Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Near West Side Story of 'Delicioso' Puerto Rican Food

Cafe Central
Puerto Rican
1437 W Chicago AveChicago

What I ate: Pionono, Roast Pork Jibarito, Yellow Rice with Pigeon Peas, Vanilla Flan

When it comes to the Taste of Chicago, the city's summertime smorgasbord of mass consumption, many avidly avoid it while others can take it or leave it.

I, however, love it, and continue to attend at least once a year even as the fest has shrunk. (Those who may care can see my Taste recaps from 2013 and 2012.)

It's not just that I love to eat, and while I don't mind the crowds--unless suffocatingly large on a crazy hot day--I am not primarily drawn by a sense of civic participation, nor communal partying.

As this blog should attest, and particularly my series on "Sethnic dining excursions"--a.k.a. the Chicago Dining World Tour--I love to explore. Creatively, culturally and, yes, gastronically. And the Taste of Chicago has always enabled me to sample foods and restaurants that are new or rare for me.

I tell you this because I trace my fondness for Puerto Rican food--which I recently enjoyed again at the erstwhile Cafe Central on Chicago Ave.--directly to the Taste.

A few years ago, probably no more than 5, I got one of the best and most unique items I've ever had at the Taste: a jibarito from Sabor Latino.

Though various stuffings are available, and I now know the jibarito is common to  multiple cultures--I had a good one at the Taste of Cuba restaurant early this year--that first "Taste" was of a Puerto Rican steak sandwich on fried green plantains instead of bread. There was also some kind of garlic sauce which made it even more awesome.

So in the intervening years, I've sought out a jibarito multiple times at a Puerto Rican place in Humboldt Park called Borinquen. And I was also taken to Cafe Central once by my friend Paolo. 

But it had been a good while since I had Puerto Rican food; hence a return visit to Cafe Central was quite welcome.

Dating back to 1952, and 1968 at its current location, Cafe Central has about as nondescript an exterior as a restaurant can have. And the interior isn't exactly fancy. But if you're looking for good food at good prices, Cafe Central is rather maravilloso.

For a beverage, I ordered mango juice and--as a big fan of plantains, fried and/or sweet--for an appetizer (just $1.90!) I was intrigued by something called a Pionono = fried sweet plantain fritter stuffed with ground beef.

It was really delicious.

I  easily could've ordered another one and had it suffice for my dinner. But I didn't because I was eager to order a jibarito, which the menu essentially describes as a sandwich served on green plantains with lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise.

Although I imagine Cafe Central's steak jibarito is delicious--it's possible I've had one there--I chose a Roast Pork Jibarito, which is only available Thursday-Sunday.

This too was delicious--it came with cheese mixed in with the pork--as was the yellow rice with pigeon peas I ordered as a side dish.

The menu at Cafe Central goes far beyond jibaritos--a vegetarian version is always available--and other sandwiches.

Selections include omelettes, specialty rice dishes, specialty salads, creoles, mixtas (seemingly rice, beans and meat), seafood and a few "house specialties" (chicken, pork chops, loin & breaded steak), with a number of choices in each category.

Between the pionono, jibarito and rice, I was plenty full and satisfied, but in the name of, um, cultural culinary research, I felt compelled to order dessert.

I am not a huge fan of the consistency of flan, but I ordered a Vanilla Flan and happily consumed it all.

All told, it was a terrifically fulfilling, quite economical meal for which I'm running out of adjectives to look up in Spanish on Google translate.

As with many of the places I've enjoyed my gastro-ethnic expeditions, Cafe Central is a restaurant I certainly wish to return to again.

And if you're interested of tasty Puerto Rican food with little pretense and little expense, as I'll lyrically conclude this (near) west side story... "somewhere there's a place for us."

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