A U.S. extension of its original form as a neighborhood eatery in Bainoa, Cuba, in the 1950s, Café Laguardia—featured on the Food Network’s Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels and in the Chicago Sun-Times—is still known for its authentic Cuban cuisine. The menu is populated with vegetarian and meat-filled tastes, with many manifestations packed with succulent pork or shredded beef and flanked by mounds of moist rice. Hands-on eaters can grab onto a Cuban sandwich, which the Sun-Times calls "about as authentic as you will get this side of Tampa."
Though they can make such café staples as cappuccinos and chai lattes, Cafecito’s baristas specialize in Cuban coffee—classics such as the café con leche, cortadito, and their signature Cuban espresso, whose murky blackness is cut with a teaspoon of sugar. Those earthy aromas complement those of the eatery’s gourmet pressed sandwiches, which incorporate all-natural ingredients and the same recipes followed in generations of Cuban kitchens. Rather than just stick to tradition, however, owner Philip Ghantous and his culinary team also put their own spin on the form, creating sandwiches stuffed with Carribbean-inspired jerk chicken or unusual combinations of sweet plantains, guava, and peanut butter. Each meat they use is marinated in a tangy homemade mojo before being doused in signature sauces such as habanero-lime mayo or their famous chimichurri. The garlicky topping requires a full week for its flavors to integrate, according to the Chicago Reader, which heralded Cafecito as one of 2008’s best new restaurants. Acclaim has remained strong since then—The Huffington Post and Time Out Chicago included the restaurant on their lists of best Cuban sandwiches in Chicago, the latter in its #1 spot.
In 1980, the Gonzalez family boarded a shrimp boat in Cuba's Mariel Harbor. They sailed through turbulent waves and wind, finally docking in Key West. The family began working toward their American dream, and eventually gained the resources to open 90 Miles Cuban Café in Chicago. Named for the distance of their initial journey, the café reprises recipes from the Gonzalez's homeland. Pressed Cuban sandwiches, garlic-laced or sweet plantains, and empanadas filled with ingredients such as chorizo and goat cheese rank among the restaurant's specialties. Heartier dishes, such as vaca frita (braised beef with grilled onions) tenderize for hours on low heat. Another slow-cooked dish, puerco rostizado (pork sweetened with guava and prunes) lit up Guy Fieri's taste buds during a segment on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Unlike most Cuban restaurants, this one also offers vegetarian items such as soy beef empanadas and Cuban sandwiches with tofu. Patrons can visit the eatery at two BYOB locations—one in Roscoe village, and the other, with a heated outdoor patio, in Logan Square.
Habana Libre's servers teem with a joy, imbuing the dining room with a festive ambiance. Wearing white t-shirts and Cuban-style fedoras, they circulate from table to table, bearing smiles and trays of island mainstays: guava and cheese empanadas, garlic-spiced red snapper, and shrimp-stuffed tostones, among others. Adhering to tradition, they prepare their Cuban sandwich by nestling smoked ham, sweet ham, roasted pork, swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles within toasted bread. Chicago Magazine distinguishes the papas rellenas (fried potato and ground beef balls with mango sauce) as a "showstopper," and notes that the cuban coffee is "so strong you can stand a spoon in it."
At Amada's Cafe, a sprawling menu of authentic Mexican and Cuban dishes keeps palates satisfied into the late hours. Tacos arrive inside corn or flour tortillas carrying flavorful bounties of carne asada, chorizo, chili rellenos, or pirate gold. Guests can pair seafood dishes such as breaded shrimp or whole red snapper grilled in butter and garlic with refreshing glasses of horchata. The slate of Cuban dishes ranges from classic cuban sandwiches topped with roasted pork, ham, and pickles to ropa vieja, tender pieces of shredded beef bathed in a Cuban-style tomato sauce.
As the bistro's earthy yellow brick walls and ocean-hued drapery draw diners in, the surprising blend of old San Juan dishes and urban culinary artistry evokes the spirit of Puerto Rico. Amid modern art and cherry-stained tables, the crowd lends a lulling backdrop to romantic dinners or shrimp-juggling competitions. Seafood options such as red snapper dressed in creole sauce abound, befitting the menu's tropical origins. A turf-side delight, the pork loin basks on a seaside of papaya-rum reduction in the lomo de cerdo. The kitchen's creativity is matched by the bar's reservoir of house cocktails, such as the Cocotini made with vodka, rum, and coconut shavings, or the Lemongrass's blend of apple juice, fresh lime, and vodka. A live salsa band plays every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, complementing the restaurant's imaginative atmosphere.