It’s always a nice idea to grab dinner before a show. But in reality fitting a proper meal in what usually is a short amount of time tends to be a scramble, especially when doing so after work and on a week night. So when another couple and I decided on meeting at Cafecito near the Auditorium Theatre before the opening night of the Joffrey Ballet’s Merry Widow, we thought we had nailed down a good plan. This Cuban café is conveniently located one block west of the theatre, purportedly serves the city’s best Cubano sandwich, and is a simple ordeal of ordering at the counter and finding a seat to eat.
But even the best-laid plans can go awry. On the day of the performance, my friend unfortunately got sick, and both she and her husband had to cancel. With my curiosity piqued about trying a Cubano, I decided to forge ahead with original plans and dine solo. Situated on the east end the contemporary, street-level Hostelling International Chicago building at the corner of Congress and Wabash, Cafecito sports ‘50s-ish seating along with a dash of Cuban décor and great Latin music. A steady stream of travelers from the hostel next door and Columbia’s South Loop campus gives the place a young vibe.
Just about every food publication in Chicago has given Cafecito’s Cubano sandwich rave reviews. This visit being my first taste of a Cubano, I didn’t have any comparison to others around the city, but I found it to be very good. I like sandwiches with a mix of flavors, and the Cubano delivers on that count. Cafecito’s Cubano combines a hearty amount of high-quality Virginia ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, sliced dill pickles, and yellow mustard between two well-toasted and pressed slices of Chicago’s Gonnella French bread. Every sandwich is made to order, and is delivered hot, oozy, and well wrapped in white butcher paper. The essence of this sandwich’s success lies in the restaurant’s secret mojo marinade (includes citrus, garlic, cumin) for the pork shoulder that is roasted in house. Several housemade side salads are offered, and the marinated artichoke and red pepper salad was a simpatico match to the Cubano.
Cafecito is a place I would come back to again. The menu board lists nearly 20 other pressed sandwiches, a couple of main salads, Cuban black bean soup, breakfast sandwiches, and a few pastries—all with a focus on using natural ingredients. Although the pastries did not look to be Cafecito’s strong suit (granted, it was the end of the day), on another visit I’d like to try the milhoja, the Cuban version of the French mille feuille pastry, filled with dulce de leche instead of pastry cream.
The owner and person behind Cafecito is not Cuban, but instead a Lebanese-American by the name of Philip Ghantous. Ghantous loved the Cuban cafés and eateries he discovered in Miami, and wanted to bring the same to Chicago. So, naturally, Cuban coffee, or cafecito, the café’s namesake, is the thing to try here. Cafecito is a Cuban-style espresso combined with sugar to make a strong, sweet coffee. It also comes in versions with hot or cold milk. With plenty of cold, raw days ahead in Chicago, I’ll definitely take my cafecito steaming hot.
26 East Congress Parkway
Monday-Friday, 7:00am – 9:00pm
Saturday & Sunday, 10:00am – 6:00pm