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[Photographs: Titus Ruscitti]

Shame on me for taking so long to get to 63rd St. in Marquette Park for a taste of Belize at Garifuna Flava. It was always on my radar, but in a city with as many eating options as Chicago you sometimes forget certain spots when a time that works comes. Well, my time came with this South Side Eats column, and if I want to take something good out of my delayed appearance, it couldn't have come at a better time.

Garifuna Flava is no stranger to the media. It's been praised for their bold flavors locally and nationally. Even that Guy from the Food Network has rolled through, although I think he chose to leave the red Camero at home for this trip. Even so, props to him for checking out this fantastic family-owned restaurant specializing in the food of the Garifuna people. These are the descendants of Carib and West African people who primarily live in Central America along the Caribbean Coast particularly in Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. They're a group of folks very committed to their roots. They maintain the same culture from past generations by keeping many different traditions from their Afro-Caribbean heritage alive. Of course, music, art, and food play a big role in doing so. Traditional Garifuna meals revolve around fish, chicken, cassava, bananas, and plantains. Most are rich and hearty. Like I was saying, with winter here, now is the time to get familiar.

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Starting off with an order of their bestseller panades paired with conch fritters is a good way to go. The fritters are like most you'll find in South Florida and the Caribbean, which means a lot of batter and some conch here and there. But you dont have the option of eating these at most every meal like you do when on vacation down there, so I enjoyed their version considering it's been a while. They came with a crispy exterior and a moist interior, and I was able to spice them up just right by adding some of Belize's most well known export. Marie Sharp's hot sauce sits at every table. The Panades were sensational. These are corn patties stuffed with hashed buffalo fish and a sweet vegetable sauce, and just like the first time I tried a Jamaican beef patty, I'm instantly addicted to them.

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The Belizean Stew Chicken has to be one of the best cheap lunch specials (available 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.) in Chicago. Chicken is marinated with bell peppers, onion, vinegar, paprika, and black pepper, and then slowly stewed and until fall apart tender. All lunches come with rice and beans, fried ripe plantain, and your choice of salad. For those that don't have the time to slow cook meats but want some in their life, head here.

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But the real star of the show and a reason I cant wait to get back are the soups. All three options sounded particularly appealing, especially the conch soup, but it's only served based on the availability of conch, so call ahead if that's what you're planning to try. Since it was not available on this trip, I went with the Hudut Baruru. Huh? That would be a coconut milk stew seasoned with black pepper, garlic, onions, oregano, and other spices, with a filet of kingfish in it. On the side is fufu, a.k.a. mashed plantain used for dipping into the soup.

Although this was my only familiarity with Garifuna food, I know a good soup broth when I taste one and this was deep. I'm talking the type of bowl where each and every spoonful gets slurped. The rich coconut milk gives it some Thai flavor, but it takes on a taste all it's own. Fufu is traditionally used to soak up the broth—similar to the bread you get with a steaming bowl of mussels. All in all, a very satisfying dish that's sure to bring craves as winter continues on. Beer and liquor are served, and the space is big enough to accommodate large groups. Add in great hospitality, a relaxing atmosphere, and one of the world's rarer cuisines being served, and you got a spot that's a true city treasure. If this is your first time hearing about it, don't make the mistake I did and wait so long to stop in. I won't go that long between visits again, that's for sure. Much love.

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