When Mike Sula profiled Philip Ghantous back in 2008, his South Loop Cuban cafe, Cafecito, had made the Reader's list of the year's most notable restaurants, and Sula was still marveling at the first-time owner's achievement. A Lebanese-American actor from Peoria, Ghantous wasn't the likeliest proprietor of a place that nails the correct proportion of mustard, pickle, and Swiss to ham and mojo-marinated pork for a top-flight Cuban sandwich. But his meticulousness helped make his version singular.
"The most important thing to me is you want it be warm on the inside," he told Sula."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."
Now Ghantous is bringing his naranja agria mojo (sour orange with lime and lemon juice, cumin, garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper) and the rest of his offerings to a more central Loop location, at 7 N. Wells, right by the Brown Line stop at Washington. Originally shooting for a November opening, he's hoping for "the beginning of February at the very latest," he says. "It's been a big headache for me, even though it's smaller."
The new space will have seating for 15 to 20, but will have more emphasis on carryout, with a to-go window and a larger kitchen that will enable his crew to continue making food to order—"I wouldn't sacrifice quality," he says. And true to the Miami loncherias ("lunch counter") that inspired the original, there will be counter service so that "people can come in and have their cafecito."
Ghantous, a Columbia College theater grad and veteran of several off-Loop productions, started up Cafecito as a means of supporting both his art and his family—he had two kids when it opened. Now 36 and a father of three, he resumed auditioning just last year. Four months ago he got an agent after auditioning for a TV sitcom, and now, he says, "I'll be on-site and get a call—'Can you make it?'—and I run. I'll never turn down an audition."
"I've learned over the last ten years that people can have more than one passion," he adds. "I want to show my kids that anything is possible." But for now, he says, waiting on the permits, on the alderman—"It's definitely a lesson in patience, for sure."
Kate Schmidt writes about what's on the restaurant scene every Thursday.