Sunday, December 18, 2011
While Chicago has a wide variety of ethnic restaurants, most people wouldn't even think to put Chicago and Cuban food in the same sentence. There are however many pretty good Cuban restaurants in Chicago. Most are sandwich shops, but there are a few that go a little higher end i.e. appetizer, entree, dessert. I went to Cafe 28 on Friday which is a Cuban Restaurant in the guise of a Neighborhood Restaurant. Located in Ravenswood, it is kind of out of the area where most Cuban Restaurants are located: Logan Square, Humboldt Park, and Hermosa but there is nothing that says that a given ethnic restaurant should stay in a certain community and may actually play to it's advantage by being able to stand out from the other restaurants in the area. Cafe 28 is actually a pretty large space divided into a bar and 3 dining rooms, 2 of which also had bars. The dining room that I was in had track lighting and several large square pillars. Three of the walls were antique bricks with pictures of rustic and very colorful doors and windows. The floor was hardwood and the wall serving as a dividing wall between another dining room had a spiral design on it. Looking at the menu, I saw that I could have gone a number of different ways but I decided to stick with what I think of as fairly standard Cuban dishes. Before I start with the actual dinner though, I have to talk about the bread plate. It really didn't look like much but it was something special. The bread was a nice dense country-style bread that was nice and crusty. The butter that was served with it was whipped so it was very easy to spread. I tasted it and got a nice sweetness. I thought possibly that it had a little honey added. My first thought was that it was nice but not especially special but as I ate the bread, I started to get a burn. There was cayenne pepper in the butter. It was a nice spicy start.
My dinner started with a hot appetizer (they also had cold appetizers which I didn't try), Papas Rellenas. It was fried jalapeño mashed potatoes filled with grilled chicken, pico de gallo and cheese and served with a saffron cream sauce. It was cut in half and split and served with arugula. It was very hot when it was served to me so I had to eat it slowly but it was very good. There was a range of flavors all in one bite. It was salty, creamy, cheesy, and spicy; all of which went with the chicken and potatoes.My entree was a Cuban standard, Ropa Vieja. It literally means old clothes but obviously, that's not what it is. It is a flank steak that is cooked in a garlic tomato and bell pepper sauce until it falls apart. The shredded beef kind of looks like the old clothes where it gets it's name. It was served with black beans, white rice, and sweet plantains. It was good but really not anything spectacular. I did try to combine the flavors somewhat by taking bites of different things together, but it might have worked better if I had actually combined them on my plate. As it was, I left the different ingredients separate.
Generally, I have found that it can be fairly easy to pass up dessert at a Hispanic restaurant. There is generally some sweet stuff but other than flan, there really isn't anything special. I will look most of the time though to see if anything struck my eye. This time, the Tres Leches Cake sounded good so that's what I ordered. Tres Leches literally means three milks which are what are used in this cake. A sponge cake is soaked with evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream. As one might guess, the cake is sweet and kind of heavy and was topped with whipped cream, a couple of mint leaves and a strawberry. It was very good although it did make my bike ride home of about 5 miles a little uncomfortable.
Overall, I liked the look of the restaurant and the service while not exceptionally attentive, was nice enough. While the ropa vieja and the tres leches cake were good, the papas rellenas and the bread were something special. The restaurant was good but not great but I would go again if someone wanted to go there.