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Warmer Climes

As temps start to drop, critics' picks for hot Latin American chow

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As far back as the 50s, Roger Laguardia's little restaurant and grocery in Bainoa, Cuba, was famous for its stewed oxtails. "It made him very, very popular," says his son Jorge. "They still talk about them." But when his father opened Bucktown's Cafe Laguardia 13 years ago, they weren't a big seller and appeared only infrequently as a special.

The oxtails found a permanent home at Laguardia's second outpost in Oak Park, where customers apparently had a more sophisticated appreciation for the odd bits. Marinated in bitter-orange mojo criollo and slowly braised for hours with peppers, onions, and tomatoes, the fist-size vertebrae are cloaked in the thick, clingy sauce that results. Sizable nubbins of tender, fatty flesh fall away at a touch of the fork, but precious bits still cling to cavities in the bone, and a certain degree of finger and tongue play—and suction power—is required to mine them.

Luckily, when July floods shut it down, Jorge was in the process of opening LaGuardia's Cuban Bistro in the snug space formerly occupied by the Brown Sack (which has moved to Central Park and Belden). Serving virtually the same menu as the mothership—minus the Mexican dishes—the new spot has established oxtails as its signature dish—just like the old man's place on the island. But with the culinary zeitgeist showing a greater appreciation for extremities, Bucktown's getting a second chance: Jorge, who with his brother, Carlos, took over the business after Roger died six years ago, has taught the cooks there how to make them, and they're now offered regularly. —Mike Sula

Laguardia's Cuban Bistro
3706 W. Armitage, 773-772-2822

Many Chicagoans will recognize pão de queijo as the warm cheesy buns served at all-you-can-eat churrascarias such as Fogo de Chao. Crafty gluttons eschew them, knowing that the reason they're continually replenished is to take up precious stomach space that might otherwise be filled with expensive beef. That trick doesn't fly in many South American countries, where pão de queijo are a ubiquitous street snack that can be enjoyed under any circumstance.

Jorge Flores is shrinking the city's pão de queijo deficit at his new Wrigleyville bakery, devoted exclusively to products made with gluten-free flour processed from the cassava tuber. Four varieties of pão de queijo (pan de yuca in his native Ecuador) are offered: regular, jalapeño and white cheddar, kalamata olive and feta, and sun-dried tomato and basil. Though the place could use a caramel-filled option, each flavor has its merits in addition to a slight sourdoughlike fermented tang. Yet those I tried were doughy and leaden under the crisp exterior, like an undercooked pizza crust and unlike the airier steak-house versions—a problem that might be addressed by purchasing them frozen and baking at home, an option Flores offers.

I had much better luck with the cassava-and-coconut-flour berry muffins; neither was too sweet, and both had a hint of salt. Smoothies made with Greek yogurt and fruit are available with flaxseed, whey, or almond-meal upgrades, along with Metropolis coffee and hot chocolate rendered from molten bars. There's also pumpkin soup, and experiments are under way on a grass-fed-beef-and-cassava chili. —Mike Sula

3338 N. Clark, 773-857-3039

Pão de queijo at Cassava

The second outpost of Alberto and Christine Gonzalez's 90 Miles Cuban Cafe has table seating and a charming enclosed patio in addition to a counter, the sole seating option at the original on Clybourn. But it retains the warmth of its predecessor, as well as sharing the menu. Pressed sandwiches include innovations like one with tofu in Creole sauce alongside traditionals like a medianoche, a lechon, and a Cubano, the last one of the best I've had in town. Amply portioned dinner plates also offer a few vegetarian options in addition to ropa vieja, lechon, steak, and chicken; all come with plantains and a molded round of rice and beans.

We went with a special of masas de puerco, delicious deep-fried pork chunks smeared with mojo and served with rings of white onion. We also liked the crispy tostones and a savory goat-cheese empanada. A big part of the appeal of 90 Miles is the crack service—the staff is assiduous and outgoing, making jokes, pouring water, checking on the meal, backslapping, and handling large parties with aplomb. On a friend's last visit, Alberto was going around offering wine to his guests (the restaurant is BYO); on mine it was samples of Cuban coffee that ended up luring me back for breakfast.

There's Latin music on the sound system, and the space is decorated with wallpaper showcasing vintage Cuban posters and hung with photos—yes, that's Alberto with former White Sox pitcher Jose Contreras. The Gonzalezes have purchased the building next door, and have plans to expand the restaurant come spring. —Kate Schmidt

90 Miles Cuban Cafe
2540 W. Armitage, 773-227-2822

Plus: More recommended Latin American restaurants

Aripo's Venezuelan Arepa House

118 N. Marion | 708-386-1313


LUNCH: Sunday, Tuesday-sunday; DINNER: Tuesdau-Saturday | sunday brunch | closed monday

Arepas, pudgy hand-formed griddled masa patties, are a staple in Venezuela and Colombia, where they're eaten solo, as an accompaniment to other foods, or split open and stuffed with whatever's on hand—arepas rellenas. At Aripo's, on the brick-cobbled section of Oak Park's Marion Street, owner Jose Rodriguez offers 19 versions of the stuffed form, from the La Nuestra ("Ours"), stuffed with pabelon, the Venezuelan national dish of shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains, and cheese, to the El Domino, named for the contrasting colors of black beans and crumbled white cheese, to the chicken-salad-and-avocado Reina Pepiada ("Voluptuous Queen"), named for Susana Duijm, the Venezuelan winner of the 1955 Miss World pageant. The La Peluda ("the Hairy"), stuffed with shredded cheese, and its chicken variant, La Catira ("the Blondie"), both put up a fair amount of dental resistance, which places them at the opposite end of the textural spectrum from El Perico ("the Parrot"), an egg-vegetable-cheese scramble. One constant across the lineup is the crispy-chewy exterior of the arepas themselves, which gives way to a subdermal fluffiness that envelops and stabilizes the fillings. There are also empanadas as well as other little bites like tostones, fried yuca, and boliquesos, lightly sweet balls of deep-fried cornmeal dough, similar to hush puppies but with interiors of partly molten Venezuelan queso fresco and semiduro, a mild, medium-hard cheese. A handful of main plates and juices—including the tooth-cracking papelon con limon, made from sweet lime and piloncillo, a dark brown unrefined sugar—round out the menu. —Mike Sula


1720 N. California | 773-227-6038



Borinquen, the "Home of the Jibarito," stakes its reputation on a dish its owner claims to have invented: the jibarito ("little hillbilly"), a garlicky sandwich with your choice of meat layered between two deep-fried slices of flattened green plantain. It's a greasy, unwieldy mess of a sandwich, but man, does it work. I like mine with lechon, juicy Puerto Rican-style roast pork laced with pockets of rich fat and satisfying crunches of golden crackling skin. The jibarito also comes in beef, veggie, ham, or chicken incarnations. I can't wholeheartedly endorse the pollo—the stewed chicken can be tough and gristly; the pechuga, or chicken breast, is better. On the side I take an order of arroz con gandules (yellow rice with pigeon peas) or habichuelas (red beans with ham) and a splash of vinagre (a red-pepper and garlic-infused vinegar, made in-house). The appetizers are sometimes good, depending on how long they've been under the heat lamp in the window; I like the bacalaito, a codfish fritter. Borinquen has two additional locations, at 3020 N. Central (773-622-8570) and at 3811 N. Western (773-442-8001); the ambience at the latter hovers between sports bar and neighborhood tavern. —Seth Zurer

Brasa Roja

3125 W. Montrose | 773-866-2252



This outpost of Jorge and Jeanette Gacharna's excellent Lakeview churrascaria, El Llano, has one major advantage over the original: pollo rostizado. Every morning the birds start spinning over hot coals in the window of the Albany Park storefront; plump and round, with steadily browning skin, they beg to be tucked under the arm like a football and carried away. In the dining room the Gacharnas have disguised the ghosts of retail past, festooning the dropped ceiling and walls with folkloric gimcracks and posters of South American ranch life. The scent of sizzling flesh precedes the arrival of wooden boards laden with grilled steaks, short ribs, or rabbit, accompanied by a sharp salsa verde and the four starches of the apocalypse—rice, fried yuca, boiled potato, and arepas. Milk- or water-based jugos like blackberry and mango are surpassed by the sweet but oddly peppery passion-fruit variety, and desserts include brevas con arequipe (caramel-filled figs). Doors open at 9 AM for calentado, the traditional Colombian breakfast featuring beans, arepas, potatoes, eggs, and carne asada. —Mike Sula

Buen Sabor

4911 N. Western | 773-878-1001


LUNCH, DINNER: Sunday, Tuesday-saturday | closed monday | BYO

When Pupuseria Las Delicias abandoned this tiny stand-alone building in Lincoln Square for larger digs years ago, it sat sadly empty, waiting for the day some master of the delicious Salvadoran stuffed corn tortilla would reoccupy it. The time has come . . . The 16 varieties now on hand are surprisingly distinct from the firmer forebears of Las Delicias. These are soft and pliable, much easier to eat, and come with a heaping bowl of the mildly tart slaw (curtido) and the thin red salsa that are de rigueur for maximum pupusa potential. A full array of Salvadoran specialties balances out the corn cakes, including empanadas, fried cassava with pork, and soft banana-leaf-wrapped Central-American-style tamales, plus a selection of rice, bean, and protein plates and weekend specials of cow-foot, chicken, or beef-shank soup. Of particular interest area to tropical-fruit hunters are a handful of uncommon drinks including cashew apple (marañon) and two varieties of passion fruit (maracuya and granadilla). —Mike Sula

Cafe Laguardia

2111 W. Armitage | 773-862-5996



It's hard to tell when you first walk in to Cafe Laguardia whether it's a restaurant or a knockoff of Disney World's Animal Kingdom. The exposed ductwork is painted with zebra stripes and cheetah spots; curtains are leopard print and chairs cheetah print; brightly painted bird figurines hang from the ceiling and lizards adorn the walls. Fortunately, theme-park decor doesn't mean theme-park food, and everything we tried at this traditional Cuban joint ranged from decent to excellent. Fried plantains and fluffy papas rellenas were perfectly cooked, while black bean soup had a nice depth of flavor with a subtle kick. I wasn't as big a fan of the Brazilian red snapper as Rachael Ray (whose visit to the restaurant is featured on its website) apparently is, but the sauce was tasty if slightly bland. Better was the Brazilian pork sandwich, marinated and slow-roasted; they also make a mean pulled pork sandwich. There's a bar and a full cocktail list. —Julia Thiel


26 E. Congress | 312-922-2233



Prior to opening his South Loop Cuban-style cafe, Philip Ghantous was a frustrated actor-waiter with zero kitchen experience. So how the hell is it that this Lebanese-American from Peoria is now pressing the best damn Cuban sandwiches in the city? It probably has to do with the near-manic pursuit of perfection that should have made him a success at anything—and would probably put him out of business if he weren't situated in a part of town desperate for a high-quality, low-investment breakfast-and-lunch spot. The sandwiches on the board are divided between the rigorously authentic and appealing riffs on the classics. The cubano is a perfectly proportioned construction of light, cracker-crisp Gonella bread, mustard, pickle, ham, cheese, and mojo-marinated, house-roasted pork shoulder that fairly drips with flavor; it's also used in the lechon sandwich. The steak on the palomilla, two breakfast sandwiches, and in a chimichurri-dressed sandwich is marinated in yet another mojo. Ghantous allows his Middle Eastern heritage to peek through on a roasted veggie version, swiped with jalapeño hummus. The less common, Argentine-influenced choripan—a dry, salty, Spanish-style chorizo with grilled onions and chimichurri—may not be for everyone, but it's in the running for my sandwich of the year. Ghantous admits to having a heavy hand with seasonings, most evident in the garlicky chimichurri, which he makes a week in advance so the flavors have time to integrate. But the real secret to these phenomenal sandwiches lies in his sense of overall balance and proportion. Small-batch house-made salads fill out the backside of the menu, and the coffee comes from Tampa roaster Caracolillo. —Mike Sula


4053 N. Kedzie | 773-478-0819



Peru is preeminent among Latin American countries when it comes to pollo a la brasa, rotisserie chicken, but that's not all there is on offer from the father-son team of Luis Garcia Jr. and Sr., who also feature lomo saltado, beef marinated, sauteed, and served over rice, and ceviche topped with red onions lightly pickled in lime juice, widely regarded as the Peruvian national dish. What's striking about many of the dishes is their vividness. Peruvian riffs on fried rice—beef, seafood, or chicken, with brilliant chunks of red and green pepper, crispy scrambled egg, and green onions—are Technicolor to the black-and-white of your average greasy cardboard-container takeout. Chicha morada is a winey-purple sweet drink made from boiling ears of purple corn with cinnamon and clove. The tallarin verde con bistec is a slab of beef atop a mound of bright green spinach-basil pesto; aguadito, a brilliant green chicken soup the Garcias serve on weekends, gets its color from cilantro and spinach pureed into the broth. And then there is the aji, the most distinctive accompaniment to Peruvian pollo a la brasa—a creamy pastel yellow mayo-and-mustard-based salsa, cool and tangy, with a hint of heat from the aji de amarillo chile and an herbal note from huacatay, Peruvian black mint. A spicier version, pale green in color, is made with jalapeños and served with the restaurant's other dishes. It's particularly good with the anticuchos, marinated, skewered veal heart, which anyone thinking about dabbling in offal for the first time should consider as a gateway organ. —Mike Sula


2100 W. Division | 773-292-1600



A cozy, dimly lit place with exposed brick, tall candles on the tables, and Argentine paraphernalia like mate gourds decorating the walls, Folklore offers a steak-centric menu of authentic Argentine fare very similar to that of its sister restaurant, Tango Sur. The squeamish may not love the authenticity, though: sweetbreads and blood sausage make up half of the parrillada, a mixed grill that also includes steak and chorizo, and there are no substitutions allowed. But there are also plenty of other options on the large menu—even several vegetarian ones and a few fish dishes (listed as pez and otro pez, or "fish" and "other fish"). A creamy risotto with asparagus, spinach, and shrimp was slightly gummy, but baked eggplant layered with spinach and cheese and topped with tomato cream sauce turned out to be one of the highlights of the meal. Empanadas of moist ground beef in a flaky shell were even better with the excellent house-made chimichurri sauce. Still, steak is what Argentina's best known for, and Folklore offers several imported cuts of lean grass-fed beef as well as fattier domestic steaks; our bife de chorizo (strip steak) was perfectly cooked to medium rare as requested. The chorizo was also a real standout, one of the best renditions I've had. Because the portions were so big, it turned out that we'd accidentally ordered an overwhelming amount of food; this didn't escape the notice of our friendly server, who brought us a complimentary flan—rich, creamy, and topped with dulce de leche—for being the "customers of the day." We managed to find room for it. —Julia Thiel

Habana Libre

1440 W. Chicago | 312-243-3303


LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | open late: friday & saturday till 11 | BYO

At Habana Libre fibrous yuca is slightly browned, chicken flash-fried to crispiness, smoky croquettes bronzed, empanadas served flaky and light as tempura. Our coctel de camarones was a saladlike mound of just-cut tomato and onion popping with perky shrimps. In ropa vieja—the best we've had in Chicago—chunks of sweet pepper infused thick, beefy threads with flavor, the slight sweetness balancing the big meaty taste. Lechon, suckling pig, was so fresh and moist we were glad to revisit it in our Cuban sandwich, where it nestled between sliced cheese and ham with pickles, pressed a la plancha, flattened on the griddle. Juicy oxtails doused with criollo sauce paired well with classic moros y cristianos, black beans and rice. Pineapple sorbet, served in a baby pineappple half, was the cutest dessert ever. —David Hammond

Mr. Pollo

3000 W. Belmont | 773-509-1208



After a long delay this second outpost of the Ecuadoran rotisserie chicken chain finally opened two blocks east of the formidable Colombian Brasa Roja, whose spinning brown birds have had months to bank the loyalties of the neighborhood. Mr. Pollo is a leaner operation—it's just chicken, sides, and drinks, only a few tables at which to linger, and none of B.R.'s theatrical range of grilled meats. The chicken itself is a simpler rendering of Brasa's, amplifiable by a watery and potent red salsa but minus the relatively complicated seasonings of the neighbors. Still, it's crispy, juicy, and devourable. For a few dollars more Mr. Pollo's flexes a wide choice of sides—standard fried yuca and plantains—but also corn, salads, mashed potatoes, and a clear, light soup with shredded white meat that defines purity of poultry. The other location is at 5222 W. Diversey (773-282-4743). —Mike Sula

Las Tablas

2942 N. Lincoln | 773-871-2414


Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Las Tablas offers a bulky menu of Colombian favorites: empanadas, plantains, grilled seafood, chicken, and lots of beef. Specialties include multiple varieties of churrasco, South America's staple grilled steak; melt-in-your-mouth grilled pollo al ajillo, chicken pounded flat and marinated in olive oil, garlic, and spices; and vegetarian paella. Las Tablas is not for the faint of stomach. Entrees are hefty and served on wooden cutting boards with sides of fried plantain, yuca, and potato. And although the menu does offer two vegetarian plates, the focus here is definitely on meat. The relaxed main dining room is outfitted with long picnic tables and haphazardly dotted with tall potted plants, South American handicrafts, and a stuffed parrot or two. There's a second location at 4920 W. Irving Park (773-202-0999). —Martha Bayne

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