Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Restaurants: South of the Border, October 23, 2008

Latin American restaurants

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South of the Border

El Arpa3446 W. Peterson | 773-588-9922

$$Latin American, South American | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | BYO

The sign on the front window of El Arpa advertises food from Bolivia, Peru, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico, but don't expect to get that range of cuisine on any given day. The restaurant seems to be a popular nucleus for rotating Pan-American get-togethers: every Sunday they serve Bolivian food, and on the Saturday we were there it was Peruvian night, which was a wild time, though not actually much of a culinary experience. We had a bland empanada and dry tamale, and though we did enjoy the lomo saltadao, a marinated steak with sweet peppers and french fries stirred into a tasty mess, the aji de gallina, chicken stew with boiled potatoes in a thin tomato sauce, was in no way extraordinary. Still, food aside, you might consider visiting El Arpa for the lively vibe: we very much enjoyed the high-energy performances of musicians who came to eat and then just strolled onstage to perform, much to the immense enjoyment of the crowd who sang along and applauded wildly. El Arpa is BYO, though they seem sometimes to serve alcohol, and you'll want reservations on weekends. —David Hammond

La Cocina Criolla2420 W. Fullerton | 773-235-7377

$$Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only| BYO

More than once a friend and I unwittingly lingered well past closing time in the dark, cozy front booth of this Caribbean and Puerto Rican place, talking over bowls of sweet, eggy flan and bottles of Negro Modelo from the liquor store next door. The owner and her family sat talking and laughing at the next table each time, never shooing us out. Meals start with free bowls of thick, tomato-y noodle soup, and the pace is slow and friendly. My companion's dish was often a simple, well-cooked skirt steak; mine was the complicated cabrito en fricasse, a bony, tangy dish of soft baby goat in a white wine stew studded with big pieces of green olive, onion, and raisins. It's great mixed over arroz con gandules, mild yellow rice with pigeon peas. Like many Caribbean dishes, carne guisada, a beef stew, is based on a sofrito: sauteed peppers, garlic, and onion. Appetizers are heavy on the starch and light on meat; mofongos, big balls of fried mashed green plaintain around a pocket of oily garlic and pork, need the garlicky dipping sauce they come with. Steaming, spicy empanadas, rellenos de papa—crisp potato-and-meat pastries—and tostones, thick, salty disks of fried plantain, are also meant to be dipped. I've never tried the jibarito—it's supposed to rival the one at Borinquen, the beef-and-plantain sandwich's supposed inventor—but I hear it's good enough to merit a return visit. —Tasneem Paghdiwala

Galapagos Cafe3213 W. Irving Park | 773-754-8265

$$$Japanese, Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30 | BYO

For a long time I didn't have the heart to file a report on this odd, dark, and claustrophobic little Ecuadoran-Japanese hybrid. It had the stink of death about it in its first perpetually empty couple of months, and I saw no reason to piss in the karmic waters about a place I was sure wouldn't be around much longer. There was a handful of interesting things on the menu, but the restaurant's ability to get them out of the kitchen even when the place was empty—which it always was—was seriously handicapped. But now business has picked up even if the otherwise friendly and earnest service hasn't. Meals start promisingly with a basket of hot fried plantain chips and a small ramekin of smooth orange salsa made from the tamarillo, or tomate de arbol, a tree fruit common in Ecuador but rarely found here. If you're ordering from the Japanese side of the menu it's strange to follow this with a bowl of miso soup, but that's what happens prior to the arrival of the saucy sculpted maki of chef Albaro Perez, formerly of the late Pacific Cafe. More interesting is the Ecuadoran selection dominated by soups—including one with steak-stuffed plantains—and platillos of grilled and fried meats and fish with mounds of starchy sides, such as the bandera (combo) of stewed goat and guatita, a tripe, potato, and peanut-sauce stew that's probably better in the dead of the winter, or pescado encocado, a surprisingly good tilapia fillet in a mild coconut sauce reminiscent of an Indian curry. Tuna and chicken tamales and the little cheesy little potato pancakes llapingachos, among others, lead things off, along with a handful of ceviches, bringing the cold fish connection full circle. —Mike Sula

La Fonda Latino Grill5350 N. Broadway | 773-271-3935

F 8.1 | S 7.8 | A 8.0 | $$ (10 reports)South American, Latin American | Lunch, dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

rrr The bulk of the dishes at this Edgewater eatery are Colombian—including starters like the wonderfully crisp spinach-and-mushroom empanadas, delicate arepas (white corn cakes) topped with mushrooms and cheese, and morcilla (blood pudding) with guajillo chile sauce—but Mexican and Cuban influences show up, as in the sopa de frijol negro (black bean soup, topped with raw onions and cilantro). Entrees like lengua en salsa roja (beef tongue simmered in a creamy tomato sauce with green peas) and arroz con camarones (yellow rice with shrimp, peas, onions, and peppers) are so generously portioned they'd be best shared, perhaps with soup or an order of churrasco (grilled loin of beef served with chimichurri sauce and sweet plantains). To drink there are margaritas, mojitos, sangria, and a concise but well-selected list of inexpensive wines, with glass prices ranging from $6 to $8. The servers are genuinely helpful and gracious. A lunch buffet Tuesday through Friday offers a limited sampling of the dinner menu for $8.95. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Latin Sandwich Cafe4009 N. Elston | 773-478-0175

$Latin American, South American, Cuban | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Billed as the "House of Empanadas," the Latin Sandwich Cafe offers Puerto Rican and Mexican selections, but if you've got a hankering for Chilean chow, this is the place to go. Authentic Chilean empanadas are made here of pino, a savory blend of ground beef, raisins, chopped egg, and olives, all baked in a wheat-flour shell. Baking is big here, and rolls made fresh on the premises are used for the sandwiches, including the chacarero, a Chilean specialty featuring tender steak, tomato, and green beans. Humitas are Chile's version of tamales; "blind" (no filling, just sweet cornmeal), they benefit from a little salsa. The dish that captured my heart (and most of my stomach) was pastel de choclo, a baked bowl of masa with ground beef, onion, olives, egg, and a chicken leg: the cornmeal was caramelized and crisp around the edges, while in the center the casserole had the consistency of corn pudding. Pastel mil hojas, a cake of a "thousand layers" and dulce de leche, is so good you forgive the hyperbole. Reservations are accepted Fridays and Saturdays only. —David Hammond

Maya del Sol144 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park | 708-358-9800

$$Mexican, Latin American | Dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

In the beginning there was Bayless, who did beget . . . well, it's a long story, the most recent chapter of which is being written at Oak Park's Maya del Sol, where Frontera alum Ruben Beltran serves pan-Latin offerings in a space balancing a laid-back low-lit dining room and a more extroverted bar space festooned with flat-screen TVs. Like his mentor, Beltran employs fresh, high-quality ingredients in dishes finely shaded with south-of the-border spicing. Flavors in a tuna ceviche, one of three, popped cleanly and were satisfyingly simple. Our salmon was moist, almost sashimi-like at the center, and seasoned with restraint to let its naturally beautiful taste come to the surface. Nachos are quirkily but successfully crowned with pot roast braised in honey and cider vinegar. Moist and savory, cochinita pibil, the Yucatecan dish of achiote-marinated pork, is perked up by the traditional accompaniments: red pickled onion, house-made habanero salsa, and handmade tortillas. Mojitos, caipirinhas, and pisco sours are, like the food, well-balanced and pleasingly proportioned. Live music Fridays and Saturdays. —David Hammond

Mitad del Mundo2922 W. Irving Park | 773-866-9454

$$Latin American, Cuban | Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Open late: Saturday till 3, Friday till 2 | Cash only

Mitad del Mundo's menu blends cuisines from Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. Many of its specialties are seafood based: there's a sopa and coctel de camarones, an enormous seafood combo for two, and paella Valenciana (the traditional Spanish dish takes more than an hour to prepare). But there's also a whole section of the menu devoted to steak preparations such as churrasco and carne asada. Lechon asado, baby roast pork, is another classic, tender and tasty, or try masas de puerco frito, chunks of fried pork loin. Appetizers include tostones, yuca con mojo, and empanadas. Owner Jimmy Espinoza is a frequent, cheerful presence in the dining room. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Nacional 27325 W. Huron | 312-664-2727

F 9.1 | S 7.8 | A 8.8 | $$$ (8 reports)Latin American, Caribbean | Dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday

rrr Lettuce Entertain You fuses the cuisines of 27 Latin American and Caribbean nations. Chef Francisco Bilchez uses ingredients like chorizo, yuca, and chipotles in creative and visually appealing ways. There are a variety of ceviches to start with, plus "Latin tapas" such as a lamb taco, a beef pupusa, a pumpkin-goat cheese croqueta, the last a "must-try," according to one Rater. Entrees range from steaks and seafood to a "tasting" of caramelized Latin vegetables served with arroz verde and roasted pumpkin. Sides include coconut rice and truffled plantains; drinks run the gamut from Brazilian caipirinhas to Cuban mojitos to Peruvian pisco sours, all of which pack a punch. Staff are knowledgeable and aim to please, but if you want to eat in peace, best finish before 11 PM on weekends, when the center of the room is transformed into a pulsing dance floor with a DJ spinning merengue and salsa. —Laura Levy Shatkin

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

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

La Peña4212 N. Milwaukee | 773-545-7022

$$Latin American | Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday

Jaime Fidel Castillo mans the front of the house at this Portage Park storefront, while his wife, Maria, and her mother, Rosa Sanchez, cook the coastal Latin fare. A complimentary plate of 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 ceviches, 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. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Pollo Campero2730 N. Narragansett | 773-622-6657

$Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations not accepted

For the past 30 years Pollo Campero has been hatching franchises all over Latin America, serving food that has proved to be immensely popular, though it's not quite clear to me why. The chicken is marinated, lightly breaded, and slightly spiced with a blend that seems to contain cinnamon and pepper (the exact recipe, predictably, is a closely held secret); it's also fried somewhat darker though less greasily than chicken at Brown's or KFC—OK, but far from groundbreaking. There's a decent lineup of red, green, and chipotle salsas, none very spicy but probably better than what you'd expect if these condiments had emerged from Burger King. Some side dishes are fine—I had the tostones, crisp and tasty with the salsas—and if you eat inside, a server brings your food on a hard plate with silverware, a welcome gesture of civility. And the drinks are more interesting than at most stateside franchises: you can get horchata, tamarindo (from the sweet-sour tamarind), and maranon, made from the fruit of the cashew, a sweet, pale yellow liquid. —David Hammond

Pupuseria Las Delicias3300 W. Montrose | 773-267-5346

$Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | BYO

Simple, nutritious, and filling, pupusas—tortillas stuffed with a variety of fillings and slapped on the griddle—are so beloved in El Salvador that they're honored every year with a holiday, Dia Nacional de la Pupusa. Las Delicias owner Hugo Gutierrez Jr. grew up in a family that traded in the thick masa cakes, and almost a decade ago started up a restaurant devoted to pupusas and Guatemalan cuisine. This summer, when a larger space opened up in Albany Park, he seized on the opportunity, opening the new place in September. The focus is still on pupusas, with an array of fillings beyond the usual—chicharron, chorizo, chile and cheese, ham and cheese, fish, chicken, shrimp, zucchini, the herb chipilin, the loroco flower blossom. There's still Guatemalan food as well: tamales; their smaller cousins, chuchitos; taquitos; and dobladas, tortillas filled with meat and vegetables, folded, and fried. But Gutierrez has also expanded, adding fruit drinks, chicken soup, and atole de platano, a thick, sweet drink made from plantains. On Fridays there's a special of chow mein, which is popular in Guatemala. And he's added the option of pupusas made with rice flour, which gives them a chewier texture and a milder flavor that puts the focus on what's inside. The supersize pupusa loca—a seven-incher stuffed with the customer's choice of five fillings—goes for five bucks; all other pupusas run between $1.75 and $2.50. —Mike Sula

Rosa de Lima2013-15 N. Western | 773-342-4557

$$South American, Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11

Peru gave the world potatoes, so you'd expect the country's signature tuber to be presented here with aplomb, and so it is: causa de camarones is a layered tower of grainy mashed yellow spuds alternating with shrimp salad, a study in subtle flavors and textures; papas a la Huancaina is a mound of potato disks drenched in creamy Peruvian cheese, dappled with olives and parsley in a rich, delicious mess. We eagerly slurped down parihuela, a savory bowl of steamed sea creatures in a complex broth of tomato, onion, and panca-red pepper cream. Belly-worthy chicken is marinated, roasted, and rendered even more delicious with seriously perky onion and tomato salsa. Peruvian beverages are made with care and fresh juices; the passion fruit sour—creamy and cool with egg white and ice—is a winning sip. The dessert combo of pisco-spiked rice pudding with mazzamora, purple corn cooked with sweet potato and fruit, looks and tastes really good. Rosa de Lima has an adventurous, reasonably priced menu worthy of exploration and featuring regional exotica like pumpkin puree with milk and butter and veal hearts skewered with (what else?) potatoes. —David Hammond

Rumba351 W. Hubbard | 312-222-1226

$$$Latin American, Global/Fusion/Eclectic, Bar/Lounge | Dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | Open late: Saturday till 3, Thursday & Friday till 2, Tuesday & Wednesday till 11

The high-end decor—jewel-studded glass light fixtures, quilted red velvet chairs—sets the stage for an elaborate and pricey menu that looks better than it tastes. Liberties are taken with classic dishes like arepas (corn cakes), here stuffed with a salty meat stew rather than cheese. Tostones (mashed plantain cakes) are formed into a cup, deep-fried past the point of preserving the starch's subtle flavor, then filled with a nondescript shrimp mixture. Ceviche comes in a trio: a shrimp version with diced green tomato, a scallop variety in orange essence, and a Peruvian-style whitefish in the traditional lime marinade. An entree called el pascador combined rice with chorizo, shrimp, mussels, scallops, and lobster. The highlight here is the wine list, which includes what may be the most extensive selection of South American vintages in town, along with several Argentine and Chilean bottles, most under $40. Service is courteous and accommodating, and a raised stage near the entrance features live jazz and mambo. —Laura Levy Shatkin

SushiSamba Rio504 N. Wells | 312-595-2300

F 7.9 | S 6.7 | A 8.4 | $$$$ (11 reports)Latin American, Asian, Japanese | Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days | Sunday brunch | Open late: Saturday till 2, Wednesday-Friday till 1, Tuesday till midnight, Sunday-Monday till 11

This branch of a chain with locations in New York and Miami serves a dizzying combination of Japanese, Brazilian, and Peruvian food—the 20-seat sushi bar alone is a whirlwind of activity. Three of the nine menu categories are devoted solely to raw fish—not just sushi but also ceviche and oysters—while the rest of the offerings are South American (mushroom-and-cheese empanadas) or Asian-influenced South American (miso-marinated Chilean sea bass). The cuisine reflects what's typically available in big cities in Brazil and Peru, where thanks to turn-of-the-century Japanese immigration it's as easy to find edamame as churrasco, the traditional Brazilian barbecue platter. The wine list includes several little-known varietals like Spanish Xarello and Italian Arneis; there are also dozens of sakes, plus martinis, mojitos, and caipirinhas. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Taste of Peru6545 N. Clark | 773-381-4540

F 8.1 | S 8.0 | A 5.7 | $ (7 reports)South American, Latin American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11| BYO

rrr My first visit to this Peruvian strip-mall storefront was enjoyable—and has set my expectations high for future trips. Of special note: it's BYO, ambience is spartan, service is sloooow, portions are huuuuge, and the neighborhood dinner rush seems to peak at 6 PM on Saturday. That said, the food is pleasant and a tremendous bargain—be prepared to take leftovers with you. We especially enjoyed the pollo en salsa de mani (chicken with Peruvian peanut sauce), the shrimp picante (served in a creamy, savory sauce), and the mixed ceviche. There was a superb jalapeño-chile-onion dipping sauce served with simple, tasty bread. Be sure to try an Inca Kola soft drink! There's a grocery store a few doors south on Clark that has a decent selection of wine and beer. On weekends the restaurant features live music. —Patrick Brown, Rater

Texas de Brazil51 E. Ohio | 312-670-1006

$$$$$Latin American, Steaks/Lobster | Dinner: seven days

Everything's larger than life at the Chicago outpost of this national chain of churrascarias, from the ten-foot-tall mirrors on nearly all the walls to the gargantuan plants to the three-story wine storage area, which boasts Chicago's first "wine angels," girls who retrieve bottles of wine while doing flips in the air, suspended by cables. The theme of excess carries over into the food as well: the salad bar alone offers several types of cheese, salami, prosciutto, marinated mushrooms, peppadews, seared tuna, smoked salmon, and my two favorites, strips of thick-cut, crispy bacon and a mammoth bowl of roasted garlic cloves. There's also a table with hot dishes like rice and beans, potatoes au gratin, and fish, a soup of the day (we had an overly salty lobster bisque), and a sushi bar, which we didn't brave after trying the entirely tasteless seared tuna. Meat is served in traditional churrascaria style by servers who walk around with giant skewers of it, hot off the grill, and carve it directly onto your plate; it's served with garlic mashed potatoes and fried bananas. The tableside service ensured that the meat arrived hot, but ours varied wildly in quality, some so salty it was almost inedible. A couple things, like the sausage and filet mignon, were outstanding; most of it was pretty good but unmemorable, and there was one grainy, dry piece of lamb that's been haunting my nightmares ever since. And the wine angel? We couldn't really see her from our table, but I checked on her at the end of the evening; she was hanging from her harness looking bored, reminding me more of a baby in a bouncer than an acrobat. —Julia Thiel

Tickie's Belizean Cuisine7605 N. Paulina | 773-973-3919

$Latin American, Caribbean | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days

Cheery turquoise tables and walls brighten this tiny place across from the Howard el station, and the menu melds Caribbean and Latin flavors. Offerings include dukunuisas, tamales made with fresh corn instead of corn flour, filled with pork and steamed in foil; panades, tiny fish-filled crescent-shaped pastries accompanied by a spicy habanero sauce and shredded cabbage; and soups full of ingredients like cow's feet, tripe, or conch. Stewed chicken, beef, and oxtail are the main entrees here, along with several whole deep-fried fish served with tomatoes and onions. Desserts—hot cross buns, lemon pie, and ginger pie, to name a few—are all homemade. —Laura Levy Shatkin

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