LA PENA, 4212 N. Milwaukee, 773-545-7022: This two-room Portage Park storefront, cheerfully decorated in greens and burgundies, is family owned and operated: Jaime Fidel Castillo mans the front of the house, while his wife, Maria, and her mother, Rosa Sanchez, cook the coastal Latin fare. A complimentary plate of impossibly thin homemade fried plantain chips starts off the meal, served with a tomato-based hot sauce with carrots, onions, and cilantro. The many appetizers include five seviches (shrimp, black clam, whitefish, octopus, and calamari), a rich Ecuadoran tamale, fried sweet plantain croquettes, and muchin de yuca, deep-fried yuca with egg and cheese. Ensalada de rabano, with sliced radishes, jicama, and thin yellow and red pepper strips tossed in a lime vinaigrette, tastes as good as it looks. Entrees, mostly meat- or fish-based, include churrasco, a pork chop, and three rice dishes that come with a choice of shrimp, steak, or seafood. There's also llapingachos--a fried whipped-potato cake topped with thick peanut sauce and accompanied by a refreshing avocado-and-tomato salad, a fried egg, white rice, and beef sausage. Homemade desserts include coconut flan and oven-roasted sweet plantains; to drink there are batidos (fruit shakes) and Mexican hot chocolate. There's live music Thursday through Saturday and karaoke on Sunday. --Laura Levy Shatkin
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 arepa, a fat fried corn tortilla. Milk- or water-based jugos like blackberry and mango are surpassed by a sweet but oddly peppery passion-fruit flavor, 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, carne asada, and cheese-stuffed pastries called buenelos. --Mike Sula
IZALCO, 1511 W. Lawrence, 773-769-1225: The Salvadoran menu here stars two types of pupusa--one made with masa (corn flour), the other with harina de arroz (rice flour), which produces a slightly stiffer pancake. At $1.50 apiece, there's no better bargain in town than these six-inch rounds stuffed with beans, cheese, pork, or loroco, a pungent edible flower. A huge bowl of mild slaw for the table accompanies the pupusas, as does a dish of fresh salsa. A great way to sample many specialties is the plato tipico Salvadoreno, which includes two pupusas, one large soft tamale stuffed with chicken, fried yuca topped with pork and cabbage, a whole panfried sweet plantain, and sides of refried beans and annatto-seed-stained yellow rice. It's enough for two, but order a few tostones (fried green plantains) for the complete experience. There's also a kids' menu, with Latin specialties in smaller portions as well as a cheeseburger and chicken fingers. --LLS
CAFE CENTRAL, 1437 W. Chicago, 312-243-6776: Over 50 years old, this family-owned cafe serves an extensive menu of traditional Puerto Rican favorites and lots of seafood. Hearty home-style meals begin with specialties like mofongo (balls of mashed plantains mixed with garlic and bits of crushed pork crackling), alcapurrias (fritters made from a puree of plantains and yautia, a starchy white root related to taro, and stuffed with ground beef), and pionono (sweet plantain fritters stuffed with ground beef). Diners not full from the appetizers can move on to heaping platters of bistec encebollado (loin steak with onions), fried chicken, pork chops, and other comfort foods; or jibaritos, steak or roast pork sandwiches served on plantains instead of bread. For dessert there's papaya con queso or casos de guayaba con queso (papaya chunks or guava shells with cheese) and vanilla flan, and the beverage menu includes a dozen flavors of Goya juice. On weekends the cafe is crowded with families, many of whom come for the specials, such as bacalao guisado (codfish stew), mondongo (tripe soup), and, for those craving the flavors of the old country, cuchifrito (fried pig's ears). --A. LaBan
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.