Standing Room Only: El Cubanito
2555 North Pulaski Road, Chicago, IL 60639 (map); 773-235-2555
The Short Order: A variety of freshly made Cuban sandwiches, including a great steak sandwich.
Want Fries with That? Sandwiches are enormous, so sides are not necessary.
Seats? A few stools, but this is a very small shop.
El Cubanito is small. Now, I know I say that often on this column, but this place really is. Located on the western edge of Logan Square on Pulaski Ave, there is barely enough room inside for three people to stand, let alone any place for a chair. But the tiny stand also makes a big first impression, even if most of the attention is due to the colorful graffiti on the outside, which includes a picture of a man simultaneously saying "que rico", licking his lips, and staring at a woman with a large posterior. (This, it should be noted, is a lot for any one man to do at the same time.) Only a small sign relates that the El Cubanito sells sandwiches.
You better believe there is a Cuban sandwich on the menu. Of course, numerous stands around the area also serve the sandwich, and what separates the good from the bad is usually balance. If anything is off, the Cuban sandwich can easily come off as dry and bland. Crisp, crackly bread should give way to melted Swiss cheese, and thin slices of tender roast pork and salty ham. If everything is properly proportioned, all the meat and cheese should be offset by strong mustard and some acidic pickles.
But El Cubanito's Cubano ($3.75) is not balanced. It is, in fact, the opposite of balanced. This Cubano stands tall, with a good inch of meat obliterating any chance of appreciating the delicate smear of mustard and the two paltry pickles. Which isn't to say that it's a complete disaster. The roast pork is tender and flavorful, and if you discard some of the meat (there is probably enough for two sandwiches here), you can make this close to manageable. But that requires effort, and there are other sandwiches here that are already good to go.
Instead, I'd suggest the steak sandwich ($3.95). Unlike other steak sandwiches at nearby Cuban joints (Cafeteria Marianao comes to mind), the meat here is chopped up in to fine little shreds. After some cheese is added to the mix, the resulting sandwich starts looking suspiciously like a cheesesteak. And as you may or may not know, cheesesteaks are not about balance. They are about meat and cheese, and the more of each the better. And as I explained earlier, El Cubanito is great at excess.
Have I mentioned the shoestring fries? The steak sandwich gets a handful of the crispy little potatoes, lending each bite a crispy, salty kick, further setting the sandwich over the top. Now, this also means that it is a mess and nearly impossible to pick up without half the sandwich spilling out. But that's a small price to pay for such a feast.