When the late, great Logan Square loncheria Cafe Marianao mysteriously shut down and the property went on the market in the summer of 2016, it was like the unexplained disappearance of a loved one: shocking, brutal, and offering no closure. For decades, stoic countermen at the Milwaukee Avenue sandwich shop plied a steady but disordered scrum of adherents with cafe con leche and Cubano, steak, and medianoche sandwiches. And suddenly, without warning, it was all over. News reports were vague—the owners listed the spot for $1.39 million, and not surprisingly it sold a month later.
But who were the original owners? And why shut down? Was it a cold and calculated abandonment of tradition in the face of gentrified real estate prices?
Don’t be so cynical. It was because founder Manuel Basilio “Bia” Santiago had gone to his great reward. That’s the word from his grandson Marcos Santiago, who assembled sandwiches in the basement when he was growing up before going on to college and embarking on his own career.
“I always tell people it was like a bar on a Friday night where you had to get your elbow in there and hope that somebody got your order,” says Santiago. Bia—his grandfather’s family nickname—got started serving sandwiches and coffee at a corner grocery he operated at Armitage and Albany, decades before going into business with Santiago’s uncle on Milwaukee.
Last year his daughter, Odalys, enlisted son Marcos to help her reopen in Irving Park just as stealthily as Cafe Marianao closed in Logan Square. I missed it completely until I passed by a few weeks ago, but unsurprisingly Friend of Food Chain Titus Ruscitti was on the scene early, and Check, Please! paid a visit last month.
“We still get the old Cuban guys hanging out,” says Santiago. When he first opened, “they were like, is it the same place?’ I’m like, ‘I promise it’s going to taste the exact same way.’”
He’s right about that. This signature steak sandwich (pictured below), simmered and pressed with onion and tomato, is as a scarfable as ever. Same goes for the Cubano (pictured above in its doubled form).
There’s plenty that’s different though. Gone are the stern, all-male counter workers. There’s table seating and music and churros, flan, bread pudding, empanadas, pastelitos, and a guava chicken barbecue sandwich that might raise the old timers’ eyebrows. Or maybe not.
“My grandfather and uncle always had a secret menu,” says Santiago. The most famous of all was ham egg and cheese with steak on it.”
But Santiago’s not keeping any secrets, openly encouraging people to get creative, which has resulted in innovations like the double ham, egg, and cheese with steak, and the triple steak with egg and cheese.
“I let people get crazy with it,” he says, which leads to another new feature for this seasoned sandwich shop. “It makes for good Instagram photos. When somebody sees a quadruple steak with all this stuff on top they say where can I get that? In this day and age everybody eats with their eyes first, right? I don’t mind if you want to throw chicken on your Cuban, I’ll figure out a way to charge you for it.”
Bia’s Cafe Marianao, 4323 W. Addison, 773-993-0178