When you are in Key West, only 90 miles separates Cuba from the United States. For many, it was tantalizingly close, but a world away. For the Gonzalez family, who emigrated from Cuba on a shrimp boat back in 1980, it was a 15-hour trip to the land of opportunity.
Alberto Gonzalez certainly made the most of it, opening the very popular 90 Miles Cuban Café in Chicago first on Armitage in Bucktown and then a second at Clybourn and Belmont. The third outpost is their first restaurant in the suburbs, and it’s doing what it can to bring some much-needed life to the Lincolnwood Town Center.
Welcome to Havana
The funky interior — Cuban artist Alejandro Arango’s evocative murals in saturated colors, ceiling fans, strings of twinkling lights, repurposed furniture — calls to mind the underground restaurants I visited in Havana a few years ago.
It certainly put me in the right frame of mind for Cuban cuisine, which of course starts with rum cocktails ($8-10). All the classics are here — Cuba Libre (rum and Mexican Coke), Mojitos (rum, muddled lime and mint and soda, also available by the pitcher for $45) and Daiquiris (rum, lime juice and sugar) — but you’ll also find the 90 Miles Rum Sour (Bacardi Añejo, lemon juice, simple syrup and foamy egg whites) and the Chan Chan (Bacardi Superior rum, Barbados grapefruit, Asian cinnamon bitters, lemon juice and muddled cucumber and pineapple), which had a lot going on but pulled it all together on the palate.
Be sure to order a basket of Mariquitas ($5) with your cocktails; the wavy paper-thin, crispy plantain chips come with mojo de ajo (garlic sauce) for dipping and they are beyond addictive, especially with a squeeze of lime.
Croquetas ($6) — small hand-rolled croquettes filled with chopped ham and a nutmeg-scented béchamel — are omnipresent in Cuba, so a must to sample here, especially dipped in the spicy, creamy sauce that accompanies them.
The gut-busting Yuca Rellena ($6), a large breaded torpedo of mashed yuca (a starchy tuber, also known as manioc) filled with seasoned ground beef, would make a very filling lunch for one with a small salad. There’s a similar preparation with potato instead of yuca.
We were fans of the Avocado Salad ($13), mixed greens tossed with tomatoes and slivered red onions in Havana honey-mango vinaigrette, topped with a sliced ripe avocado and a generous grind of fresh pepper.
Of course, the Cubano ($11) is the most popular sandwich on the menu, because who could resist that pressed miracle of ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles between two slices of bread? But dive a little deeper into the house specialty entrées to discover the slow-cooked meats and stews that are at the heart of Cuban cuisine. Many of these recipes come from Gonzalez’ mother, Maria Magdalena.
Chicken dishes can often be a snooze, but the Fricase de Pollo ($19) is so tasty that it’s been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The chicken is presented on the bone, braised in a Cuban Creole sauce with onions, potatoes and green olives, and served (as are most of the entrées) in a traditional metal cazuela (available on their website, believe it or not). Black beans, white rice and chunks of sautéed plantains (maduros) accompany the entrée; be sure to add the rice to the cazuela so you don’t miss any of the sauce.
The Lechon ($18), slow-roasted pork in a citrusy garlic sauce topped with sweet grilled onions, was really delicious, but seemed to call out for a tortilla or something to wrap it in to cut the richness a bit. Next time, if feeling porky (as it were), I’ll get the Puerco Rostizado ($18), another D, D and D feature. They marinate the pork overnight then roast it with bacon, guava, ham and prunes. It’s a party in a pot!
Ropa Vieja ($18), my favorite Havana dish, literally translates as “old clothes,” but fear not. The flank steak, a lean cut, is slow-braised then pulled into strings; it’s then braised again with onions, peppers, and garlic in the house Creole sauce. This is good eating.
If garlic-butter sauce is your thing, you can’t do much better than the Camarones al Ajillo ($21), seven nice-sized shrimp drenched in the stuff. Abandon all caution and sop up that sauce with whatever is nearby; the yellow rice was a particularly good foil.
There are six options on the dessert menu, but neither the Tres Leches nor the Black Forest Cake ($12 each, meant to be shared) are made in house, so we opted for the Sweet Empanadas ($4 each, your choice of guava/cream cheese — yum! — or chocolate/cookie/peanut/caramel — too sweet). But the big winner was the Coco Cuban Flan ($5), filled with chunks of toasted coconut and just the right firm texture.
Service was problematic. It started out strong, as our amiable server clearly knew the menu and was happy to answer questions and make recommendations. But we knew there could be trouble when a party of 18 sat down next to us in the already busy restaurant and ordered a la carte. We waited eons for our dessert (I know, #firstworldproblems). But we had stuff to do, and 35 minutes is a long time to wait at the end of the meal. Desserts were served with a brief apology, (“Sorry, it’s busy!”), but should’ve been comped by management.
Nonetheless, I’ll be back. It’s hard to find good yellow rice and black beans on the North Shore, not to mention those scrumptious croquetas and that amazing chicken dish. Even with the recent relaxation of tensions with Cuba, this could be the closest most people come to the country’s rich cuisine — unless you know someone’s abuela!
90 Miles Cuban Café
Lincolnwood Town Center
(Touhy and McCormick Blvd.)
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