Philip Ghantous's Cuban sandwich is an expertly proportioned construction of light, cracker-crisp Gonella bread, mustard, pickle, baby Swiss, ham, and mojo-marinated roasted pork shoulder. That may sound like a simple thing—unless you've withstood the carping of people who know southern Florida about bread as dense as a baseball bat, cheap processed meats, mustard-to-cheese ratios, and cubanos too overstuffed to allow for the properly hot, gooey integration of those ingredients.
"How big do you make it?" says Ghantous, proprietor of Cafecito, a four-month-old Cuban cafe in the South Loop that made my list of 2008's best new Chicago restaurants. "Do you want to kill somebody? Do you want them to enjoy it? The most important thing to me is you want it be warm on the inside. Because a lot of these places are good, but they're not warm. Very rare is it hot throughout, the cheese melted. When it is, that's when all the flavors come together. That's why you want that mojo in there. You don't want to just go off the mustard and the cheese and the juice from the pickle—you want the mojo."
Ghantous's naranja agria mojo—sour orange with lime and lemon juice, cumin, garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper—is just one of the things that make his sandwiches singular. (And not just the Cuban: he uses a version of the mojo that calls for fewer onions to marinate the beef round that goes on his palomilla, a couple breakfast sandwiches, and a chimichurri-dressed sandwich.) His pork shoulders marinate for three days before they're roasted. "Then I slice it, and that's when my employees really hate me," he says—his meticulousness extends to precisely apportioning slices for individual servings. Then when someone orders a cubano or the lechon sandwich, he throws one of the slices on the grill and hits it with another shot of "the gold" before laying it on the bread with the other ingredients. The lechon sandwich drips with the stuff.
Though Ghantous is of Lebanese descent, he's got Latin culture in his blood. His grandmother was born in Brazil, he has aunts born in Venezuela and Mexico, and one of his uncles married a Colombian woman. But Ghantous himself grew up among the cornfields and Caterpillar workers of Peoria.
"I used to always tell my family, out of all the places in the world, all the beautiful places, why Peoria, Illinois? I was the first one to leave." In '95 he escaped to Chicago to study drama at Columbia College, and after graduation he waited tables to support himself while he appeared in a succession of off-Loop shows. By 2001, however, a desire to be in a position to support a family led him into a series of marketing gigs and jobs in corporate sales. After five years of that, he was desperate to find something that would allow him to act again. "My wife's never seen me in a show," he says. He bought into a Portage Park pool hall with his brothers-in-law, and they put in a grill offering bar food like burgers and hot wings. But the 15-hour days didn't give him a lot of time to make auditions: "I'd be there until two, three in the morning watching people play pool and saying, 'There's gotta be something else. There's gotta be something else,'" he says.
Ghantous found inspiration on vacation in Miami's Little Havana, where his cousin is an immigration attorney. "I love these little corners, loncherias, where you just walk up and get a Cuban coffee for a buck, 80 cents, 70 cents in some places." Back at the pool hall, he started offering cubanos and lechon sandwiches as specials, both of which were hits with Latino customers.
Two years ago he quit the pool hall and returned to waiting tables while looking for a space to open his own loncheria downtown, where corporate coffee chains dominate and cheap, high-quality breakfasts and lunches are in short supply. He returned to Miami several times and also surveyed Chicago Cuban joints like Cafe Marianao, El Cubanito, and La Unica, looking for ways to perfect his own sandwiches. After his shifts he'd drive around downtown looking for vacant storefronts. It took two years, but he finally found a spot on the first floor of Hostel International Chicago, within spitting distance of Columbia, DePaul, Robert Morris College, and the Chicago Board of Trade.
Ghantous seems unlikely to win any acting roles soon. He's too busy finding new ways to drive his employees crazy. For instance, to sweeten the cafecitos, the small Cuban espressos he named the cafe for, he emulsifies the sugar with the first few superstrong sputterings of espresso. This creates the creamy, caramely foam, or espumita, that rises to the top once the coffee's been added.
He's in constant R&D mode, coming up with new combinations to apply to the Cuban model. He developed his own chimichurri recipe—parsley and cilantro with olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon and lime juice, jalapeño, onion, oregano, red pepper flakes, a little paprika, cumin, salt and pepper, and lots of garlic—which he makes a week in advance so the flavors have time to integrate. This dresses steak or chicken sandwiches and the amazing choripan, a dry, salty, Spanish-style chorizo sandwich with grilled onions. He's also dreamed up a pressed number with tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil and a jerk chicken variant of the cubano with house-made habanero-lime mayo.
So if a Cuban sandwich can accommodate Italian, South American, Mexican, and Caribbean influences, what about Lebanese?
"Hummus, man," says Ghantous, pointing to the roasted veggie version he calls the jardin. "Jalapeño hummus. It's on the sandwich."