Bad news: I can’t visit Cuba – can’t smoke the cigars, visit the aquarium with Castro or play hacky sack with Elian Gonzalez (kids still do that, right?). But you know what? I don’t care. Okay, actually, I still care a little, but not as much as I did yesterday because I found the next best thing. I went into this restaurant in Chicago called 90 Miles Cuban Café, a tiny shack of a place on the outskirts of Roscoe Village, and walked out feeling positively enamored. Enamored and full.
When I say it’s a tiny shack of a place, that’s not hyperbole – it’s literally tiny, seating for maybe 10 with a patio to capture the overflow in the warmer seasons. But, similar to those ramshackle barbecue joints peppered all across the south, size is completely irrelevant. This place is here to make Cuban food and to make it well. The restaurant’s menu only furthers that notion. It won’t overwhelm you, featuring only a handful of entrées, a dozen sandwiches, a couple of breakfast items and a relatively lush selection of shakes, sides, desserts and coffee drinks.
During my visit, I managed to try three sandwiches and a smattering of sides. Let’s start with the ropa vieja sandwich. The name literally translates to “old clothes,” which is moderately unsettling, but once you climb that translative hurdle you end up with a shredded beef sandwich in a tomato-based sauce. It doesn’t sound too fancy and it’s not, but it is delicious. The bread absorbs the perfect amount of sauce – nailing that flavorful state right before it takes the unfortunate turn toward soggy and unpalatable. It all simply melts in your mouth. Add a side of sweet plantains and you’re in business.
Next up, a sandwich whose appeal I never understood: the Cuban. Ham is delicious. I get that. So is mustard, so is pork, so are pickles, so is Swiss cheese. So why don’t I like them when they’re combined on a roll and pressed? I don’t know, but I know I keep trying, and I also know that 90 Miles came closer to making me a fan than anyone else by a long shot. I’m taking a shot in the dark and guessing that either the quality of the meat or knowledgeable and careful preparation make all the difference.
Finally, to the lechon sandwich, the star of the show. It’s a roast and coarsely pulled pork sandwich topped with lettuce, grilled onions, garlic sauce and sweet plantains, and it’s amazing. The pork is as tender and juicy as roast pork should be, with the sweet plantains providing a salve for the saltiness of the meat. As far as I’m concerned, if you live in Chicago and eat pork, this is a must try.
So yeah, it’s not a dolphin show with Castro, but it’s close and I only tried three sandwiches. By the time I eat my way to the bottom of the menu (about three days, at this rate), I’ll forget about Fidel and the fish, smoke a Dominican cigar and happily call it a night. It’s that good.
90 Miles Cuban Cafe
3101 N. Clybourn Ave, Chicago, IL