was off to the subway to connect to an “L” so that I could continue south of 35th Street.

Curry Chicken, Rice and Beans, Plantains, Cabbage

Curry Chicken, Rice and Beans, Plantains, Cabbage

With an interior that looks much like a lot of catfish shacks and chicken shanties on the South Side and West Side, you get that look at Cafe Trinidad. There are a few tables and for those who are big on decor, the bright colours adds warmth during days like what we were having — with 3 to 5 inches of snow accumulating outside. What Cafe Trinidad has in spades is GOOD FOOD. I ordered a plate of curry chicken, rice and beans, cabbage, and plantains. The chicken was not only spicy but it was also flavourful and tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Yes, you heard me correctly. At some Caribbean restaurants that I have not bothered to put on Chicago Alphabet Soup, the plantains were fried to a horrible crisp or boiled to a questionable texture. The plantains I had at Cafe Trinidad were sweet without sweetener enhancers and just right. And to top it all off, I had some homemade ginger beer. The last time I had homemade ginger beer that was worth writing home about was when I had gone to a Ghanaian restaurant in Washington, DC.

Although you can have a seat at Cafe Trinidad, there is no server to come to your table and take your order and run it to the kitchen. You review the menu at the table or at the till where you place your order. Being able to see the kitchen was a plus for me because I knew there was some serious authenticity to the food. Certainly when my food came to the table with some kick to it, I knew that there was someone from Trinidad in the kitchen working magic. Having only tried the curry chicken dish, I noted that there are wraps and other dishes on the menu. I guess I will have to brave the snow a few more times so that I can indulge some more Trini delights. Seriously, my stomach is already telling me to set aside some dates in the upcoming months. There is some roti on the menu that needs to know that I appreciate it.

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