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Chicago Area Puerto Rican

Quest for Puerto Rican Part 2: Cafe Central

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Quest for Puerto Rican Part 2: Cafe Central

Mike G | May 19, 2003 03:20 PM

I did the search beforehand and the only mention I could find of Cafe Central, 1437 W. Chicago, was a passing reference to its existence by Jeff B, who hadn't actually eaten there. I kind of think it may have been slammed in that Reader "Puerto Rican Plus" thing, but I can't find it at the moment. Anyway, let's go to the quick verdict:

This should be a famous Chicago place. People should know "Cafe Central." Chowhounds should groan when someone mentions Cafe Central for the millionth time, and say "No, the place that's way better than Cafe Central is..."

The food, based on what I had today, is not the main reason. I'm not saying it wasn't pretty good, but I ordered something kind of unusual and I ought to eat more conventional things before I can judge its position more fairly. But Cafe Central has all the other elements that should make it the Puerto Rican Manny's, the Puerto Rican Lou Mitchell's, the Puerto Rican River Kwai full of latenight hipsters staving off the munchies:

- Established 1950 (the shirts of the staff say so)

- Authentically grimy diner atmosphere complete with 60s-era signage and typography (I don't mean Peter Max 60s, I mean faux Old West/Circus, like Barnum & Bagel)

- Packed at lunchtime with real Chicagoans including cops

- Located in transitioning-to-yuppie hip neighborhood near downtown (it's right across from Flo and the extremely LA-chic storefront of some nightclub which is so hip it doesn't even seem to have a name)

And yet the hipsters seem not to have found it in great numbers yet. Go figure.

Anyway, so after Marta's several weeks back my friend Wyatt said, we gotta go to Cafe Central and have mofongo. What is mofongo, I ask. It's like Puerto Rican polenta, he says, sort of green plantain and corn and stuff mashed into a ball. Very peasanty. Well, as long as it doesn't require being chewed by someone else first, like some South American tribal delicacy I saw on a documentary once, I said.

So I ordered dos chuletas and mofongo. And get two thin pork chops which, though salted and fried into a curl of shoe leather consistency, are surprisingly juicy, and prove much less of a challenge to finish off than I expect at first. And next to them... a ball of what looks like pizza dough, with bits of corn in it. I try not to make unfortunate visual comparisons which would put me off eating, and take a bite. It's starch 'n' garlic, basically. Very much tastes like something peasants would live on. You could grow up loving it, I think. I didn't, so it's probably not something I'd go out of my way to have again. Wyatt says in Puerto Rico you get a little cup of broth which helps make it go down easier, like gravy on mashed potatoes. But it's savory, it's filling. I'm not going to leave this place unsatisfied.

I will go back and try other things soon.

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