Chicago, like most major metropolises east and west of it, offers a promising array of ethnic food purveyors to accommodate most whims.
There is the requisite Chinatown (recently raided by none other than the FBI), Little Italy, Greektown. There are easily reachable neighborhoods off the pink and blue L lines for when a carnitas craving hits hard. There’s plenty of Thai and Thai fusion and an excellent Vietnamese chain. If you venture to the right corners, you’ll find a decent Jewish deli and inconceivable options for Indian cuisine. There are, of course, the gluttonous Brazilian steakhouses and sushi dens tucked into inconspicuous split levels. You won’t be hard-pressed to find a few Ethiopian options.
If you’ve read through this list and are feeling disorientated and slightly offended by the absence of Cuban food, I get it.
Knowing nothing of historical geographic migration patterns, I have few answers as to why Cuban food’s footprint extends from Florida up far along the Atlantic Coast, but not over to the Great Lakes. It’s possible that, for those who’ve never known any different, the constant availability of deep dish pizza, hotdogs and a sneaky mixture of cheese and caramel corn could make one believe that this is as good as it gets.
I did a few stints in Florida, which makes me 0% Cuban, but 100% nostalgic for trips to the Miami-ish area, where meals begin with fresh from the fryer plantain chips and liquid garlic dipping sauce. I won’t torment you with memories of the bodily event that is expertly seasoned chicken, perfect black beans or authentic (non-boardwalk) churros. Recent, repeat watching of Chef have done nothing but exacerbate this void.
I lied a little bit earlier when I told you there was no Cuban food in Chicago. There is in fact a “chain” of sandwich shops (just two), nestled in between (of all places) Loop office buildings, Brown line tracks and urban college campuses. They do a sufficient Cubano and a luxurious (albeit not totally traditional) Cuban grilled cheese with provolone and chimichurri that’s divinity between bread. This quick-stop place is very, very, good. But I’d be lying if I said it cured all ailments.
This recipe, however, presented by the lovable Sam Sifton, helps. It’s a one skillet deal. It’s salty. It’s sweet. It’s meaty. It goes great with rice. It’s perfect with nothing. It would work wonders mopped up with a thick slice of Cuban bread (if only I could get my hands on a loaf.)
Just because you’re living in a Cuban food desert, doesn’t mean your kitchen has to be one.
Makes ~6 servings; Adapted from the New York Times
2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium-sizes yellow onions, chopped
2 oz dried chorizo, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 lb ground beef
Salt + pepper
1 28 oz can whole tomatoes, drained and crushed
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground cumin
Pinch of ground cloves
Pinch of nutmeg
⅔ c raisins (or dried currants)
⅔ c pitted stuffed green olives
Warm the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, chorizo and garlic, stirring and cooking for ~10 minutes, or until the onions are soft.
Next, add the ground beef, trying with all your might not to crumble it up until it visibly starts to brown. Season with salt and pepper as it does.
Pour in the tomatoes, vinegar, cumin, cloves and nutmeg. Stir stir. Lower the heat and let everything simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes. After the half hour is up, remove the cover and mix in the raisins and olives. Allow to simmer for another 15 minutes before serving (with any color rice of your choosing.)