There's no mistaking chilly Lake Michigan for the impossibly blue waters of the Caribbean. But as winter flirts with turning into spring, you can take a break from the cold by feasting on all the juicy, spicy flavors of the Caribbean right here in Chicago. A lip-smacking fusion of African, Indian, Spanish and French fares, island cuisine is an instant taste of the tropics. Whether you nosh on Trinidadian roti or Puerto Rican jibaritos
, island-hopping in Chicago is a far cheaper way to banish the winter blues than boarding an airplane. Here are a few of our sun-kissed favorites.
Feast on Cuban at Cafe Bolero
There are two sides to this phenomenal Cuban joint: candlelit romance in the back and laid-back exposed-grill entertainment in the front. Whatever your mood, order a mojito stat and, while you sip the strong elixir, admire the wallpaper made from old Cuban newspapers, broken occasionally by hanging artwork. The word “linger” was made for places like this, and the food lives up to the island-worthy ambience. On the light side, opt for a Cuban sandwich (ham, roasted pork and cheese piled onto crispy French bread and curiously sans the usual pile of pickles). Or to satisfy a heartier Cuban craving, dig into the deep-fried combo platter of meat-stuffed potato croquettes or the traditional pork chops, served with black beans, rice and a handful of gooey, fried plantains. Taking a seat on the patio may be pressing your luck with this weather, but an evening inside is a sure bet for sun-soaked flavors.
It's all about Dominican delights at Punta Cana
Don't be surprised if even the customers of Punta Cana greet you warmly when you enter. Take a seat and dive right in to the empanadas (pastries stuffed with ground beef, chicken or cheese), goat stew or fish dishes (red snapper, kingfish or cod slathered in thick tasty sauces). Plantains, a popular side dish across the Caribbean, get the star treatment here: served crispy with garlic sauce, sweetened with sugar and sour cream, or flattened and fried like thick chips. Wash down the Dominican spices with a tall glass of pina colada (a simple pour of coconut and pineapple juices, minus the alcohol) or any of the many combinations of tamarind, passion fruit and coconut juices. The morir-sonando, a traditional Dominican drink that translates as "to die dreaming," is a tongue-tingling treat of fresh oranges, crushed ice, sugar and sweet cream.
Tantalize your taste buds at Cafe Trinidad
Owner Daryl Hicks claims this is the first Trinidadian restaurant in Chicago. So what are you waiting for? Get down to Chatham—and bring your appetite. The sunny corner dining room at this humble hotspot is generally crowded with adventurous diners and friendly ex-pats. For a sure bet, order the roti, known as the "wrap of the Caribbean," a soft, flat bread filled with ground split peas, spices and fillings like jerk chicken, cabbage and greens, or potato and chickpeas. The thick, toothsome wrap is lightly pressed and cooked over a flat iron griddle, resulting in a little bundle perfect for two-handed Caribbean noshing. Seafood gets major play on the menu (think curry salmon, red snapper and curry crab and dumplings); but whatever your main dish, be sure to load up on the tasty sides. We couldn't get enough of the callaloo, a creamy stewed mix of okra and spinach, while the plantains were appropriately addictive.
Borinquen Restaurant can mean only one thing: jibarito
One glance at this Puerto Rican restaurant's lengthy menu and diners are flooded with guilt. Borinquen offers page upon page of stuffed peppers, steaks and pork chops—but most diners have their hearts set on one thing: the jibarito. A true sandwich innovation (and, seriously, how often does that happen?) the jibarito comes topped with steak, roast pork, chicken or veggies, and piled with lettuce, tomato, American cheese and a thick smear of mashed garlic, all between two pieces of "bread," made from smashed plantains that have been formed and fried into slice-like pieces. Trust us—one bite of this crowd-luring, mouth-watering sandwich and you’ll be a repeat jibarito fan just like everyone else at this low-key spot. The decor may be lacking (ceiling fans, a sad fish tank and an open, manic kitchen), but that doesn't impede Borinquen from satisfying a major craving for a taste of the Caribbean.