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."
Havana serves up Cuban-American cuisine and fresh mojitos in a setting replete with all the charm of an Old World bistro. The menu combines the distinctly Cuban with pan-Latin flavors for a taste exploration that uproots taste-buds and sends them careening on a pinball-style joy ride. Start off with a pitcher of the house mojito, swirled with fresh mint, lime, and sugar in Bacardi Limon rum ($31, or $8 for a glass), and a couple orders of citrusy, seafood-infused ceviche ($9.95). Save room, though, because entrees such as the apricot-chipotle pork chops, marinated with apricot chipotle sauce and served with jalapeno hash browns and steamed broccoli ($18.95), demand serious abdominal real estate. The vegetarian chiles en nogada fools meat-thirsty mandibles with the toothsome texture of two poblano peppers stuffed with mushrooms, peppers, onions, and cheese ($14.95). With a couple more mojitos, caipirinhas, and margaritas, plus an order of Cuban coconut-rum flan ($4.95), gracious guests will be primed for a twilight Clark Street trot on a chestnut mare.
Laguardia's Cuban Bistro features warm hospitality and a bright, funky interior paired with a menu of savory flavor combinations. Fine-tune your hand-mouth coordination with the bistro's wildly popular Cuban sandwich, a concoction of seasoned pork and ham pressed with swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles ($5); or sharpen your spoon skills with a bowl of havana black-bean soup topped with cheese, onions, and sour cream ($4). The house specialty is the braised caribbean ox tail, which is marinated for three days in a succulent red wine and tomato sauce before being simmered with vegetables and served with rice and black beans ($10.25). Bring your own bottle of wine and take it to the quaint patio area during warmer months, or seek shelter inside during Chicago's werewolf-ridden six months of night.
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."