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Saga Of A Sandwich:
'I Can Do That,' Thought Juan C. Figueroa When He Read About A Sandwich Built On Fried Plantains, Not Bread. That's how Chicago Became Home To A Puerto Rican Delicacy You Probably Won't Find On The Island
By Monica Eng, Tribune staff reporter
June 18, 2003
For most Puerto Ricans, the word jibaro is an affectionate/insulting term for a rural person on the island.
But not in the Midwest.
Here, the words jibaro (HEE-bar-oh) and its diminutive, jibarito, conjure up a culinary masterpiece that when done properly first hits your nose with its fragrant smear of garlic oil wafting off hot, crisp, fried plantains. These eclair-size plantain planks taste like a nuttier, denser version of french fries, holding between them a hot, juicy piece of steak, slices of cold tomatoes, fresh, crisp lettuce and creamy mayonnaise.
Some swear that sweet grilled onions and melted slices of processed cheese are also essential, but there is no universal agreement. Still, what will ideally emerge is a complete meal that combines hot and cold, chewy and crispy, creamy and garlicky all in one delicious, messy bite.
There is really nothing else quite like it, and it's a Midwestern delicacy: a Chicago sandwich, albeit with island roots.
Chicagoans are fortunate enough to have the best jibaro sandwich supply in the world at their fingertips, thanks largely to Juan C. Figueroa, the wiry owner of Humboldt Park's Borinquen Restaurant, 1720 N. California Ave. Struggling to keep his business alive seven years ago, Figueroa stumbled upon plantain gold.
"Each morning I would get in, cook the food and then sit reading the Puerto Rican newspaper `El Vocero' while I waited for the customers," Figueroa recounts during a chat in one of the three dining rooms off his original takeout counter. "There was this article one day about the sandwich made with plantains instead of bread. It was called the sandwich de platano. So I thought, `I can do that,' and I made one for my father."
For the next month, the elder Figueroa asked for one of those sandwiches every day. Before he left Chicago for Puerto Rico that winter, he advised his son to start feeding it to his customers.
Figueroa followed the advice, dubbing his dad's favorite sandwich the jibaro. Within a few months, the once-quiet counter was cranking out about 100 jibaros a day.
Today, daily demand has jumped to between 500 and 1,000 of the sandwiches, which are now offered with chicken, ham, pork and vegetarian fillings. Figueroa's original one-room, one-man operation has expanded to employ 17 people and include two dining rooms and an airy back patio. Earlier this year, he opened Borinquen II at 3020 N. Central Ave..
"Once we came up with the jibaro, everything kicked in," he says. "Our reputation spread by word of mouth and just kept selling them and selling them until I started getting lines out the door. And at that time, I was there doing everything myself, and so I could hardly handle it."
It didn't take long for Figueroa's competitors to get a whiff of his deep-fried success.
"After about six or seven months, owners of other restaurants would come and camp outside my restaurant just to see what kind of flow we had," he said. "Then they would send people in to buy the sandwiches so they could try and copy them."
Copy they did. Today there are at least 24 Latino restaurants on the North and Northwest side that serve the sandwich, and they are by no means all Puerto Rican joints.
"When so many people started selling them, I didn't know what to do," he remembered. "Finally I said, `OK, you want to mess with me, I am going to give away a portion of rice [with pigeon peas] on the house with it. The customers loved it, but once I did that, I couldn't take it off."
As for the jibaro, Puerto Rican restaurants in the Midwest as far away as Milwaukee and Cleveland are cooking up versions of their own.
The Cleveland restaurant calls itself Rincon Criollo: Home of the famous "Jibarito Sandwich." When asked about this title, Rincon owner Felix Ocasio defends it, but finally admits that he knows the sandwich was invented in Chicago. He guards his particular recipe (which uses Swiss instead of American cheese) so carefully, he doesn't even want to share the cut of beef he uses or how many he sells a day.
"How do I know you are not one of my competitors?" he asks warily. "Why are you really calling?"
Whoa, talk about sandwich sensitivity. And it works both ways.
Angel Figueroa says he told his brother he should have patented the sandwich, but Juan Figueroa maintains if he had, the sandwich would not have gotten the kind of widespread exposure it now enjoys.
Indeed, it would be hard to throw a plantain in Humboldt Park these days without hitting a restaurant that proudly advertises the delicacy in the window. Based on an informal phone survey of local eateries, it looks like Chicagoans are ordering about 1,500 jibaros a day, mostly in Puerto Rican restaurants but also in Cuban and Dominican spots. Even Mexican taquerias have started to pick up on the craze.
"We opened a few months ago and people starting asking for it right away," says Pepe Moran, owners of Taqueria Moran in Logan Square. "And they are not Puerto Ricans. Now the Mexicans have started asking, and they are hooked on it, too. Normally in Mexican food we don't eat many fried plantains, but they like this."
Not prevalent on island
Though Figueroa recalls reading about the sandwich in a Puerto Rican newspaper, the snack is almost impossible to track down on the island, certainly not under the name jibaro. A call to Tables magazine, the official restaurant magazine for the Puerto Rican tourism bureau, turns up the following answer: "There is one place on the far end of the island that serves something like that. But I hear they have a lot of them in Chicago."
The restaurant at the far end of the island (on the West coast in Aguada to be exact) is called Platano Loco -- The Crazy Plantain -- and it, indeed, serves a plantain sandwich. Along with plantain dumpling soup, plantain pizza, plantain parmesan, plantain burgers and spaghetti with a plantain sauce (now that's getting crazy).
Oddly enough, when Figueroa took a stab at opening a jibarito spot in Jajuya, P.R. (actually his father leased a building on an impulse and the son had to honor it), it never took off, "and so after a lot of money, we finally got out of it."
Also, huge Puerto Rican communities on the East Coast and in the South have never been exposed to this treat. It remains a very popular but very regionalized Puerto Rican-Midwestern specialty.
Secret to perfection
When describing the secret to a perfect jibaro sandwich, Figueroa has the following criteria:
"The plantain has to be cooked to perfection. The best way to do it is eat it minutes after it is produced when the plantain is still crisp and hot," he says. "Because it's deep fried, it doesn't travel and reheat well, but I still get big delivery orders to Evanston, Skokie and Niles all the time.
"The other important thing is to use very green plantains."
And so what do you do when some of the plantains get too ripe? Make a jibarita (the feminine version of the word), of course.
This recent delicious hybrid was born when a few female customers starting asking if they could have a jibarito made with ripe plantains.
"You have to eat it with fork and knife," he says. "You only fry it once, then you put it on wax paper and then put it on a nice plate. We sell a lot of them, too."
The jibarita has not yet shown up in other local establishments, but it might just be a matter of time.
Currently, Figueroa is looking at expanding his business to the East and West Coasts and relocating his restaurant to a new building up the street where he will also have a banquet hall.
After Figueroa arrived in the United States in 1976 and ran a string of failed liquor stores and short-lived restaurants, the jibaro came to him like a garlicky gift from above, he says, and turned his livelihood around.
"Starting from zero about 10 years ago, going up to where we are today, feels great," he says. "I want to say it is about my reputation, but I have to say the jibarito helped."
A tasting tour
We had originally intended to do a taste test of all of the jibaro sandwiches in the city until we realized just how many there are. Instead, we created a little jibaro walking tour that allows adventurers to try five variations and get some exercise to boot:
1. Cafe La Guardia: 2111 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-862-5996: This swank Cuban spot serves up a big, greaseless jibarito ($5.25 for a single; $6.50 for a double, meaning extra meat) that is very attractive, with nicely grilled onions, tomatoes and lettuce. Sadly, the sandwich is short on flavor but long on super-tough meat, even though the guy on the phone claims they use rib-eyes. Ask for a little garlic sauce on the side to pep it up.
2. Walk west on Armitage until you get to California. Turn right and head to Taqueria Moran, 2226 N. Californa Ave.; 773-235-2663: Juicy marinated sirloin makes this a terrific jibaro, even if the plantains are a little too ripe and it lacks the garlic smear on it. Comes with Mexican salsa. $3.49.
3. Head south one block to: Cafe y Restaurante de Pancho, 2200 N. California Ave. 773-772-7811: Try a tasty if slightly greasy version of this sandwich with tender meat, plenty of tomato, mayonnaise and garlic. Pancho's fabulous cortadito (a shot of espresso with a squirt of steamed milk and sugar) will keep you going for the rest of the tour.
4. Burn off some of those calories with a five-block walk south to: Borinquen Restaurant, 1720 N. California Ave. 773-227-6038: The most dependable and garlickiest version of the sandwich we've found. Cheese and a perfectly cooked order of yellow rice with pigeon peas come automatically. Our only beef is that they use knuckle steak instead of the juicier rib-eye cut. $4.95
5. Continue south to North Avenue La Parilla, 2808 W. North Ave.; 773-278-0665: A messy affair that gets a little soft as takeout, but it features a delicious, juicy piece of marinated rib-eye, sweet grilled onions and a choice of white or yellow cheese. $4.
Finally, cross the street and take a much-needed jog in Humboldt Park.
-- Monica Eng