Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Return of La Bombonera

Posted By on 02.02.10 at 05:26 PM

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  • Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Listening to pepper-haired, sturdily built Ramon Delgado sketch out plans for his month-old Cuban restaurant La Bombonera, it’s hard to imagine he ever retired from its previous incarnation on Milwaukee Avenue. A few years puttering in Orlando must have dragged like a stretch in stir.

"I’m going to move the oven over there, so everyone can see it,” he says, pointing to a gleaming stainless steel rotisserie oven that looks like it’s about to teleport a row of chickens. “Then I’m going to make this area cafeteria style, put in granite counters so you can sit at the counter and see the food being made. The back is going to be a party room, no liquor license, I want to stay clear of liquor, I’m not a party guy, but if you have a group of eight or ten people, it’s nicer for you. And maybe not this year but next year, we could make it into an outdoor cafe. And the tin ceiling, I’m going to have that painted like copper....”

To be honest, his sunny Logan Square cafe looks perfectly pleasant and cheerful as it is. But if he has big plans, he also has the experience to pull them off. His original La Bombonera opened in 1987 on Milwaukee facing Logan Square, and it lasted almost 20 years. He also owned a Mexican restaurant—where he seems to have had his fill of late-night margarita drinkers—and invested in real estate around the neighborhood. By the early 2000s many of his generation of Latino restaurant owners were cashing in on the gentrification of northwest side Hispanic neighborhoods, and he sold out in 2003. His old location is now a hip coffeehouse.

Delgado, his second wife, Esther, and their young children moved to Orlando for a few years, then came back to suburban Addison to be closer to their families. But it was obvious Ramon was itching to get back in the game. At one point he started taking a freshly made Cuban sandwich each day to Esther at her job with the Addison school district; in no time he was making a couple of dozen each day and selling them to her coworkers. “I said, this man needs another restaurant,” Esther says.

He scouted locations for a year, and during that time one of his sons from his first marriage, Carlos, was laid off from a job in finance. Carlos never worked at the original La Bombonera, but now he was ready to join his dad in the new venture. “I was intimidated at first, I thought of hosting and waiting on people like it was a science,” Carlos says. “But I realized it was really just killing people with kindness, and it came naturally to me.”

Ramon chose a corner location on Diversey a few blocks east of Pulaski. It’s not really that far from his old location, but definitely on the other side of an invisible line dividing Anglo and Latino Logan Square. The old La Bombonera was pretty much just a coffee and sandwich shop—Cubans rival Italians when it comes to cafe culture as a complete lifestyle—and the classic sandwiches are all on the menu. There are Cuban sandwiches (roasted pork, ham, cheese, mustard and pickle, pressed on a grill), medianoches (the same insides, on a yellow egg bun), ropa vieja (shredded beef in a tomatoey stew), and the Chicago-invented Puerto Rican delicacy, the jibarito, a gooey mess of meat, cheese and mayo grilled between stiff “bread” made of starchy green plantains. (Ramon has even invented a sweet-plantain version he calls a “jibarita,” which ups the gooeyness factor geometrically.)

But because the area is home to so many South Americans, this time he’s stressing rotisserie chicken. Chicken places have hatched all over the northwest side, but where many just dust the chicken with a commercial seasoning like Goya Sazon, Ramon makes sure I know that he grinds his own mojo criollo from pepper, garlic and other spices. The freshly ground flavor of the spicing is definitely a strong point, though he’s still on the learning curve in terms of getting perfect crispy skin out of his fancy new rotisserie oven.

As he’s talking about the chicken, another man in sports shirt, sporting cap, and sunglasses walks up and greets him with a macho handshake. This is Emid Palma, a Cuban chef who helps out several local Cuban restaurants with certain dishes, to ensure their food truly represents the flavors of a homeland many restaurant owners have not seen since they were children.

Or in Ramon Delgado’s case, at all. It turns out that Ramon isn’t actually Cuban, though his first wife was (and thus Carlos is half-Cuban as well). He was born of Puerto Rican parents in Chicago. But growing up, his friends were all Cuban, and Esther even says he speaks Spanish with a Cuban rather than a Puerto Rican accent (not that I’m in a position to judge).

So why, I ask, did he open a Cuban rather than a Puerto Rican restaurant when he first got started, all those years ago? “That’s my food,” he shrugs. “It’s always been the food I loved. Once you have it, it sticks in your blood.”

La Bombonera Cafe and Deli
3658 W. Diversey, 773-394-1375

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