By Michael Nagrant
In a month, when you’re digging your car out of six inches of dirty, slushy snow, you likely won’t mistake Chicago for the sunny climes of Miami or Tampa. But, right now, with the sun still peeking through the clouds, and the fact that, like sushi joints and the taquerias before, there now seems to be a Cuban sandwich joint on every corner, you can be forgiven if you think you’re in Florida.
The latest pork and plantain promulgator is 90 Miles Cuban Café in Roscoe Village. Like all the other spots, there’s a ton of pig, mountains of Café Bustelo coffee and lots of deep-fried goodies to go around. There’s also an ex-pat involved, Alberto Gonzalez, which is funny, because not too far away at El Cubanito (2555 North Pulaski), a very similar operation, there’s a man named working the grill.
And indeed if you find the drive to 90 Miles seemingly too far from your particular hood, you should probably just wait. There’s no telling how many other Albertos from Cuba there are in Chicago who also plan on opening Cuban sandwich counters. I’m guessing these two men aren’t the last, and there’s a spot coming to you soon.
If you do make the drive, know that if you’re watching your sodium intake or you happen to be diabetic, 90 Miles is probably the most exceptional of the newly opened Cuban spots. And if you’re handy with the sugar and salt shakers, it’s still pretty damn good.
It’s actually the oddest thing. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a restaurant where every single dish was completely under-seasoned. What makes it even more odd is that most of the dishes were exceptionally executed in every other way. Take for instance the Guajarito, which features steak, romaine, tomato, grilled onion and Swiss cheese sandwiched between two deep-fried green plantains, basically the Cuban version of the Jibarito. Most of the Puerto Rican Jibarito joints serve their sandwiches with soggy, fried plantain planks these days. 90 Miles’ version was cracker crisp, the steak was tender, the cheese oozy (though bland) and the onion sweet and caramelized. It was perfect, except there was no salt. Grab the shaker, pour a little on, and you have one of the better Jibaritos in Chicago.
The shakes made with fresh fruit and milk are exceptionally creamy, though the strawberries we had in ours were as tasteless as if they’d fallen off the back of a Jewel truck shortly after being ethylene-gassed for “ripeness” and color. The drink lacked any sugar content and tasted like a glass of cold, thick milk. I added a touch of sugar and it was much brighter.
The croquetas—deep, golden brown, crunchy, mozzarella-cheesestick-like tubes filled with bits of diced pork and served with a spicy mayo dipping sauce—were probably the best of the offerings, as the sauce compensated for the lack of seasoning.
Yuca con mojo, warm cassava splashed with tons of garlic, was cooked perfectly. Yuca can be gluey if done poorly, but this version was sturdy and slightly creamy like a mashed potato. I’m not sure I’d call the sauce here a mojo, as it lacked any citrus or chili component, and though there were hundreds of glistening garlic specks, it didn’t even taste very garlicky, rather more like the pre-chopped stuff from the store. If you added, yep, salt, it was pretty good, however.
Finally, the Cubano, your basic, pressed, crispy white bread filled with ham, roast pork, Swiss, cheese, pickles and mustard. It didn’t quite suffer from under-salting, as the ham and roast pork had enough inherent sodium to compensate. On the other hand, the Swiss cheese, which tasted like your basic industrial brick cheese, was only good for its bubbly texture. In this crowded field, you’d love to see someone whip out the gruyere instead. And before anyone chide me about being an elitist, it’s possible the original version of the sandwiches used gruyere or manchego, as Spanish influence is high in Cuban cuisine. Ah, but you say the Cubano was born in Tampa, not Cuba. That may be true, but I’m willing to bet my tongue that people in Cuba were eating grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches, a suitable precursor, the first time a Cuban bread-maker met a pig farmer. This occurrence would also probably pre-date major Cuban immigration to Tampa. And even in Tampa, at least those dudes experiment, serving up salami, which offers a subtle depth beyond the pork, and sugar-cured ham.
But, reinvention is not an obligation. The crowded field of Cuban food in Chicago is based on adherence to nostalgia, and establishing a sense of home in a foreign land. On that count, 90 Miles is one of the cleanest, consistent and inviting of the new spots. If they get a little heavier with the salt, they might just emerge as the tastiest.
90 Miles Cuban Café, 3101 North Clybourn, (773)248-CUBA