Chicago: The New Generation of Latin Flavors

Certain tastes can overwhelm diners in a foreign land with a wave of nostalgia when they savor a dish that takes them back to childhood; some flavors can even make them cry like children.

By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Marta Rivera, Carlo Serran, Courtesy Hospitality Group


Brothers of Machu Picchu

A diner burst out crying after tasting a ceviche that was placed in front of him. At first, some thought that the tears were engendered by the robust spices typical of this delicacy from the coastal regions of South America, but strangers, tourists, and newcomers alike soon learned the real reason. A long-time Milwaukee resident, the strong, brown-skinned man of some 63 summers had simply been overwhelmed by the flood of memories triggered by the taste.

Another customer, an elderly gentleman who uses a walker, comes every week like clockwork. He is helped out of the car, carefully led into the restaurant and seated at the table, where he always enjoys the same dish: fried red snapper, prepared just like in Peruvian eateries. These rather magical scenes play out frequently at the tables of Machu Picchu, the jewel of Peruvian cuisine in Lake View, on Chicago’s North Side.

“I came here in 1989. I followed my older brother, Roberto, who worked in the jewelry trade and had a good, stable customer base. Then the whole family started to arrive, making the city seem encouraging, supportive, and friendly,” remembers Javier Alday, who liked jewelry, but had always loved cooking. As soon as he had enough money and time, he enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu. He rented a locale at 3856 N Ashland in the neighborhood of Lake View, and long before it became fashionable, he set about paying homage to Peruvian cuisine. He opened Machu Picchu Restaurant.

“Our varied menu represents the different regions of the country,” explains Javier: the outstanding Peruvian ceviche, requested by all the customers; the traditional Lima chicha morada (purple corn juice with fruit and cinnamon); anticucho (skewers of grilled beef heart); causa rellena (potato layered with chicken); churrasco a lo pobre (grilled sirloin served with fried eggs, fries, fried plantains, and rice); the multi-ingredient arroz chaufa (Peruvian fried rice); pescado a lo macho (tilapia, squid, and shrimp with a chili-seafood sauce); papa a la huancaína (boiled potatoes topped with chili-cheese sauce); huachinango frito (fried red snapper); lomo Machu Picchu (grilled filet mignon); Peruvian tamal wrapped in a banana leaf; chupe de camarones (shrimp chowder); chicharrón de pollo (chicken nuggets); lomo saltado (sirloin sautéed with onions and tomatoes); arroz con mariscos (seafood rice); and choclo peruano (Peruvian corn with cheese).

A Happy Ñandú

I was nineteen when I had to leave Argentina during the violent era of the dictatorships. “Following tradition, I opened many restaurants in Chicago. Each one had its own lifecycle, but they were all successful: El Gaucho, El Clark, Fierros, and finally, this one you are now visiting: El Ñandú, in tribute to that species of ostrich that lives in Latin America and is also bred in Texas.”

After many years of wrangling employees, cooks, and customers, Miguel Bustos has ceded part of the management of his restaurant to his nephew Martín, who spent quite some time working with the cooks of El Ñandú. He now offers customers a lengthy menu of mouthwatering dishes at what might be the most famous Argentinean restaurant in Chicago: empanadas (shrimp, and Argentina-, Tucumán-, and Criolla-style turnovers); churrasco encebollado (grilled strip steak with onions); entraña ranchera (char-broiled skirt steak); pollo al chimichurri (chicken chimichurri); arroz amarillo (yellow rice); and of course, the vivifying and intoxicating red and white sangrías, legendary Quilmes beer, and several varieties of Malbec. Life is lived at these tables. The restaurant is really a piece of Argentina.

A Mariachi on Broadway

Antonio Estrada, the creator of El Mariachi, was just 16 when he came to Chicago from Jalisco. He looked only to the future after crossing the border almost cursorily. He didn’t speak English, he didn’t know anyone, and he only had a few dollars in his pocket. He was always working; he learned English as he traveled by commuter train, and he earned a living at the city’s bars and hotels, such as the Drake Hotel, the Hilton, and the Italian Village. He later opened El Mariachi at 3420 Broadway Avenue, Chicago.

Antonio died a little over a year ago, after which his son, Jorge, took the reins of El Mariachi. Since childhood he has worked in the restaurant, where they dubbed him “Little Mariachi.” Now he’s the boss and he is constantly looking for opportunities, which led to, for example, the recent opening of Revolución at 34-43 Broadway Avenue, featuring one of the most extensive menus of tequilas in all of Illinois. Jorge shows us the expansive and exciting menu of dishes and treats: his father’s creation of carne asada costeña (grilled skirt steak topped with creamed shrimp); camarones al mojo de ajo (garlic shrimp); burrito Poblano (vegetarian burrito); enchiladas; beef and chicken fajitas; Mexican tamales; tableside guacamole; and desserts, headed by flan de grano de vanilla (vanilla-bean flan) and piña ahumada (smoked pineapple). Jorge believes that the future and longevity of restaurants like El Mariachi are guaranteed.

The Legend of Irazú

Gerardo Cerdas made a living repairing machines. He was skilled, quick, and responsible, and people came back for his services again and again. His wife, Myriam, was an old-fashioned housewife. Both Costa Ricans put down roots in Chicago in 1971. She dreamed of having her own restaurant that would indulge the Latino community in that part of the United States with the flavors and foods of Costa Rica. But he refused, since he knew that anyone wishing to take a risk in the food business makes sacrifices that border on madness. But one day at a neighborhood bus stop, Myriam saw a “For Rent” sign on a site in an excellent location. This was the 1990 birth of one of Chicago’s best-known purveyors of Latin American cuisine, with a menu of delicious dishes from Costa Rica.

They worked tenaciously and persevered until they succeeded. Myriam managed the project and Gerardo, who was a bus driver, doubled up on his working hours to visit shops and markets to make purchases for the restaurant. Their son, Henry, manages the business now. “I studied business administration. I wanted to ensure the longevity of the restaurant by applying what I had learned.”

The food is simple, nothing fancy, but it preserves the charm, the memory, and the genuine flavor of the foods of their beloved Costa Rica, which is likely why it attracts not only waves of Latino residents of Illinois, but also non-Latinos and tourists. Ready for tasting are chifrito (fried pork with beans and rice); casado con gallo pinto (beef, chicken, or tilapia served with rice and black beans, plantains, and fried egg); sánduche pepito (beef or chicken sandwich with onions, cheese, beans, and Lizano sauce); black beans; and oatmeal milkshakes (a Gerardo Cerdas creation now known around the city). Always on hand is an indispensable Costa Rican complement: Lizano sauce, an exquisite spicy and tart brown sauce that invariably graces the table at any meal in the Central American nation.

Colombia on My Tongue

“My mother is from Medellín, my father from Pereira. They met in 1986 and got married three weeks later. The family took up residence in Chicago, a city that is kind and understanding to strangers,” says Jeffrey Rodríguez, the heir to a great name in Illinois gastronomy. In his professional life, he feels the pull and the joy of the restaurant business.

He has managed Pueblito Viejo for some years now. Expanding from its origins in Chicago, the restaurant now boasts a very successful branch in Miami, where, backed by the beat of Latin American music, there is a nightly party with all the flavor and sass of Colombia. The waiters are largely older people from Colombia, mainly Antioquia, Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío. This gives the place a unique air of nostalgia. “Although I’m the boss now,” says Jeffrey, “I understand that it was their idea, that they’re the ones who infused Pueblito Viejo with music, festivity, and flavor, and they’re the ones who devised the unmistakable ambiance so typical of our restaurant. For example, the walls are full of photos that capture beautiful and unforgettable moments experienced by our customers and staff. We’re promoting Latino culture in the United States.”

Exquisite dishes offer proof of this: chicharrones carnudos (fried pork belly); bandeja paisa (with all the ingredients —such as beans, rice, pork belly, meat, plantains, eggs— that make it a universal culinary treasure); papas chorreadas (potatoes with cream and onions sauce); carne asada (grilled skirt steak); hoga’o (Colombian tomato and onion sauce); fried yucca; soups; fried plantains with jelly; and many other Criolla dishes.

Cuban Epilogue

Of course Cuba had to make an appearance, this time with a restaurant with a meaningful name and many customers: Habana Libre (Free Havana), located at 1440 Chicago Avenue. Diners can imagine themselves in Havana, Santiago, or Matanzas at this small place. The decorative elements, the colors of the walls (a blast of the tropics), the layout of the tables, and of course, the son and trova music playing in the background, transport us to a far-away place.

This little slice of the island of Cuba offers guests the dishes that have made Cuban food one of the most sought-after cuisines in Latin America: lechón asado (roasted pork cooked with onions); mariscada cubana (mixed fish and seafood in Cuban Creole sauce); masa de puerco (deep-fried pork with Cuban garlic sauce); ropa vieja (shredded beef in tomato sauce); filete de camarones (fish filet stuffed with shrimp); pork cracklings; and breaded shrimp star on the menu.