Growing up, when I did something wrong, my father would punish me by putting me to work in the restaurant," says Ralph Cruz, who owns and operates the 50-year-old Cafe Central. "That's how I learned the business."
First opened in 1952 at 1410 W. Madison by Cruz's uncle Carlos, Cafe Central was originally named El Tropicale. Cruz's father, Rafael, purchased the business from his brother in 1956, changing the name in an effort to establish his own identity, although the place itself remained essentially the same. Neither of the Cruz brothers had been trained to run a restaurant, but they'd seen an opportunity when their friends, all young single Puerto Rican men, bemoaned the fact that they were going to be forced to get married if they ever wanted to eat well again.
Cafe Central remained on West Madison until 1968, when the family lost their lease, and moved to its current location on Chicago near Bishop. Ralph has been in charge now for nearly 20 years. "For a while I owned the restaurant with my brother," he says. "Then my brother bought a musical instrument store from the same uncle who had originally owned the restaurant, and I was on my own."
The focus at Cafe Central has always been on homestyle Puerto Rican cooking, and many loyal patrons consider it a comfortable alternative to their own kitchens. "We're a family restaurant, and we're now serving some of our original customers' grandchildren," says Cruz. "We also get a lot of customers that live outside the city, from Aurora, Waukegan, even Milwaukee. They got married, moved out to the suburbs, had kids, but they still come down to eat once a month."
Open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Cafe Central serves an extensive menu of traditional favorites and lots of seafood. Hearty meals not particularly well suited for low-cholesterol diets begin with an assortment of Puerto Rican 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 meat.
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, served with a choice of two sides: rice, stewed beans, plantains, or mofongo. Steak or roast pork sandwiches are served on plantains instead of bread.
For dessert there's casos de guayaba con queso or papaya con queso (guava shells or papaya chunks with cheese) or vanilla flan. To drink there are a dozen flavors of Goya juice, including guava, tamarind, passion fruit, and strawberry banana.
On weekends the cafe is crowded with families, many of whom come for the specials. Fridays feature bacalao guisado (codfish stew), ensalada de bacalao (codfish salad), and--for those craving the flavors of the old country--cuchifrito: fried pigs' ears. Saturdays and Sundays Cruz offers a pan con lechon (roast pork sandwich) and mondongo (tripe soup).
Cafe Central hasn't changed much in response to the neighborhood's increasing gentrification--the lattice-trimmed booths are still upholstered in brown vinyl--although its regulars now often find themselves sharing the long counter with new patrons lured by the food and the comfortable atmosphere. "Although we still pull a core group of regulars from a one-mile radius, people are traveling more to get here," says Cruz. "We've been picking up vegetarians who eat a lot of rice and beans and, sometimes, seafood. We've also got lots of doctors that come in from the nearby hospitals now for lunch."
Cruz would like to pass management of Cafe Central down to the third generation. He expects at least one or two of his five children to be involved with the restaurant eventually; like their father most of them have spent time there as punishment for various youthful offenses. "When my oldest boy graduated from college, he came and worked for me part-time as a chef. He's a police officer now, but when he gets burned out, he'll come run the restaurant.
"I have another son who just graduated from college," continues Cruz. "If he doesn't find a job in a month, he'll be heading back to the kitchen."
Cafe Central is at 1437 W. Chicago, 312-243-6776.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Bernacchi.