So devoted followers of my recent posts (I hear crickets chirping) will note that most of them make some reference to the two Cuban places on north Clark near La Unica which I keep trying to eat at. I successfully had lunch at one a few weeks ago but the second eluded me repeatedly by a clever strategy of not being open on days it claimed to be open. Finally I pinned it down tonight and had dinner there with 4-year-old and 1-year-old, and can offer a proper compare and contrast.
Now, I don't know if these are actually new or if they just got new awnings; all I can say is that I never saw them last spring when I was regularly heading up Clark to the 4-year-old's preschool. Considering that Express Cafe, 5793 N. Clark, has a For Sale sign in the window, either they've been around long enough to be for sale, or they got sick of the restaurant biz really quickly.
Anyway, to start with Express Cafe, they offer a lunchtime buffet of all the usual Cuban suspects-- arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, black beans, plantains-- and that seemed the most reasonable way to try multiple things (albeit possibly not at their best).
They were all okay, but none was good enough to make me want to rush back. The real problem was that they were all kind of bland; I know Cuban tends not to be spicy but these were all grandma-safe. The extra flavor you'd hope for-- the hint of wine in the arroz con pollo as at Cafe Bolero, the porky goodness in the black beans as when I make them-- wasn't there. It was filling and satisfactory, but nothing was memorable.
The other restaurant, at 6221 N. Clark, proclaims Cuban Cuisine on its awning (perhaps inspired by Turkish Cuisine down the street) but according to the menu seems to actually be named Latin American #1. Despite the name, everything seems quite classically Cuban.
A complimentary bowl of soup (ostensibly for the baby, but Dad quickly sucked down half of it) had a nice minestrone-like richness that suggested it had known a big hunk of beef and bone intimately for many hours. Appetizers of a papa relleno and a ham croquette, ordered in the hopes that something would appeal to the 4-year-old, were just okay, but who knows if that stuff is even made on premises in most such restaurants.
My main dish-- chicharron de pollo, chosen because it was a special and because I was close to Dona Lolis' pork chicharron-infused beans-- was simple but deeply satisfying: little chunks of salty and peppery crispy fried chicken, light enough that they didn't feel like the grease bombs they undoubtedly were. A pleasant surprise in conjunction with that was the usual plantains, though few, seemed to have been baked rather than fried, so they were not the expected grease sponges either. The big disappointment, especially after the soup, was that the black beans were quite bland and clearly had had no acquaintance with a pork bone, or anything else besides water.
The 4-year-old still hadn't eaten much except bread, so that gave me an excuse to order a Cuban sandwich. It was actually one of the best parts of the meal, but then I'm no huge fan of these things (I really don't care for the gluey cheese on them at most places, even the beloved Cafeteria Marianao). This seemed, taking Marianao as a standard, to have gotten the bread to ham and cheese proportion/texture right (which my old fave Cafe Bolero, oddly, did not-- I had the driest sandwich of my life there), but to have improved it by Americanizing it to the extent of using a better grade of something like Swiss and putting-- what a concept-- mustard on it. Dad made sure to squirrel the second half of this sandwich away for later.
So: Latin American #1 does not achieve greatness, and the beans are a problem, but several things were quite good and I would happily return to explore some of the other less common things on the menu.