Table Hopping: A taste of the tropics in Lincolnwood
Tilapia a la parrilla is seasoned with blackened seasoning which includes saffron, cumin, garlic and black pepper. It is served with grilled vegetablles and fried plantains “tostones” with garlic sauce for dipping, white rice and black beans ($9.95). | Lee A. Litas~Sun-Times Media
Taste of Cuba Cafe
3918 W. Touhy Avenue, Lincolnwood
11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
(847) 674-2822 or see: tasteofcubacafe.com
Updated: January 16, 2013 11:02AM
“By putting in the hard work and being present you will succeed.”
That’s the mantra of Jaime Alvarez, the 29-year-old co-owner of Taste of Cuba. Together with her husband Guillermo Alvarez, Jr., 30, the young couple opened their beloved neighborhood joint last May while Jaime was still five months pregnant.
“It was a good motivator,” said Guillermo of the need to succeed under such circumstances. They would need all the help they could get as aside from the inherent difficulties of opening a restaurant, the couple also chose a spot where three others restaurants had failed.
“On the block this was called ‘restaurant death row’,” said Jaime.
But buoyed by the support of their family, the Alvarez’ used their unwavering belief in their abilities and in the surrounding communities to forge ahead.
“Latin culture is very family-oriented and embracing so we wanted to bring (our business) to another area that was equally family-oriented and we felt like Lincolnwood/ Skokie/Evanston had that family vibe where we would be embraced,” said Jaime.
And were they ever. They have been able to turn a dining deathtrap into a destination restaurant lauded by media and patrons alike. Theirs is truly a family business. Not only does Guillermo ‘s dad, Guillermo, Sr., help out behind the counter and at the grill, they’ve also enlisted the aid of two aunts and a few cousins to create authentic dishes based on Guillermo’s grandma’s recipes from Havana.
Insisting on absolute freshness, at Taste of Cuba they make their own adobo seasoning to punch up all their meats. Fresh garlic, onion and garlic powder, salt, pepper, lime juice and fresh olive oil are its key ingredients. They also make their own sofrito daily, a thick, savory sauce made of green and red peppers, garlic, cilantro and onions. It boosts flavor for beans, soups and rice.
“You (do) have to be a lover of garlic,” suggests Jaime for those interested in Cuban cuisine.
Starters include empanadas, fried dumplings with chicken or vegetables, served with pungent Cuban-style oregano-based chimichurri sauce for dipping. ($1.75 for 2).
For something lighter to whet your appetite, Jaime’s “accompaniment” salad is made of fresh avocados, tomatoes and onions topped simply with lime juice and olive oil ($5.25).
Along with an array of Cuban sandwiches, Taste of Cuba serves an Jibarito. The traditional Puerto Rican sandwich is on the menu in homage to Guillermo’s half-Puerto Rican heritage. This sandwich uses fried plantains in place of bread, making it naturally gluten free. Each sandwich takes 10-12 minutes to make because everything is made to order. The plantains take the longest as they need to be cut, fried, smashed by hand into thin wafers then refried before a choice of veggie ($6.25), steak/pork/chicken/ham ($7.25) or tilapia ($8.25) can be added and slathered with mojo sauce, cheese, onions and mayo.
“It takes a little longer,” said Guillermo, “but regulars don’t mind waiting now because they know they’re getting a good, fresh, homemade product.”
The cafe also serves steak, pork and chicken cooked Cuban style, and the house special is Ropa Vieja — which translates as “old clothes” — but is flavorful, stew-like preparation of beef, sweet peppers, onions and garlic (of course) that’s a favorite all over the island.
“Everything is cooked with love and from the heart here with a very big family-oriented atmosphere,” said Jaime.