Wepa!! That was my reaction when I visited my first Puerto Rican restaurant. If you don’t know what that means, “wepa” is a common exclamation in the Puerto Rican community to signify happiness or a way to encourage someone.
I didn’t need any encouraging when I walked through the doors of hidden Chicago gem, Cafe Central.
I’ve had my fair share of comida latina that has ranged from Colombian to Cuban, but I had never tried the food from what many consider the United States’ 51st state. If you’re unaware of this connection, let me drop a bit of historical knowledge. Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the Taino tribe who called it Borikén which eventually was transformed into Borinquen in Spanish when Colombus and later Ponce de Leon established the first Spanish run cities. With the Europeans came the colonization of the island and importation of slaves from Africa. This system continued up until the late 1890s until the USA beat Spain in the Spanish American War which led to the USA claiming Puerto Rico as a United States territory which has continued to today. What that means is that all Puerto Ricans from the island are US citizens, but it has also resulted in increased Puerto Rican migration to urban centers on the US mainland like Chicago and NYC, especially. In Chicago, the hub of all things boricua (Puerto Rican in modern Spanish) is typically Humboldt Park minus the current trend of the usual gentrification. However, this symbol of Chicago Puerto Rican roots is still going strong in the West Town neighborhood just west of Humboldt Park. It was established back in 1952 a bit further south but relocated to its present location in the mid-1960s. It still exists today as a representative of Puerto Rican culture in diner form. The exterior doesn’t look like much, and the interior is just as simple but comfortable. We beat the lunch crowd around 11:30, and the meal started with some fresh bread that seemed to be of the French variety with a magical sauce on the side. Although Janice and I thought that this verdant food of the gods tasted like the Argentinian steakhouse staple chimichurri sauce, we were misteaken (pun intended!). Instead, it was Puerto Rican sofrito, a mixture of recao (cilantro), sweet garlic, olive oil, and mild peppers. It was an oily, herbal, yet garlicky and chunky spread that was wonderful with the fresh bread. I washed it down with a cool Malta India which is a carbonated barley, hops, and water drink which is like a non-alcoholic beer combined with a root beer with a Caribbean twist. It has a very distinctive taste, but I would recommend this unique Puerto Rican beverage. It was similar to its Cuban counterpart I tried when down in Florida. Then we started the meal for realz. We looked over the menu, and I could see all of what makes Puerto Ricans I’ve met so proud of their culinary culture. Pork, rice, and beans are the name of the game for the most part, but there are also sandwiches and caldos or soups to sample. We started off with the ground pork empanada and two plates of mofongo ($3.60 each). Empanadas are like your typical stuffed savory pastry, but the ones at Cafe Central are sin igual. They have less thick pastry dough compared to other varieties I’ve tried and more like thin, crispy dough that was all killer and no filler when it came to the amount of seasoned meat you got. Then there was mofongo. I had only heard about it from my dad quoting Sandford and Son or from Puerto Ricans I’ve worked with in the past, but I can see why they loved it so much. It is a symbol of the African influence on Puerto Rican cuisine as it comes from the West African staple fufu which is a mash of starchy vegetables. In this case, its a ball of mashed plantains stuffed with pieces of chicarrón or garlic pork rinds. It’s basically a ball of mashed sweet yet savory starch where we’d occasionally stumble upon a chewy yet crunchy nugget of glory. Highly recommend this piece of the island. It’ll feel like you ate a mini-cannonball though, so save room! As if that wasn’t enough, we then had our main entrees. Janice ended up getting the house specialty which is off the menu: el lechón or roast pork ($10). I can see why they keep it off the menu because they’d be serving nothing but this gigantic plate of soul warming food. First, the strands of Monte Puerco were super tender and melted in your mouth but also had a hint of a salt and pepper rub to make it just that much more flavorful. Not bad for an homage to the national dish of the island. On the side, it was a Puertorriqueño parade on the plate with el arróz con gandules y habichuelas or rice with peas and beans. Naturally, there were some tiny pork chunks in the rice which pepped up the rice a bit, but the rice itself was super rich with flavor. The beans were also different than the refried beans in Mexican cuisine, and I liked them a lot better because they were stewed in a pork stock and were light. As for me, I got the roast pork jibarito ($7.95). This super Puerto Rican sandwich, meaning “little yokel” in Spanish, was actually introduced to Chicago straight from the Caribbean back in 1996 at Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park. I’ve always wanted to try this Puerto Rican iconic meal because it combines my love for quirky food and sandwiches. Think of your typical bread based sandwich, but then take out the slices and replace them with flattened and fried plantains. Then insert lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo, American cheese (Thanks, Tio Sam), and your choice of meat. I did like the locals and got, you guessed it, the roast pork. When in San Juan! (or is it Chicago?) It looked great, but I didn’t know where to start out of fear of this seemingly delicate work of street art would disappear in my clumsy grasp. It was actually quite the opposite. The fried plantains were surprisingly sturdy under pressure from one hungry hungry hippo, i.e. me, and the flavor was out of control. Basically, take the lechón and combine it with the sweetness of the mofongo and the savory elements of the mayo and cooked onions. Plus, the texture transitions from the crunch of the plantain to the soft pork, crispy lettuce, and juicy tomatoes blew my mind since they were in quintessential harmony. If there’s one plate I’d recommend, it would be this. Even over the lechón I just promoted. By the end, we were in peak food coma mode. If only we could then retreat to a cabana in Limón to nap the rest of the day away. Unfortunately, our food adventure ended there, but we were extremely satisfied.
I can’t emphasize the greatness that is Cafe Central. It’s a lot of delicious, stick-to-your-ribs food served in huge portions for a reasonable price. What more could you ask for in a restaurant? Absolutamente nada. Buen provecho!