Cafe con Leche
is a hectic place. The tiny restaurant was throbbing with activity, slinging platefuls of cheap south-of-the-border cuisine (Mexican with a splash of Cuba) to a patient line. Hungry customers flowed in and out, managers offered advice on what to try, and pick-up orders were pushed out the door every few minutes. To my virgin eyes, it seemed to be the hub of all movement in Logan Square, yet it somehow maintained an airy, friendly feel.
I was standing in line when I met Hector the Cuban. He was an older gentleman who happened to be placing his order when I accidentally cut in front of him to ask about molletes (think Mexican pizza). I wasn't quite sure what they were and thought he was simply wrapping up his lengthy chat with the all-Spanish staff behind the counter. Once I realized that he hadn't ordered yet and that I'd broken rank, I stepped back, apologized profusely and lightly brushed his arm to show my sincerity. From that moment on Hector and I were buds.
I quickly placed an order for the molletes and a bowl of sausage noodle soup and sat down to catch up with what seemed like an old friend. Hector started at the top and slowly explained to me how he'd left Cuba as a boy to come to live in Chicago, where he spent the next 45 years. Then one day it hit him that he wanted to be down South. He packed up and moved to "beautiful" Daytona Beach where he opened a place called Goodfella's Pizzeria, a restaurant that specializes in Chicago-style pizza and Cuban sandwiches.
Throughout our talk, food started arriving at the table. As Hector detailed the inner workings of the Daytona 500, I covered my sausage and noodle soup with a handful of cilantro, chopped onion and squirts of fresh lime. Even though it was still early, I'd seen another diner slurping down a bowl when I first walked in and was stopped in my tracks by the simplicity of the dish.
I swigged my horchata between bites of my warm molletes and asked Hector no less than three times if he wanted to sample my mini Mexican pizzas. Seeing how much I was enjoying the big hunks of toasted French bread covered in frijoles, pico de gallo and melted cheese, Hector finally said okay and took a small bite, to which he nodded his approval.
He then offered me a bite of his crunchy jamon y queso sandwich, and I tore off half eagerly (the big slather of sour cream and sliced avocado were nice additions). He just laughed at my enthusiasm and continued telling me in his broken English that when he drives up to Chicago from Daytona, he only makes one pit stop along the way. Turns out, he stays the night in Chattanooga. When I told him that was my hometown, he was delighted that I was from the South and that we had that common bond. I just laughed and eyed the other half of his sandwich.
We finished up our meal, signaling the time for goodbyes, but I wasn't sure how to say it. Hector solved the problem for me, simply tossing me a card and with an invitation to come see him at Goodfella's when I come down to Daytona (as if I'm in Daytona often). He promised to hook me up with some real Chicago-style pizza and a Cuban sandwich so good it'll make me cry. Bellys full, we hugged and said farewell, and as I climbed into my truck parked across the street, I got one last toot from Hector's horn as he blazed past.
The Final Rave: Places like Cafe con Leche are a dime a dozen, but when I find a spot this sociable that encourages such freedom with strangers, I know I'll be back for more.
Keep It Going:
Do it: Cafe Laguardia
For a more upscale Cuban-inspired atmosphere, grab a cafe con leche at this Bucktown mainstay. Or just go Cuban all the way and test out one of its flavored mojitos; I'm partial to the coconut.
Eat it: Flash Taco
When Cafe con Leche shuts its doors promptly at 8 p.m., you can head to this popular late-night taco stand in Wicker Park. The same guy owns both haunts.
Drink it: La Unica
This tucked-away restaurant in the back of a grocery store doles out one of the best cafe con leches around. Try the sugary coffee with a Cuban tamale or a wedge of dense flan.
Get crazy with it: Goodfella's Pizzeria
If you make it to south Daytona Beach, make sure to stop into Hectors ode to Chicago. Hulking slabs of pizza and pressed Cuban sandwiches abound.
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.