Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Five-dollar* lunches: soup, sandwich, and a big-butt mural at El Cubanito

Posted By on 11.14.12 at 12:30 PM

Does this count as Cuban porn?
Chicago newcomer and blogger Gwynedd Stuart loves to eat out, but she also happens to be a poor person because she's a Chicago newcomer and a blogger. In this weekly feature she seeks out affordable midday meals that don't exceed five bucks (*actually seven, with tax and tip).

It's so boring to call a place a "hole in the wall." Yes, we have certain ways of communicating familiar ideas to one another and it's often easiest to rely on a cliche, even though it would take just a sliver of creativity to come up with a unique way to get a point across, in this case, that a certain establishment is tiny, unassuming, run-down.

That said, El Cubanito is such a hole in the wall. But—hear me out—it's a hole in a very specific wall, one that's been spray-painted with a mural of a guy who is ogling a scantily clad woman's gigantic butt and saying, "Mmmm . . . que rico!" So, there's that.

And the food.

Located on Pulaski, on what I guess is the westernmost edge of what can be considered Logan Square, and directly across the street from a gas station that's very proud of its $2.95 car wash, El Cubanito looks sketchy in a way that lots of places that serve good, authentic, inexpensive ethnic food often do. I call it "charm." The small menu is painted on the wall behind the counter, which means neither the offerings nor the prices change with any regularity—and nothing's more than six bucks. Which is great for people like you and me.

I'd heard good things about the steak sandwich from a friend, but I was way too excited about having a good, traditional Cuban to bother with it. Maybe that's boring, but I feel like I was rewarded for my predictability, not only because the Cuban was good, but because they happened to have steak-and-cheese empanadas in the pastry case—presumably made with the same steak that comes in the sandwich—and the empanada was great. At $6, the Cuban was huge, and packed with juicy pork loin, ham, and melty, stringy Swiss cheese. Nothing groundbreaking about the sandwich—mustard, pickles, you get it—but I didn't want something groundbreaking. I wanted a Cuban sandwich. And I still managed to snap a pretty sexy picture of it.

The empanada ($2.50) is a thing I would return for, even if I weren't in the mood for a Cuban or a $2.95 car wash. The steak in the filling was chopped up beyond recognition and frankly looked gross, but burst with rich, peppery flavor. The little bit of cheese melted at the bottom of the pastry pocket cut the bite of the pepper perfectly. I ate one and was so stuffed, but would have at least attempted to eat another. (Keep in mind I was at home by the time I ate; there are maybe two stools at a counter inside the restaurant—and it would be legitimately weird to sit and eat at one.)

So instead of gorging myself on empanadas I moved on to the ajiaco soup. A stew, really; hearty and filling, packed with root vegetables, chicken and pork odds and ends, and corn on the cob. It's $5 a bowl, and plenty to make a meal, especially with the buttered slab of Cuban bread that comes on the side. That it was hot shouldn't count for anything, but on a shitty, dreary day, hot soup becomes impressive in its ability to satisfy.

Other things to try: the timba, a Cuban cream cheese and guava paste sandwich, and, basically, any and every empanada they offer. Working on looking like the big-butt lady in the mural. Wish me luck.

2555 N. Pulaski, 773-235-2555

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