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November 07, 2011

Papa's Cache Sabroso

Jibarito de Bistec Dominic Armato

This trip to Chicago has become the "correcting great shames" tour, and my visit to Papa's Cache Sabroso was no exception, on two fronts. The first and most obvious is that this little Puerto Rican joint is beloved of both the LTH crowd in general and, more specifically, an old favorite of some of my dear food friends, and yet I'd never set foot inside before last week. And what a shame that is, because to step in off the street, particularly on a grey and dreary late October afternoon, is to be transported... by the change in light, the change in warmth, the change in volume, the change in energy, and above all the change in scent, which is absolutely devastating. Warm, cozy and bustling, Papa's possesses an almost goofy yet somehow charming island vibe, adorned with brightly colored murals of sandy Puerto Rican beaches and a thatched awning over the counter. My compatriots and I took a seat, and a few minutes later, Coco Loco in hand, I ordered the Jibarito de Bistec. Which leads me to my second great shame.

Jibarito de BistecDominic Armato

When one considers specific dishes that Chicago has contributed to the culinary scene, a number of entries stand out. There's the famously greasy triumvirate of Chicago style hot dogs, deep dish pizza, and my beloved Italian Beef sandwich. Less well known are ethnic offshoots like flaming saganaki, Shrimp de Jonghe and Chicken Vesuvio (though I've seen intelligent, if not entirely convincing to me, arguments against the Chicago-ness of the last). And yet one of Chicago's most unique creations is of a decidedly different breed, a recent invention first cooked up barely fifteen years ago by Juan Figueroa in the Puerto Rican kitchen of Borinquen Restaurant. The Jibarito, a sandwich whose spirit rests in Puerto Rico even if its origins are in Chicago, combines a meat filling -- originally seasoned, grilled steak -- with cool tomato and shredded lettuce, melted cheese and garlicky mayonnaise and layers them between two crisply fried planks of green plantain in lieu of bread. It's an ingenious combination, and tempting as it was to have my first in the restaurant that introduced it to the world, consensus among aficionados of the genre seemed to be that Papa's version was both better and more consistent. So it was here that I and my compatriots (we all ordered the same) tucked into our first Jibaritos.

The result was unanimous delight. With beautifully seasoned, smoky, tender beef, melty cheese, crisp vegetables and the creamy tang of mayonnaise, the fillings would be a winner on any old bread. But combining them with the crisp, nutty crunch of plantains fried in garlic oil takes the sandwich in a completely different direction, both in terms of texture and flavor, and it's easy to see why the Jibarito's popularity has exploded across Chicago, and is starting to pop up in other cities. It's a beautiful thing, crisp, fresh and gooey all at the same time, with vibrant flavors, its decadence mitigated by its modest size (made necessary, perhaps, by the size of the plantains?), and if I hadn't ordered something else for us to try, I might've had two.

Pollo ChonDominic Armato

Thankfully, the whole chickens slowly rotating behind the counter were too much to resist, else I might have missed another of the restaurant's gems. I added a few pieces of pollo chon to the mix, and this was succulent stuff, not dripping with juice like some varieties of rotisserie chicken, but striking a balance of moist and toothsome that made possible the delectable skin. Basted in a lightly sweet and garlickly concoction, the skin wasn't exactly crispy, but rather deeply caramelized and sticky, like savory chicken candy on an allium bender. It's a coating that can also defy one's grip, as I discovered when a half-eaten piece slipped from my fingers and landed on the floor, but not before basting my leg on the way down. As the corners of my mouth drooped in sad, cartoonish fashion, my ladylove asked if I'd made a mess of my pants. "Yes..." I replied, "...but that's not why I'm sad."

Papa's Cache Sabroso
2715 W. Division Street
Chicago, IL 60622
Mon - Thu11 AM - 10 PM
Fri - Sat11 AM - 11:30 PM


How coincidental is that...

I am headed to Chicago this week and Papa's has always been one of my favorite stops. I usually go on Saturdays so I can get their amazing Lechon Asado.

Thanks for the review.

I'm ashamed to admit that I never even heard of a Jibarito until recently.

I just went to a Peruvian place in Queens that I would consider one of the best places to eat in New York ! The chicken looked exactly like this and it was so tender, flavorful, and juicy! Thanks for sharing and happy eating.

Oh interesting - I've never heard of a Jibarito either, but have you ever had patacons? I've had them at a few Venezuelan restaurants and they seem similar to the Jibarito, with meat and cheese and vegetables served in a fried green plantain "sandwich." Now I want to find a Jibarito and compare!

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