A Few of the Greatest Hits at 90 Miles Cuban Café
In a number of ways, 90 Miles Cuban Café is exactly my kind of restaurant. Care and authenticity come through each dish, but the place stays casual enough that diners and staff alike don't need to make a show of impressing one another. And the Logan Square location's square footage alone eliminates the stress of Fat Rice-sized wait times in the dead of winter.
Both BYO restaurants—the is original, smaller café is in Roscoe Village—share the same menu and are owned by husband and wife team Christina and Alberto Gonzalez. As the story goes, the pair came to Key West by shrimp boat back in 1980. (That trip, in case you didn't catch the reference, is 90 miles long.)
Alberto gives his grandmother the credit for most of the recipes you find on the menu, from the smoky ropa vieja to the Cuban black beans. He also steps just outside the bounds of the strictly traditional to make tofu en salsa criolla, egg-topped mango pancakes, and a chorizo burger. But faithful to his country's fusion cuisine, each dish is suffused with earthy flavors like adobo, pepper, and oregano, and then accented with bright garlic and citrus.
While not comprehensive—I didn't include the worthy Cuban sandwiches for now, since that could be an entire story on its own—these are entrees the restaurant's servers eat themselves and repeatedly recommend, as well as my personal favorites. A couple of them, as the menu will proudly make sure you know, caught the attention of the Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives in 2012. (You can watch it here.)
Starting things off is the choripan ($8), which represents a major upgrade on bruschetta. A hunk of sandwich baguette is sliced on a bias, toasted, and topped in abundance with a sort of julienned sofrito and big slices of chorizo. The perfectly tender bell peppers and caramelized onions have been sautéed together with the sausage, and are infused with its garlicky, spiced flavor.
A crisp salad might not grab anyone's attention on a menu focusing on deep, slow-roasted flavors, but this one is worth it. The avocado salad (with churrasco, $13) is a classy, simple thing done right. The kitchen doesn't skimp on the avocado—just the opposite, in fact—and it's gently but expertly dressed with olive oil, salt, and a splash of vinegar. Adding the churrasco isn't necessary, but I recommend it. The skirt steak is marinated in citrus, salt, and garlic overnight, making it incredibly tender. Ask for a side of the zippy chimichurri to top it off with.
Your first bite of puerco rostizado ($15) skews sweet—prunes, guava, hoppy non-alcoholic malt beer, and sugar are all part of the marinade—but not too sweet. On the finish, you get a distinctive tang lent by a big pour of bitter orange juice. It's roasted slowly overnight, pulled, flash-sautéed with caramelized onions, and paired with rice and beans. In my experience, this crowd favorite disappears within an infinitesimal fraction of the time it took to cook.
Its nutritional profile may be practically nil, but yuca makes a killer fry ($4). It's partly a textural triumph over the Idaho potato—the starchy root has a lower water content, so it's less prone to sogginess. It's also partly because of 90 Miles's incredible mojo sauce—the fried wedges are spooned over with lots of minced garlic, soaked in a lightly citrusy olive oil.
Compared to the powerful punches of chimichurri, sweet prunes, or raw garlic, the fricase de pollo ($13) represents a gentler side of Cuban cuisine. These chicken quarters are slowly braised in a tomato-based stew with plenty of oregano, cumin, bell peppers, onions, cumin, turmeric, and olives until the meat practically falls off the bone.
Never mind that Chicago is 1,450 miles as the crow flies from Cuba; we're just glad the Gonzalez duo is here.