The Taste of Puerto Rico

Spanish occupation may have caused Puerto Rico 400 years of political turmoil, but it did good things for the food. Spanish staples like olive oil, capers, and the prized bacalao (dried salt cod) combined well with the island’s native riches: a wealth of seafood–shrimp, kingfish, lobster–and sturdy root vegetables like plantains and yucca.

“Our cuisine is special,” says Eddie Galarza, owner of La Cocina Criolla, a tiny Puerto Rican restaurant in Logan Square.

Galarza and his ex-wife, Virginia, opened the place in 1989, more than four decades after leaving Puerto Rico. Eddie had been a laundry manager at Bethany Hospital in Lares, and in 1946 transferred to the same job at the Bethany branch in Chicago. Over the next 20 years he held a series of odd jobs: paint mixer, nightclub owner (remember El Cafe Ole in Lincoln Park?), and finally, restaurateur. By 1975 he and Virginia had saved enough money to open La Siesta, a popular Mexican restaurant in Lincoln Park that had an impressive run of almost 20 years.

But Galarza had always wanted to cook the food he remembered eating as a child. “Eddie always made Puerto Rican food at home,” says Virginia. In the late 80s they ran El Criollo Restaurant near the corner of Elston and Damen, serving dishes from Argentina, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. But they never much liked the building, and business wasn’t great. At the same time, the neighborhood around La Siesta started gentrifying. “Parking there is so bad,” says Virginia, taking a break from waiting tables on a weekday afternoon. “The rent got too high….We liked this area. It was off the expressway, and there was no trouble with the gangs like there is on West Division.”

“A lot of our [La Siesta] customers followed us over here,” says Eddie, and he still cooks a few Mexican standards–enchiladas, tacos, and burritos. But authentic Puerto Rican dishes dominate the menu. Take the appetizer section, where half the items contain plantains. “They are used so much back home,” says Eddie. “I buy the green plantains and the ripe, sweet plantains…about 150 pounds a week.” The green variety is used to make tostones. The plantain is sliced, pressed into flat discs about three inches across, quickly fried, and served with a small bowl of olive oil infused with chopped fresh garlic.

A variation on this is tostones rellenos. The same disc is shaped into a cup, which holds a mound of baby shrimp sauteed with garlic, tomatoes, bell pepper, and cilantro. Guachitos combine Puerto Rican and Mexican flavors in a tasty trio: tostones as the base, fresh guacamole for the middle layer, and on top two slices of salchichon, a thinly sliced sausage. More familiar to fans of Cuban cuisine are the maduros–chunks of ripe plantain fried until almost black on the outside, yet tender and sweet on the inside.

On a Mexican menu “pastele” means something sweet. But on a Puerto Rican menu it’s just the opposite: a savory tamale made of mashed green and ripe plantains, a root vegetable called yautia, and calabaza, a South American squash similar to pumpkin. Once the vegetables have been ground together, the mixture is pressed out onto aluminum foil and topped with bits of ground pork. The pasteles are wrapped up in the foil and boiled–for a result that combines smoky pork, soft squash, and semisweet plantain in every bite. One of the restaurant’s combination platters offers this traditional dish along with a roasted pork chop and arroz con gandules, achiote-seasoned yellow

rice with pigeon peas.

There are plenty of exotic dishes to choose from: baby goat that’s been marinated overnight in red wine, garlic, peppers, and grape juice, then slowly braised until fork-tender; pigs’ feet cooked with chickpeas; even a lobster gumbo. But there are also basic dishes like sandwiches, including a Puerto Rican favorite, the jibarito: steak or chicken between two long slabs of green plantain that have been smashed thin, deep-fried, and brushed with mayo. The word “means hillbilly or peasant,” Eddie says matter-of-factly. “It means something that’s very typical.” Sure enough, signs on stores throughout Logan Square and Humboldt Park reveal the word “jibarito” can refer to more than just food–it advertises to a Puerto Rican clientele that the establishment in whose window it appears offers a taste of home, whether it’s furniture or just a snack.

“Americans already know about Mexican food,” says Eddie. “When they come here, they can taste something new.”

La Cocina Criolla is at 2418 W. Fullerton, 773-235-7377. –Steve Dolinsky

The Dish

One Sixty Blue’s current owner (David Zadikoff) and sous chef (Jason Paskewitz) will be heading up operations at Wave, the restaurant inside the new W hotel; it’s slated to open August 8 at 644 N. Lake Shore Dr. i Michael and Natalie Moore of Pasta Palazzo will open their new tapas restaurant, Twist, sometime in May at 3412 N. Sheffield. i Now open, from the owners of Bistro Pacific: Dozo Sushi and Lobster, specializing in fresh-kill lobster served sashimi style, at 100 E. Walton.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.