Best Textbook Jibarito: La Bomba
Look jibarito up in the
dictionary Wikipedia, and this is the picture that should be up top. Featuring plantains that are thin, crispy, and yet still hold together, along with tender well-charred meat, crunchy lettuce, fresh tomato, and just enough cheese to hold everything together, this is the classic jibarito done as well as any place in town.
Best Seafood Jibarito: Joey's Shrimp House
You might not expect to find a jibarito at a seafood shack, but with all that frying oil bubbling around and its proximity to Humboldt Park, it makes sense that they'd at least give the sandwich a try. Like all the fried offerings, Joey's obsesses about the details. If the plantains aren't quite crispy enough, the workers toss them out and try again (which happened to me on my first visit). But as great as those plantains end up being (crispy, crunchy) it's the filling that sets this place apart. The plump and sweet shrimp play off the fried plantains, making for one genuinely tasty variation on the sandwich.
Joey's Shrimp House, 1432 N Western Ave., Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 773-772-1400
Best Chicken Jibarito: Papa's Cache Sabroso
The moment you walk in Papa's Cache Sabroso, you'll see a wall of slowly roasting chicken, all turning in unison, basting in the juices of the communal cooking process. Which is to say that you'd be a fool to eat here and not order one of those birds. The succulent chicken pieces prove to be an inspired filling choice for the jibarito, adding a smoky backbone to each bite.
Best Vegetarian Jibarito: Belly Shack
It was bound to happen. Though meat is the traditional filling, someone along the way was going to have to see how tofu worked. Luckily, Belly Shack's chef Bill Kim was the one to try. Instead of just slapping tofu slices in between the plantains, this Asian-influenced version also adds brown rice to help stabilize the sandwich.
Best Looking Jibarito: Coco
Featuring spirals of fried dough and what may be a green canopy, Coco's jibarito looks like Frank Gehry trying to design a Salvador Dali painting. Though the structures surrounding the sandwich are needless and overwrought, they can be easily discarded to make way for the main event: a flawless jibarito topped with colorful salsa. The owner explained that a new chef had just arrived, and based on what he's doing to the plantains I hope he sticks around. They are crispy on the outside, but still creamy and fragrant on the inside. The fresh salsa is also an inspired addition.
Best Jibarito in a Cuban Restaurant: Cafe Laguardia
The jibarito may have been created in a Puerto Rican restaurant in Chicago, but that hasn't stopped it from popping up on all kinds of different menus. That said, I haven't had much luck ordering one from a Cuban joint (plus, I've been too busy stuffing my face with ropa vieja). The rare execption is Cafe Laguardia in Bucktown, which dishes out a totally solid and satisfying version.
The Original: Borinquen
It all started here. Though the results are inconsistent, too often coming out overly greasy and heavy, Borinquen still occasionally serves one of the best jibaritos around. Steak is the classic filling, but I'm also quite fond of the roast pork. And thanks to the bustling atmosphere, it's always worth visiting to see where the jibarito was born.
Borinquen Restaurant, 1720 N California Ave # 1, Chicago, IL 60647 (map); 773-227-6038
Best Proportioned Jibarito: Cafe Central
Though I never thought I'd say this about the sandwich, Cafe Central's jibarito is downright reasonable. Instead piling the plantains with a mound of meat, just a few thin slices of steak are used. The toppings are paired back as well, making for a sandwich that stays structurally sound right to the last bite.
Cafe Central, 1437 W Chicago Ave # 1, Chicago, IL 60642 (map); 312-243-6776
Friendliest Place to Get a Jibarito: La Palma Puerto Rican Restaurant
Cherish your first visit to La Palma. When I confirmed that I'd never visited the Humboldt Park restaurant before, the owner led me through a tour of just about every dish. The free sample plate came out with so much food, I feared that I'd get full before I even ordered anything. The jibarito is fried to order and worth your time, but I was actually more impressed with some of the other dishes. I'll be back to sample more soon.
Cheesiest Jibarito: La Cocina Boricua de la Familia Galarza
At first, I thought the sandwich had been topped with a pool of mayonnaise. But closer inspection proved that it was gooey white American. Is it too much? Perhaps. But if you love cheese, and like how it pulls all the different elements together, this is worth a stop.
La Cocina Boricua de la Familia Galarza, 2420 West Fullerton Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map); 773-235-7377