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Restaurants & Bars 3

Eating Elmwood, Part I -- Café Cubano

David Hammond | Feb 11, 200208:18 AM

Within a 12-hour period this last weekend, I ate twice at Café Cubano in Elmwood Park (used to be called Café Bolero, but ownership and name have changed). The reason I ate there twice was that after eating there Saturday night, I woke up several times during the night, and my first thoughts were of the great meal I had a few hours earlier.

Saturday dinner. I went with my wife and my twelve-year old daughter. Marching straight down the tapas side of the menu, we had the Stuffed Potato Balls ($3.00) which are very similar to Italian aranchini, but made of spud, very lightweight and stuffed with just a little meat (you can also get stuffed yucca and stuffed plantain, which I’m guessing are constructed along the same plan: a starch, ground to a paste, made into a ball, stuffed with meat, and fried). I’m not usually a major fan of croquettes, but the Croquetas ($3.95) here are filled with a ham puree that had a powerfully good “ham-y” flavor that held up to the thinly fried exterior. These ham tasties were highlighted with a sweet dipping sauce, all of which combined excellently with Platanos Maduros ($3.00), which are mature plantains, fried, ripe-sweet and delicious. Also had a Cuban Tamal ($2.95), which my daughter really liked: basically a flat polenta pocket with a thin strip of mildly seasoned beef stuffing. The standout was the Yuca ($4.00) in a creamy, buttery, garlic-lemon sauce – I’ve had yucca before, but can’t recall it ever being so good – yet so simple. Also had the Skirt Steak ($13.50), which was excellently marinated, very tender, and a great example of how to take a relatively low fat cut of meat and make it tasty without adding a lot of calories. Several tapas and most entrees come with rice, a small bean salad, and a pot of black beans.

Contributing to the atmosphere (at least on Saturday night) was the best restaurant music you’ll find – Cubanismo, Afro-Cuban All-Stars, just what you’d expect, and just what you’d want. Next to us, a young mother used her foot to rock a car-safety-seat-contained baby to the beat. Every table has at least a few people keeping time with their feet or fingers, nodding in sync with the Latin rhythm and enjoying themselves.

Sunday lunch. For lunch, we went the sandwich route. Had three, and a side order of Mariquitas (thinly sliced plantain – $3.50 – probably my favorite way to eat this bananafood). The Cuban Sandwich ($4.50) was good, very simple. Pan Con Lechon ($4.50) had tender chunks of pork, fresh onion – pork had very good flavor. Standout was the Ropa Vieja Sandwich ($4.95) – the “old clothes” name of this dish must refer to the fact that it’s shredded beef (get it!?) in a tomato sauce that keeps the sandwich good and moist. When I go back for lunch, this is the sandwich I will get again.

One thing I noticed again on this lunch run: instead of putting butter on the table with the bread, they serve a little cup of soft whipped butter with garlic and a few tiny oregano slivers– it’s nothing earth-shattering, but it’s one of those little touches that I appreciate. Instead of cold pats, there’s this creamy and flavorful spread, simple but an example of the extra care that the staff works into the dining experience.

Café Cubano has just about everything I look for in a restaurant: food that makes you excited to be eating, reasonable prices, a simple and authentic atmosphere, easy parking – and a very friendly staff (the owner was there again at lunch, and he recognized me and made reference to our meal the night before – not exactly a “rainman-level” memory stunt, but nice).

If it sounds like the menu tends toward the starches, it does – but you can also get shrimp done three or four ways, mussels, a few kinds of salads and three vegetarian entrees. There’s lots more on the menu I want to eat – and will. I saw some fine looking paella float by on Saturday night…

Real mixed crowd: young and middle-aged couples, families, big groups of families and friends. Local Cuban community amply represented at all seatings. No reservations. BYOB (no license yet – which is, of course, a boon to economical dining).

Café Cubano
7426 W. North Avenue
Elmwood Park, IL

Over the next twelve months, I am resolved to seek out as many valid chowhound experiences as possible in Elmwood Park. This is the first in a spontaneous series.

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