Standing Room Only: Chicago's Cafe Marianao
Standing Room Only, in which the author visits Chicago's best seatless eateries. Have at it, Nick.
I must have walked by Cafe Marianao a few dozen times in the past year, and never has it seemed like a place I should visit. Chicago is not exactly known for its Cuban cuisine, and I've been much more focused on the outstanding Mexican restaurants in the area, including Taqueria Moran (oh, its abodabo!). I actually found out about Marianao thanks to a post on LTH Forum, about the ways to deal with the seemingly endless line there (among the forum's unsurprising findings: be an astoundingly gorgeous female). And though I do not fit that criterion, my interest was piqued. Forget about the beautiful women--why were these people waiting in such long lines?
I decided to visit early in the lunch cycle, so I didn't have to deal with much of a crowd. It was still confusing enough. There is no line to speak of, just a countertop with a bunch of men standing around, drinking coffee, and chatting with the cooks. I waited politely behind a few of the guys for a minute before they let me know that they had already ordered. I found an opening, placed my order and then stepped aside.
2246 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-278-4533
The Short Order: Addicting flat-steak sandwich with cheese, onions, and mojo
Want Fries with That? No fries, but the café con leche is top-notch
On the other side of the room is a small ledge with a few stools scattered around (I counted five total), which may technically disqualify this place from this column--but it's still so few that Marianao is all but SRO. Forget those stools; the real show is at the counter, and that's where most of the patrons hang out. Most never see a seat, and the majority of the business here looked like it was to go.
After I received my food, I realized that this place probably doesn't have a long line for its Cuban sandwich. It's passable, if a tad bland and dry. Though it may do for a simple lunch, there is no reason to wait in a long line for it.
Skip the Cuban; Get the Steak Sandwich
The steak sandwich is a different story. It's filled with luscious, tender hunks of beef that have been slowly cooked in traditional Cuban mojo seasonings. The beef is stuffed into a roll and topped with cheese, onions, and a slice of tomato. Then the whole thing is tossed in a sandwich press and cooked until the cheese melts and the bread is toasted.
Unlike the unruly Italian beef, what comes across the counter here looks surprisingly civil. It's relatively flat, and everything is neatly contained within. But the flavor is bold. The bread becomes crisp and crunchy, while the beef remains tender and juicy. The tomato does its best to offset the creamy coating of cheese.
But it's the acidic mojo that really sets this sandwich apart. It cuts straight through the heaviness of the steak and onions, adding a punch of spice and vinegar to the proceedings. It's an addicting sandwich.
Like at any good Cuban place, café con leche is essential. I'm usually not a huge fan. Most of the cups I have been served in other places have been overly bitter and heavily sweetened. But Cafe Marianao manages to skip most of these pitfalls and serves up a steaming cup of smooth coffee with just enough sugar to cut through any bitterness.
Everything is remarkably cheap. The steak sandwich can be had for under four dollars. You may need to show up with a model if you plan to go during peak lunch times, otherwise just be aggressive and find some counter space.