One thing I like about Latinicity is the variety, albeit found in only a few vendors. I must admit that I thought there were more restaurants before. Of course, that was over five years ago. I recall there being restaurants to the right of the entrance as well as the current restaurants to the left of the entrance. Nevertheless, next time I am downtown, I will make plans to stop I again to try some other offerings. Continue reading
Every once in a while I like to deviate from the usual proper sit-down restaurant and delve into something that requires me to pick up food with my hands. Having had a craving for a really good sandwich, I knew that I could not go wrong with a Cuban sandwich. And rather than going to the usual Cuban sandwich shops that I have logged in my smart phone, I looked for a place where I had not been. Bia’s Café Marinao at the new location of 4323 W. Addison Street in Chicago’s Old Irving neighborhood seemed like it was a good spot on reading the menu. It was an outstanding café on going for the first visit.
Not large and rather popular, given the constant flow of patrons coming for pick-up and dining in, I had a seat at the counter against the wall and indulged a chicken empanada that came with a guava barbecue sauce and a cubano. The empanada was fresh, quite evident from the flaky crust. And I liked that the chicken was seasoned nicely, which really lent itself to going well with the guava barbecue sauce. Ropa viejas have always been my go-to Cuban sandwich and switching it up a bit this time was an excellent idea. Thinly sliced ham, roasted pork, topped with a mustard jam and pickles, I quickly decided that I will retire my love affair with ropa viejas.
During my second visit, I wanted to sample another sandwich. This time I ordered a medianoche. This sandwich is very much like a cubano, except the bread has a bit of a sweetness to it and without the mustard jam. Hearty, flavorful, and with a bloom of flavor from each bite, I was conflicted because I had sworn the cubano to be my now-favorite Cuban sandwich during my first visit. While finishing the medianoche and downing a cup of café con leche, I knew that this meant I had to return at a later date to see if I could conflict my interest more.
During the third time, I had one beef and one chicken empanada, this time with a spicy sauce for dipping. Again, trying a different sandwich, I ordered a steak and cheese that came with thinly sliced tomatoes and Swiss cheese, drizzled with a mild citrus oil. While not overloaded, there was enough flavor packed into the sandwich to make me punt a Philly cheesesteak if it were put in front of me. Not only that, I simply had to accept the fact that there isn’t one sandwich at Bia’s Café Marinao that I can’t honestly call my favorite because all of them are.
As mentioned earlier, there is a steady stream of customers that come in to order for take-away and for dining in. Noticing the service the three different times that I have gone, they are consistently friendly and attentive. The café is not in an area with lots of foot traffic, so the fact that they get a lot of constant business speaks to how fantastic the sandwiches are and how welcoming the service is. I have never been one to say that I am a fan of sandwiches, but Bia’s Café Marinao changed that for me. This is my favorite sandwich shop in Chicago.
Several months ago, I met my former flatmate for dinner in the West Loop. We had designs on a restaurant that is noted for serving some of the best burgers in the city. We arrived to a packed restaurant and a long waiting list. That was all we needed to know that the food was “that” good, but it was too cold to stand around outside. So my good friend offered the suggestion of walking a few blocks to Bar Takito at 201 N. Morgan Street. Well, she certainly knows how to pick a winner.
Since I didn’t get any photographs, not even from my cellphone, I decided that I would return this past weekend and it was just as good of a decision as it was when my friend said, “Let’s go,” back in October, 2015. Knowing the dinner crowd would fill up the restaurant, I went during mid afternoon on Saturday and had a seat at the bar. And after a brief glance of the drink menu, I saw a section with cocktails mixed using mezcal. You can’t go wrong with anything having mezcal in it, so I told the bartender to surprise me with something that would put me in the mind of summer. She won me over with a drink called Mouthful of Diamonds, absolutely refreshing from hibiscus and citrusy from lime and agave.
For a starter, I had fish tacos. There were tilapia that had been battered in rice and served on top of pepita tortillas. There was a cabbage slaw with a chili aioli that had a spicy and citrusy zest to it. To round these tacos off, there were crispy rice and basil. It seems like any time there is news about tilapia, it is all bad. I don’t know where the conspiracy theorists obtain their information from because when you go to a restaurant that does an outstanding job with food preparation or if you’re obsessive compulsive with your own cooking, you’d have to purchase your tilapia from a nuclear waste dump for it to be that awful. The tilapia in the fish tacos at Bar Takito were plump and fresh.
By now, I had worked my way up to wanting another cocktail. As you may have noticed in a few past posts and will notice in future posts, I’m falling in love with mezcal and it’s becoming gold in Chicago. So, I had the bartender mix another drink with mezcal in it. What to my wondering palate should she put in front of me but a Peruvian Margarita. I have three all-time favourite bartenders in Chicago and I’ve stuck with just those three for my list. The bartender at Bar Takito is now in my Top 4 and there is no particular order. There were agave and fresh lime that compliment the aji amarillo pepper purée that’s used to spiced the margarita up. This margarita does not come with mezcal in it, but the bartender added a mezcal float to the recipe. Capital.
And to go along with the Peruvian Margarita were spiced beef barbacoa tacos. These came with a pickled jicama and a queso fresco with peanuts served on a popcorn tortilla. I could come up with a hundred words to describe how much I fell further in love with the tacos during each bite, but I could better sum up the experience with the simplistic word “Wow.” While I don’t have any allergies towards nuts, I never order dishes with nuts in them. I hadn’t really paid attention to peanuts in the tacos. I had noticed that there was a nutty flavour that served well with the savoury flavour of the beef and I was quite okay with that.
There are countless restaurants in and around Chicago that are taking tacos to a new level of preparation that draw those with eager appetites and palates that enjoy different tastes. I have not been to any that I haven’t become a fan boy for. Bar Takito is certainly on my go-to list. The food is capital. The table service that I’ve had in the past was top. And the bar service may make me judge future restaurants unfairly. They have a constant customer, bar none.
Recently, I decided to donate my car to charity. Now I use public transportation to navigate the city and I also do a lot of walking. Well, after quite a bit of walking through my neighbourhood, I have stumbled upon a few small restaurants that I have since added to my list of eateries to sample for Chicago Alphabet Soup. One of those restaurants became a go-to spot for a Sunday afternoon rather than waiting outside some brunch spot to get inside for the usual chicken and waffles, shrimp and cheese grits, and mimosa. Okay, so that may not be the main items on brunch menus, but Cafe Bella at 3311 W. Fullerton Avenue in Logan Square promised to have something more inviting. They fulfilled that promised.
With the weather being frosty outside, I wanted something to warm me up. Seeing the usual listing of coffees, what stood out most was the cafe Azteca. Had there not been others sitting near me, I would have slurped it. Many restaurants serve up Nestle’s Quik or Hershey’s cocoa in warm milk — or water — mildly highlighted with cayenne pepper. There was no grit from any cocoa powder not having been mixed thoroughly. The marriage of espresso and cocoa was smooth, slightly peppered, and topped with a drizzle of chocolate syrup, cinnamon, and whipped cream. Let’s just say that one mug was not enough.
For a starter, I was in a mood for seafood. I ordered pesto shrimp. This came as a dish of five plump, grilled shrimp, well-seasoned and accented with a homemade pesto sauce over a fresh salad. If you go to Cafe Bella and plan to have a good bit to eat, add the pesto shrimp to your list. It’s light in terms of portions, but it is loaded with flavour. There was not one disappointing bite, except for the last one because I did not want it to end.
Next for sampling were chicken quesadillas served with homemade guacamole. The quesadillas had a twist to them. First, the tortillas were prepared with a tomato base. Quesadillas are customarily made with plain flour tortillas, but I must admit that the tomato base was a nice addition. Second, the chef had run low on chihuahua cheese, so there was an improvisation of adding Swiss cheese. I noticed that there wasn’t the faint taste of chihuahua cheese only and the server had kindly explained that the extra kick in the flavour was from the inclusion of Swiss cheese in the recipe. Surprisingly, it was not a bad modification and with the homemade guacamole dip on the side, there were no complaints from me.
Realizing that I had room for perhaps an entrée, there was one that I figured would be a good option for trying steak, chicken, and shrimp all in one dish. The Tour de Bella was it — strips of chicken breast, succulent shrimp, and steak served with roasted vegetables and mashed potatoes with brown gravy. I had looked at some of the photos of the dish online before going to Cafe Bella and thought it looked rather appetizing. When it arrived at the table, it looked too picturesque to devour. If I were indecisive, I would have just stared at it. But I went to work on the dish to completion. The shrimp was fresh. The chicken was juicy. The steak was tender. I was one satisfied customer. And I ordered that second cafe Azteca for my wrap-up.
The menu at Cafe Bella seems to cover Latin American cuisine without being specific to any country. If you have had any Latin American dishes, they are certainly not exactly the same, but they are outstanding with chicken, shrimp, steak, and other meat dishes that have enough flavour verve to keep you returning for more. Cafe Bella has a quaint atmosphere, which is good for solo dining or meeting with a few friends. It is not a big box restaurant and although there is a mild coffeehouse feel to the place, the food is definitely a guarantee for making you become a regular customer. And because there is an open kitchen theme to the restaurant, seeing your food cooked in your presence screams, “Welcome to my home.” I’ll be back for a longer stay next time. I bet you will, too.