"It's one of the best sandwiches you can get in Chicago for under $4."

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Tropi Cuban

3000 W. Lyndale Street, Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-252-0230
The Short Order: Friendly stand in Cuban grocery store, with incredible Cuban sandwich.
Want Fries with That? Yep, and rice, and beans, and plantains.
Want Ketchup? With the fries, but its better with the large bottle of hot sauce.

Call me a heretic, but until last week I wasn't too sure the Cuban sandwich belonged in the elusive sandwich pantheon. Most versions I've munched on have been dry and tasteless, nothing more than a ham sandwich with overly pressed bread. The flaw was the lack of balance.

I mean, I had a few decent versions, but compared to the dynamic interplay of a bánh mì, the overstuffed awe of a muffuletta, or even the striking duality of my mom's PB&J, I'd say the Cuban deserved, at a best, a distinguished place in the minor league. Even the Cuban at previous Standing Room Only contender, Cafe Marianao, was a disappointment.

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But the one I've found in the back of this local Cuban grocery store has changed my mind. Now, I had walked by this little corner store about a dozen times, and it never occurred to me to stop inside. But I began to hear little whispers of the wonders inside from places like Time Out and Centerstage. So, on a tired, rainy night I made my over to this stand in the northwest neighborhood of Logan Square.

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The front of the place is a small grocery store but in the very back, there's a little counter with a few stools and one very large menu. There is one guy, with a whole range of pots and pans, and it feels like you've accidentally stepped into someone's kitchen. Of course, I ordered the Cuban sandwich.

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It's the first version of the sandwich that really achieved a perfect balance. The bread is pressed but still has some chewiness. Then there are thin layers of ham and roast pork, along with some salty melted Swiss cheese. But what really sets this Cuban apart? The judicious use of pickles and mustard. The tang gives the sandwich some punch—that's what sold me.

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Plus it comes with enough fries—crispy and thin—to feed your whole family. They'd be better if they were freshly cut, but they are fine for what they are.

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The sodas, available in the front of the store, are also worth checking out. I tried Tropi Cola (champagne cola!) and Coco Rico, a coconut-flavored soda that was oddly not that sweet.

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I also ordered a plate of Ropa Vieja (Spanish for "old clothes"), which is a slowly braised flank steak with slightly spicy tomato sauce. Absurdly tender and warming, this is the perfect food for rainy weather. Served with fried plantains, white rice, and some great black beans, it's enough for two. I've had better versions at other Cuban establishments around the area, but it's hard to argue with a plate for of so much food for $6.95.

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In the end, it's the Cuban sandwich that will keep me coming back. Though I never thought I'd say this: It's one of the best sandwiches you can get in Chicago for under $4.

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