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Llapingacho at Restaurant Ecuador; chopping pork at Carnitas el Paisa
August 10, 2007
With a population more than 60 percent Hispanic, Logan Square is home to a predictable number of Mexican restaurants, but other, less mainstream Latin American culinary traditions are represented as well. What follows is a guide to some of the tiny restaurants, taquerias, and other holes-in-the-wall that dot the area.
Most of these neighborhood spots are best for lunch—many close before dinner, some as early as 1 or 2 PM. One of the few to stay open into the night is Taqueria Moran (2226 N. California), where the battalions of hip-looking gringos speak to the broad appeal of capably prepared Mexican classics (though the menu offers Puerto Rican jibaritos and Cuban sandwiches as well). You can come for breakfast chilaquiles and machaca (the dried beef of northern Mexico), or drop in after dark when the wasted and wounded wind down their evenings with Denver omelets and fajitas.
Within a block or so of Taqueria Moran, vans parked along Milwaukee serve home-cooked Mexican chow to lines of regulars early on weekend mornings. At a couple less mobile establishments nearby, you’ll also find the distinctive cuisine of Cuba and Ecuador. The real prize at Cafe Marianao (2246 N. Milwaukee), essentially a sandwich shop for more than 30 years, is the Cuban, a combo of ham, roast pork, cheese, mustard, and pickle on French-type bread toasted in a clamshell press that crisps both sides and marries the ingredients, yielding a food exponentially greater than the sum of its parts. Up the street is El Condor (2349 N. Milwaukee), an Ecuadorian grocery store where for $6 you can get a platter loaded with meat and sides (weekends only). I’ve had excellent chicken here and recently enjoyed the carnitas, which unlike the Mexican version are simply roast pork chunks, moist and delicious, and menudo, a pleasing rendition of diced tummy mixed with potatoes and succotash—flavorful but not overpowering.
You’ve got to admire a place that does just one thing and does it right. One of my favorite such spots, Birrieria Estilo Jalisco (2230 N. Western), does goat. Popular in Jalisco, birria is steamed goat served in tacos or in a simple, marvelously flavorful broth with fresh lime, onion, and cilantro. Birriería Estilo Jalisco also offers steamed goat head meat and tongue—the former somewhat crispy and oily, the latter more spongy and mild. Both benefit from a blast of house-made salsa (shake well).
Jumping over to Fullerton and Central Park you’ll come upon Carnitas El Pasa (3529 W. Fullerton), a monument to the glories of pig. Here, the muumuu-clad hostess proudly presents the “little meats” of Michoacan, prepared much like French confit, simmered in huge kettles of lard and marvelously flavorful. There’s also a very good cochinita pibil, the Yucatecan dish of suckling pig marinated in bitter orange juice and achiote, steamed in a banana leaf, and laid out in lush threads.
A few steps further west is El Pacifico (3534 W. Fullerton). I usually like to go “beyond the burrito,” but here I surrendered to Tex-Mex. The chimichangas are well made, packed with meat, cheese, and grease, and while the nachos fall short of mind-blowing, they’re at least splashed with Chihuahua cheese rather than some yellow glop, and the guacamole actually tastes like avocado. Neither are going to win any awards, but they fit the bill and fill the belly.
Head north to El Guanaco (3802 W. Diversey) to sample El Salvador’s key contributions to the culinary world. The signature plato salvadoreño is pupusa, a soft, freshly griddled cornmeal pancake stuffed with cheese and meat, beans, or the more exotic loroco, a subtle, slightly bitter flower native to the country. With the pupusas (as with arepas, their Colombian cousins), you get a bowl of curtido, or pickled cabbage, surprisingly complementary. If you’re looking for a light meal, you’d do well to get just a pupusa or two and ladle on this piquant condiment.
Wander back east along Diversey and you’ll hit Zacatecas Mexican Restaurant (2934 W. Diversey). In the northern state of Zacatecas they’ve been munching nopales—young prickly pear cactus pads—since before the Spanish anchored their big boats offshore; here, the nopales salad with poblano pepper and cheese is quite good, the cactus very fresh and moist with a hint of spice. And the guisado de puerco, or pork stew, is excellent—meaty with a piquant green sauce. The seasoning in most dishes, however, is restrained.
This tour ends at what may be the most interesting little Logan Square place I found: Restaurant Ecuador (2923 W. Diversey). A recent meal kicked off with a terrific ceviche of black clam, a deep and chewy bivalve in its own rich black liquor. Chivo de seco, a goat stew, was equally flavorful, with tender chunks of meat in a light tomato sauce alongside rice tinted with achiote and sprinkled with crisp, sweet plantain. Llapingacho, a traditional dish, is a pair of potato pancakes, crisp on the outside and creamy within, dressed with two fried eggs and a salty Ecuadorian sausage, splashed with the peanut sauce characteristic of the region. You can finish up with a dessert of figs and cheese or morocho, hominy cooked in cinnamon and milk. —David Hammond
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