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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Latin Accents Heat Up Chicago's Dining Scene
By DENNIS RAY WHEATON
February 15, 2004
PHOTO: Steve Kagan for The New York Times
A HUGE immigrant population of Hispanics from all over Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean thrives in Chicago. Like deep-dish pizza and the blues from other worlds, Latino food and music are part of the city's soul.
Chicago has long been blessed with wonderful Mexican restaurants, from the world-class Topolobampo to countless storefront taquerias. But the growing influence of non-Mexican Latinos is showing up in a new kind of restaurant flourishing beyond the few long-established Cuban and Argentine neighborhood cafes. A couple of these newer places are purists; others mix traditional styles with more global influences.
These favorites of mine are each quite different in atmosphere and clientele. Two are in the center of the city, three in easily reachable and pleasant neighborhoods. If you can understand Mayor Richard M. Daley's version of English, you'll do fine without knowing Spanish or Portuguese at any of these Chicago destinations.
A combination restaurant and lounge, Coobah bounces with a raucous Latin beat, especially at night when a D.J. is on hand. One draw of the hip young crowd is that Jimmy (Tasty J) Madla, chef and co-owner, is a former drummer for the Chicago alternative-rock band Veruca Salt. Coobah's two rooms and their black-painted tables are softly illuminated by large tortoise-shell-shaped copper fixtures. A thin eye-level mirror along the wall above the banquettes allows diners to catch the action behind them.
Reflecting his own heritage, Mr. Madla mixes Latino and Filipino cuisines. My attention is always drawn first to his seafood appetizers. On my most recent visit, the finest was a charred lobster and grouper ceviche that benefited from the light tropical sweetness of mango. Spicy Brazilian-style shrimp piri-piri were scrumptious atop a salad of green papaya, cucumber, peanuts and fresh herbs. Seared scallops on pimentón-infused white been purée with crisp Serrano ham and watercress also satisfy. Arepas, typical Venezuelan and Colombian griddle corn cakes, are delicious topped with queso blanco and served with mashed avocado topped with manzanilla olives.
Many diners fashion a tapas-style meal from the many delectable starters, but the entrees are equally worthwhile. The main course our cheerful young waitress recommended, for good reason, was pork Bicol. Pork tenderloin is stuffed with shrimp, bacon and pineapple and glazed with coconut adobo. Served with spicy mashed yucca, the dish comes from a region in the Philippines known for its peppers and coconuts. My wife, Carol, loved the pork, but I preferred the lamb shank adobo braised in cider and coconut milk, garlic and ginger served with spicy mashed potatoes and sautéed greens. For such a boisterous place, desserts are surprisingly genteel: espresso crema catalana with brandied blueberry peach compote and a caramelized apple lumpia with warm dulce de leche.
On Sunday night mojitos are half priced, Red Stripe beers from Jamaica are $3, and Jesse de la Peña spins Latin funk and a dance hall Afro-beat.
While Coobah is trendy, Rumba is a retro-classic nightclub with a smartly attired Latino clientele coming to dine and dance or take in the show. There is also a contingent of River North professionals dropping by after hitting the gym and tennis courts at the nearby East Bank Club, where Oprah Winfrey sometimes tapes her physical fitness segments.
The owner, Edwin Rios, has outfitted his urbane room with polished wood and granite-topped tables set with Moroccan beaded candle holders and tapered candles. A display of vintage Argentine movie posters includes one with a tuxedoed Jimmy Durante and James Cagney looking ready to step down and tango with the glamorous brunettes in the room. Booths are flanked with illuminated congas, and the view of the central dance floor and the bandstand near the open kitchen is unobstructed everywhere.
Israel Calderon, the chef, knows the rhythms of pan-Latino cuisine. Sancocho, a satisfying Puerto Rican soup with lots of Caribbean root vegetables, shrimp and squid, is beautifully seasoned. Along with first-rate caipirinhas and mojitos, Carol and I always share the ceviche trio of shrimp, bay scallops and whitefish, each made with different seasonings and presented in a partitioned white tray. Arepas are served stacked, layered with savory chicken. Almost a main course, the churrasco salad is an array of thinly sliced sirloin on top of mixed greens, cucumber and jicama sticks with chimichurri sun-dried tomato dressing.
Main courses, listed with a recommended wine by the glass or bottle, also entice. Scampi de langosta offers chunks of lobster sautéed in a rich white-wine sauce with shallots and garlic, accompanied by fried tostones al mojo and julienned vegetables. I approach a dish with the unlikely moniker of beef Provençal à la Latino with a skeptical eye, but whatever its provenance, it is good: a filet mignon crusted with yucca and cilantro served in a savory gravylike roasted garlic sauce with garlicky mashed plantains. Among the enjoyable sweets are a Puerto Rican rum flan and an almond cake topped with chocolate cappuccino mousse with orange sauce and vanilla ice cream.
Live entertainment ranges from Latino pop and jazz bands to Afro-Cuban singers to sensual professional dancers. When the white-tuxedoed members of Julian Lugo's Tropicanos perform, Rumba feels like the Coconut Grove in its heyday. Their sets begin with drummers moving from booth to booth beating the congas as the band strikes up joyful Latin rhythms.
After a full dinner here, we found cups of Caribbean coffee spiked with dark rum and Tia Maria liqueur helped us stay attuned to the show late into the evening.
The Winds Cafe
Just as Chicago's Italians invented deep-dish pizza, Puerto Rican immigrants invented the jibarito (little bumpkin) sandwich. Instead of bread, jibarito sandwiches are made with chewy slabs of fried plantains topped with garlic.
I like the ones cooked on the open griddle next to the bar in the Winds Cafe, a welcoming spot in Logan Square, a few blocks off the Kennedy Expressway connecting O'Hare Airport and downtown. At this combination neighborhood tavern and back-room restaurant with a half-dozen plastic-covered tables, jibaritos are typically filled with thin-sliced steak, but you can also get the sandwiches with jerk or honey-lime chicken or even a vegetarian patty. All come with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions and optional cheese and a side of crispy plantain chips or French fries.
The Winds Cafe is one of those rare spots in Chicago that serve draught Guinness stout and Bass ale at the proper cellar temperature; either is splendid with a jibarito.
La Fonda Latino Grill
Colombian cuisine, which merges influences from the Andes and Pacific Coast as well as the Caribbean, is not as common in Chicago as other Latin American styles. The popularity and quality of La Fonda is changing that. This cozy restaurant north of the Loop on the border of Edgewater and Andersonville is modestly outfitted in the basic Chicago storefront attire of tin ceiling and raw brick with soft earth tones. Families flock here for the fine Colombian cooking of the chef and owner, Herbert Delgado, and knowledgeable service from a small staff headed by his wife, Beatriz.
Carol loves the arepa topped with a pair of jumbo bacon-wrapped shrimp and served with a lively red pepper aïoli. We share the picada sampler of beef empanadas, coarse-textured pork sausage, morcilla and crisp pork rind with green plantain, fried cassava and avocado sauce. We also can't overlook the pincho de res, robust grilled beef kebab with grilled onions and chimichurri sauce.
Everything on the mixed grill of churrasco - beef steak and chicken breast with five garlic shrimp served with black bean and corn salsa and plantains - was cooked just right. Arroz marinero, yellow rice laden with red snapper and shellfish, gains flavor from green olives, onions and sweet peppers. Flan with blackberry sauce is far better than usual storefront custards, as were fresh figs with custard ice cream. The short, inexpensive wine list includes eight Chileans, but I like La Fonda's shakelike juices in exotic flavors such as mora, maracuya and lulo.
Fogo de Chão
Brazilians are giving the big Chicago steakhouses a run for their money with this sleek River North churrascaria. As packed nightly as famous local beef emporiums like Chicago Chop House and Gene & Georgetti, Fogo de Chão ("fire on the ground" in Portuguese) combines an excellent salad bar with a carnivore's jamboree. Men in gaucho attire, many of them trained at sister Fogos in São Paulo, patrol the room brandishing skewers of 15 kinds of meats slowly roasted over open-flame pits. They bring them to your table to carve as fast and as long as the chip in front of you is turned to its green, rather than red, side.
At a set price of $46.50, Fogo de Chão, with its wide variety of delicious and constantly replenished meats, easily competes with the top steakhouses and their $30-plus à la carte prime cuts. But the merely hungry can quickly be overwhelmed. I have to pace myself carefully and keep an eye on which color my chip is showing. And I have to be careful not to overindulge early on in the engaging offerings from the buffet, which is decked out like a tropical forest.
The salad bar is a feast in itself, with fresh mozzarella balls and smoked salmon as well as an array of greens and vegetables - 30 items in all. Every table also groans with family-style platters of polenta, fried bananas and mashed potatoes, as well as rich cheese puffs called pão de queijo, so light and savory I inevitably eat too many.
With a bottle of Argentine malbec on our table and a second helping from the buffet on side plates, we turn the chips from red to green. The onslaught is awesome. The meats are lightly seasoned; the natural flavor of smoky spit-roasting comes through. My favorites are dense and juicy rump steak, top and bottom sirloin, beef ribs, filet mignon wrapped in bacon, leg of lamb and linguiça (robust pork sausages). I am not fond of the dryish pork loin, served plain or with a Parmesan coating; but simply seasoned and succulent pork ribs made me ask why barbecue sauce was invented. When, sated, we turned our chips to red, a solicitous waiter advised that the crema de papaya dessert would help us digest all that meat.
These restaurants take major credit cards and allow smoking in the bar. Coobah, Rumba and the Winds Cafe have late kitchens on weekends.
Coobah, 3423 North Southport Street; (773) 528-2220. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, dinner nightly. Dinner for two is about $95 with wine.
Rumba, 351 West Hubbard Street; (312) 222-0770. Dinner Tuesday to Saturday (live music Wednesday to Saturday). Dinner for two, about $120 with cocktails and after-dinner coffee drinks or a bottle of wine.
The Winds Cafe, 2657 North Kedzie Avenue; (773) 489-7478. Lunch Thursday, Friday and Saturday; dinner Tuesday to Sunday. Jibarito sandwiches are $6.95 to $7.95.
La Fonda Latino Grill, 5350 North Broadway; (773) 271-3935. Lunch and dinner Tuesday to Sunday. Dinner for two, about $75 with wine.
Fogo de Chão, 661 North LaSalle Street; (312) 932-9330. Lunch Monday to Friday, dinner nightly. Prix fixe dinner, $46.50 a person; $19.50, salad bar only; lunch, $28; not including drinks.
DENNIS RAY WHEATON is chief dining critic of Chicago magazine.