Restaurants: In the Neighborhood, August 24, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: In the Neighborhood, August 24, 2008

Eighteen restaurants in and around Humboldt Park

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In the Neighborhood

Eighteen restaurants in and around Humboldt Park

Atlas Cafe3028 W. Armitage, 773-227-0022

$Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

It's got a small, dark tiki-bar feel, with the kitchen's beaded curtain, high rattan-backed chairs, and the long bamboo-lined counter behind which our server whipped up mango and almond milk shakes as good as the famous ones at Irazu. Atlas Cafe bills itself as an "international kitchen": the menu hops around madly from club sandwiches to (in winter) charquican, a Chilean stew, with a welcome $10 cap on nearly every item. The zalouk starter, a Mediterranean roast eggplant salad, was tangy and nicely spiced, with warm pita triangles on the side. Apio y avocado, a mound of big, squared-off celery stalks and creamy avocado with a light vinaigrette, was the size of an entree. A bland, overly oily garbanzo salad was a miss, but a veggie empanada was perfectly hot and crisp, and spinach ravioli had a blushing tomato sauce that begged to be sopped up (sadly, no breadbaskets here). The menu leans toward the vegetarian, and the kitchen can be spotty handling meat dishes: grilled salmon was hopelessly dry, but another night's cheeseburger was just fine, served on a nice eggy challah bun. And we loved the cheesecake with a blackberry drizzle. —Tasneem Paghdiwala

Borinquen1720 N. California | 773-227-6038

$Latin American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11| Reservations accepted for large groups only| BYO

Borinquen, the "Home of the Jibaro," 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 habuelitos (red beans with ham) and a splash of vinagre (a red-pepper and garlic-infused vinegar, made in-house). Borinquen has a full menu of Puerto Rican plates, but none lives up to the high standard set by the jibarito. The mofongo is interesting, fried plantain mashed in a wooden mortar and pestle with salt pork and garlic and then molded around either lechon or seafood. 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 now 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

The Brown Sack3706 W. Armitage | 773-661-0675

$American, Ice Cream | Breakfast, Lunch: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday; Dinner: Tuesday-Friday | Closed Monday | Reservations not accepted | Cash only | BYO

It's a long way from Malaika Marion's first Chicago job at Planet Hollywood to her "soup, sandwich, and shake shack" on the western fringe of Logan Square. Most recently a manager at Lula Cafe, Marion's lived in the neighborhood for years and when she saw the teeny Armitage storefront she knew the time was right to break out on her own. With help from her partner, Adam Lebin—formerly the GM at Red Light—she's turned the space into a sunny, six-table destination for hearty down-home standards like a gooey grilled peanut butter, banana, and honey sandwich and beefarific chili laced with head-clearing handfuls of cumin and chile (a vegan version is also available). The daunting Reuben—a popular choice based on an unscientific peek at the other tables—comes piled with thick folds of corned beef topped with the traditional Thousand Island dressing and melted Swiss, plus grilled onions. There's also rich mac 'n' cheese, meatball subs, Goose Island root beer floats, and daily soup, sandwich, and dessert specials (one week it was Lebin's grandmother's brownies). —Martha Bayne

La Bruquena2726 W. Division | 773-276-2915

$Latin American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Vegetarian friendly

Panels of dingy burlap drape the ceiling, weathered red vinyl tops the few tables, and a TV blares at the back of this Humboldt Park room. The menu offers several Puerto Rican specialties—jibaritos (plantain and pork sandwiches), mofongo (mashed green plantains), and several shrimp and fish dishes—but most are seasoned quite blandly; the tasty fried plantains are one of the better choices. Portions are large, but flavor is somewhat muddied and service is almost nonexistent. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Cocina Boricua2420 W. Fullerton | 773-235-7377

Caribbean, Latin American | Lunch, dinner: Seven days | byo

This Puerto Rican joint seems to be off the radar of local foodies. Maybe that's a good thing, because the place is remarkably unspoiled. From the first bite I had there, my primary sensation was wow. We started with guachitas, smashed fried plantain disks topped with guacamole and a slice of salchichon, a piquant red sausage—an inspired combination. The canoa, a large sweet plantain filled with cheese and beef, was also killer. Mofongo is plantain smooshed together with lots of garlic and chunks of pigskin and served with a side of golden consomme that's meant to be dashed in. At Cocina Boricua I had the best version I've ever had—and I've tried it all over Puerto Rico. Another guaranteed pleaser are the pasteles, plantain tamales with a core of lightly spiced pulled chicken. For this dish and others we found ourselves reaching for the salsa, a garlicky tomato puree; Puerto Rican cuisine, like that of neighboring Cuba, is on the mild side of spicy. Served the cabrito en fricassee, exceptionally tender chunks of steamed baby goat in a light wine sauce speckled with green olives, I knew I had found my paradigm for preparations of the horned beast. There are also jibaritos, the Chicago-invented sandwich of two flattened fried plantains filled with beef, chicken, or pork. For dessert we had an exquisitely eggy flan and the templeque, a light yet rich coconut gelatin. Cocina Boricua is BYOB, as a pink neon window sign announces. —David Hammond

Coco2723 W. Division | 773-384-4811

$$$Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch | Closed Monday | Open late: Saturday till 3, tuesday-Friday till 2, monday till 1

This little spot differentiates itself from many of the more home-style Puerto Rican joints on the Paseo Boricua by dividing its menu between "classic" and "modern" Puerto Rican cuisine. A waitress described the latter as "different from Grandma's"—though not necessarily any less fatty. So for example, there's a crabmeat-stuffed mofongo made with yucca rather than plantains, or asopaos, a thin, salty red-rice stew with shrimp, chicken, or neither (this, counterintuitively, is described as "traditional"). The "Classic" side includes steaks and other cuts like a dry, tough pork chop that was rescued by a stuffing of mashed plantain and raisins; this comes with truly traditional sides like mofongo, yellow rice, and pigeon peas. The dandified appetizers can be sampled in platters, which yield some tasty ones like arranitas (shredded plantain fritters) and some boring ones like the pastelillios (miniature meat puffs). Coco is more upscale than most Boricuan places in the neighborhood, with a decor meant to evoke old San Juan, DJs and live salsa bands, and plenty of martinis. —Mike Sula

Flying Saucer1123 N. California | 773-342-9076

$American, Vegetarian/Healthy, Breakfast | Breakfast, Lunch: seven days | Reservations not accepted | BYO | Vegetarian friendly

Weekend breakfast is the most popular meal at this cozy Humboldt Park breakfast-and-lunch spot, though the menu offers mostly standards: eggs, over-the-top pancakes or French toast, plus a few Mexican-influenced dishes like the huevos volando—eggs with tortillas, black beans, cheese, guajillo sauce, and pico de gallo. Lunch brings salads, sandwiches, and several vegetarian and vegan options (the meat is hormone free, and they'll substitute tofu for meat in many dishes). Desserts change regularly but they're always good. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Fonda del MaR3749 W. Fullerton | 773-489-3748

F 7.7 | S 7.3 | A 7 | $$$ (6 reports)Mexican, Seafood | Dinner: seven days | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

To kick things off at this restaurant from veterans of Topolobampo and Mia Francesca, tacos estilo Ensenada (fish tacos) are tasty, with a clump of whitefish dressed with avocado and cabbage, and the shrimp ceviche is a knockout. Soups are spiced with a light hand: caldo siete mares ("seven seas soup") is a chile-kissed tomato broth with just a few select slices of seafood; chileatole del mar brims with seafood, peppers, and corn in a tomatillo-based broth seasoned with epazote. Whole tilapia gets the mojo de ajo treatment; lamb chops in a mole negro were expertly grilled. Of special note on my last visit was a roasted pork loin served in a fruity mole manchamanteles. For our salad we shared a small plate of julienned jicama and cucumber accented with orange segments and drizzled with hot sauce and a light vinaigrette. Out back is a patio charmingly decorated with a flower-filled half a boat. —David Hammond

La Isla Cafe2509 W. North | 773-278-4433

$Latin American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO | Vegetarian friendly

Lunchtime is elbow to elbow at La Isla Cafe, with many locals getting down with the usual lineup of la cocina Boricua, mostly starches fried to varying shades of brown, with some pork and fish, many sides of yams and rice, and not a green vegetable in sight. Mofongo, a traditional dish of mashed plantains, contained nuggets of amazingly hard pork, making the dish somewhat hazardous to your dental health, and though it looked beautiful, with streaks of golden fat and lush meat, carne frita, fried bacon, was so rubbery it defied mastication. Bacalao, that Puerto Rican staple, is here available in a fried disk—a bacalaito—made of fish chunks embedded in a fritter. The lechon, roast suckling pig, was somewhat tougher than expected given how tender this meat usually is; chicken, however, was nicely done, flavorful and moist if free of seasoning. La Isla offers nothing out of the ordinary in terms of Puerto Rican chow, but it seems that's just what patrons are looking for, and the servers are very friendly, which goes a long way. The restaurant is clean and hospitable and features the only men's room I know of that requires you to be buzzed in. —David Hammond

Latin American Restaurant and Lounge2743 W. Division | 773-235-7290

$Latin American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Vegetarian friendly

The Cruz family has been serving homey Puerto Rican food in Humboldt Park since 1958. Meals are heavy and meaty, bolstered by fried starchy sides like plaintains, potato rellenos, and cassava. The real achievement among all of it is the lechon, marinated roast pork, which comes torn in fat chunks with prized bits of crispy skin. Morcillas, spicy, ricey blood sausages, can be ordered by the pound, and you can drown in waves of stews, soups, and a couple dozen seafood dishes. —Mike Sula

Maiz1041 N. California | 773-276-3149

$Mexican | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday| Closed Monday | Cash only | Vegetarian friendly

This lovely storefront in Humboldt Park is the third location of Carlos Reyna's restaurant since the original opened in 1998. This time around Maiz has a liquor license and a friendly bartender who'll mix you as many giant margaritas as you can handle. In fact, everything about Maiz feels personal—Reyna takes orders, whole families seem relaxed (two toddlers played in bicycle helmets when we were there), and the food is all freshly homemade. The antojitos (snacks) are served in moderate portions, at least compared with the local trend of burritos too big to bite into. The guacamole arrives in a dish with legs and a face, accompanied by crunchy chips, and there are lots of different queso fundidos to try. Tacos, tortas, huaraches, and fajitas can be ordered with red meat, chicken, fish, or vegetables (including cactus); extras include poblano peppers, avocado, and cheese. The tortillas have the delicate flavor of something prepared carefully, one at a time. This care was evident in all aspects of the meal, and while service definitely wasn't slow, there was also no hurry, and the front windows provided a nice view of the sunset. —Katherine Young

La Palma1340 N. Homan | 773-862-0886

$Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Vegetarian friendly

Going to La Palma is like enrolling in Puerto Rican Cuisine 101. A representative selection of island specialties is laid out under glass, cafeteria style, so you can sample a little bit of a lot; this place does a big take-out biz, so you also might consider getting grub to go. Whatever entree you elect to eat, a good foundation is vianda, a mix of root vegetables including yucca and purplish malanga. Or go with arroz con gandules, pigeon peas and rice, the standard starch foundation for rich, well-seasoned Puerto Rican stews. Bacalao, the toothsome whitefish paste (here made of pollack) is remarkable whether ordered in tomato sauce or oil. Out of the fryer come corn fritters, pasteles (fried empanadas), and papas rellenos (meat-stuffed potato balls). Pork chops and carnitas were passable, but over these I'd recommend a few thick cubes of carne frita (fried bacon—moist and meaty pork that is megacaloric and high cholesterol, and thus quite delicious. —David Hammond

Papa's Cache Sabroso2517 W. Division | 773-862-8313

$Latin American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Reservations accepted for large groups only | BYO | Vegetarian friendly

Marinated overnight, spun to moist, crisp-skinned goodness on an open-flame carousel, and aggressively spiced, Papa's rotisserie chicken has as much in common with grocery-store offerings as a convent with a strip club. The starchy simplicity of sides, coupled with a nice hit of garlic, makes for a difficult choice among fried tostones, boiled yuca with onion, and arroz con gandules; sauteed sweet plantains are also a favorite. Papa's makes a terrific jibarito, crisp pounded plantains sandwiching griddled steak, cheese, onions, topped with garlicky mayo. Steak or chicken tacos, the chicken particularly good, and chicken salad round out the menu, though on weekends Papa's also offers two shrimp dishes and excellent Puerto Rican-style roast pork. Be sure to ask for the mildly spicy green salsa. —Gary Wiviott

Restaurant Ecuador2923 W. Diversey | 773-342-7870

$Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days

Luis Valero, the loquacious owner of Restaurant Ecuador, is quick to inform customers that his food derives from Ecuador's coastal cuisine, which means more seafood and less meat, more plantain and less potato than you'd expect from a place owned by folks from the more mountainous eastern side of the country (read: El Condor). We kicked off our visit with a ceviche of black clam, a chewy bivalve in its own rich black liquor, with shrimp and toasted corn. Many of the appetizers are variations on the theme of cheese-stuffed starch, including queso-filled patties of potato, plantain, and choclo, Ecuadoran corn. Valero recommended the sancocho de pescado, a fish soup in a tasty broth with chunks of plantain and cassava. Seco de chivo, goat stew, had tender chunks of meat in a light tomato sauce alongside rice tinted with achiote and sprinkled with crisp sweet plantain, well matched with a flavorful, relatively mild salsa. A traditional dish, llapingacho, is a pair of potato pancakes, crisp on the outside and creamy inside, dressed with two fried eggs and salty Ecuadoran chorizo and splashed with peanut sauce—crazy good. For dessert there are figs and cheese as well as morocho, hominy cooked in cinnamon and milk. —David Hammond

Restaurant y Pozoleria San Juan1523 N. Pulaski | 773-276-5825

$Mexican, Latin American | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday 24 hours, other nights till 1 | Reservations not accepted | BYO

At Restaurant y Pozoleria San Juan in Humboldt Park, one of the few remaining posole places in Chicago, the hominy soup ($7.75 for a large bowl) is available in the three colors of the Mexican flag: red, the sort seasoned with guajillo chiles and typical of Jalisco, and the green and white varieties more typical of the neighboring state of Guerrero. (If you want pig foot in your bowl you have to ask for it specifically.) Pedro Aguilar, the owner and sometime cook, serves the hearty dish with baskets of crispy chicharrones. Apart from the namesake dish, there's classic Mexican from breakfast (huevos rancheros) to dinner (carne asada). —David Hammond

El Rinconcito Cubano3238 W. Fullerton, 773-489-4440

$$Cuban | Lunch, dinner: seven days

At this textbook neighborhood cafe, folks walking in seem to know those working the counter; customers just about walk into the kitchen, and staff sit at tables to chat. The food is simple, satisfying, and well prepared. An excellent Cuban custom is to begin with warm bread prespread with butter. Ham croquetas, splayed in a pool of thick yellow mayo, are wonderfully simple, with a crisp outer shell. Yuca comes as a fluffy mound splashed with pure white garlic sauce, and the delicate bacalao, salt cod, is outstanding in a light tomato sauce. The Cuban specialty ropa vieja is understandably very popular, but our favorite was a steak preparation called vaca frita (literally, "fried cow"), a tangle of crisp beef hash and onions complemented by the moist sweetness of ripe platanos. —David Hammond

Tipsycake1043 N. California | 773-384-4418

$Bakery | thursday-saturday 11 AM-5 PM, sunday noon-3 PM | Closed Monday-wednesday | Vegetarian friendly

Sydney native Naomi Stepanek is something of an ambassador for Aussie and English treats in her Humboldt Park hood, offering lamingtons (jam-filled rectangles of sponge cake soaked in chocolate and dredged in dried coconut), pavlova, "banoffi" pies and cakes, and tipsycake, a traditional English dessert of sponge cake soaked in bourbon or brandy with pastry cream and preserves. Scones are another specialty—wonderfully craggy mounds that are buttery rich and barely sweet, with a perfect crumbly texture. Tipsycake also offers Caffe Umbria coffe, Mighty Leaf teas, and a daily selection of fresh pastries. What you won't find is a display case of layer cakes and pies to go: each one is made to order and typically takes a day to turn around. —Susannah J. Felts

Treat1616 N. Kedzie | 773-772-1201

$$Global/Fusion/Eclectic | Lunch, dinner: Sunday- Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Saturday & Sunday brunch | Closed Tuesday | BYO | Vegetarian friendly

Formerly Mama Kitty's, this cozy and cheery Humboldt Park restaurant has quickly become a destination for affordable, creative cooking. Under chef Tamiz Haiderali, the menu's an eclectic mix—some tweaked American basics, a few veggie and vegan options, and a handful of classic Indian dishes. The last may be the weak link in an otherwise solid kitchen: chicken tikka masala was nicely spiced but kind of dry and a special of sag paneer was unbalanced, served with a heaping portion of rice and heavy on the cheese. But an entree of pan-seared salmon was perfectly cooked, just a skosh on the far side of rare; served with wilted spinach, sweet teardrop tomatoes, a yogurt-mint sauce, and herb oil, the whole plate was as clean and refreshing. A roasted wild mushroom appetizer was a crisp, tidy phyllo packet of 'shrooms and chevre on a bed of arugula and oven-roasted tomatoes dressed with a balsamic reduction; fennel gratin, another appetizer, wedded mild slices of fennel to a surprisingly complex, satisfying cream sauce. The soup of the day—watercress vichyssoise—cracked me up, its crouton raft with a leafy watercress sail floating on the deep bowl of ultrasmooth, mild puree. —Martha Bayne

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