Macondo Colombian Coffee and Empanadas

Ay Ay Picante

4569 N. Elston | 773-427-4239

$

SOUTH AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO

It’s all about seafood and starch—mainly in spud form—at this Peruvian spot owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team. For starters we tried the ocopa, a traditional appetizer of cold boiled potatoes served with a strong, somewhat minty-flavored sauce made with cheese, ground walnuts, and huacatay, a herb native to the Andes. An ample plate of one of several ceviches offered copious calamari and shrimp plus sweet potato, onions, and corn. Fresh and delightfully tangy, it could’ve served as a main course. We next tried a dish of steamed shrimp served with tomatoes and onions in a white wine sauce, and the bistec encebollado, a thin cut of beef also prepared with sauteed onions and tomatoes, and while neither left the impression of our appetizers, they were savory and satisfying. Service was excellent, and the cheerful pre-Columbian murals on the walls do a solid job of brightening up the space. —Susannah J. Felts

Brasa Roja

3125 W. Montrose | 773-866-2252

$$

SOUTH AMERICAN, STEAKS | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO

This outpost of Jorge and Jeanette Gacharna’s excellent Lakeview churrascaria, El Llano, has one major advantage over the original: pollo rostizado. Every morning the birds start spinning over hot coals in the window of the Albany Park storefront; plump and round, with steadily browning skin, they beg to be tucked under the arm like a football and carried away. In the dining room the Gacharnas have disguised the ghosts of retail past, festooning the dropped ceiling and walls with folkloric gimcracks and posters of South American ranch life. The scent of sizzling flesh precedes the arrival of wooden boards laden with grilled steaks, short ribs, or rabbit, accompanied by a sharp salsa verde and the four starches of the apocalypse—rice, fried yuca, boiled potato, and arepas. Milk- or water-based jugos like blackberry and mango are surpassed by the sweet but oddly peppery passion-fruit variety, and desserts include brevas con arequipe (caramel-filled figs). Doors open at 9 AM for calentado, the traditional Colombian breakfast featuring beans, arepas, potatoes, eggs, and carne asada. There’s a second location at 3424 W. Irving Park. —Mike Sula

D’Candela

4053 N. Kedzie | 773-478-0819

$

SOUTH AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY | BYO | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

Peru is preeminent among Latin American countries when it comes to pollo a la brasa, rotisserie chicken, But that’s not all there is on offer from the father-son team of Luis Garcia Jr. and Sr., who also feature lomo saltado, beef marinated, sauteed, and served over rice, and ceviche topped with red onions lightly pickled in lime juice, widely regarded as the Peruvian national dish. What’s striking about many of the dishes is their vividness. Peruvian riffs on fried rice—beef, seafood, or chicken, with brilliant chunks of red and green pepper, crispy scrambled egg, and green onions—are Technicolor to the black-and-white of your average greasy cardboard-container takeout. Chicha morada is a winey-purple sweet drink made from boiling ears of purple corn with cinnamon and clove. And the chupe de camarones, is a deep bowl of milky red soup highlighted by deep red sprinklings of ancho chile and loaded with shrimp, poached eggs, blobs of chewy melted cheese, peas, carrots, and rice—it looks like the surface of Jupiter. The tallarin verde con bistec is a slab of beef atop a mound of bright green spinach-basil pesto; aguadito, a brilliant green chicken soup the Garcias serve on weekends, gets its color from cilantro and spinach pureed into the broth. And then there is the aji, the most distinctive accompaniment to Peruvian pollo a la brasa—a creamy pastel yellow mayo-and-mustard-based salsa, cool and tangy, with a hint of heat from the aji de amarillo chile and an herbal note from huacatay, Peruvian black mint. A spicier version, pale green in color, is made with jalapeños and served with the restaurant’s other dishes. It’s particularly good with the anticuchos, marinated, skewered veal heart, which anyone thinking about dabbling in offal for the first time should consider as a gateway organ. —Mike Sula

Folklore

2100 W. Division | 773-292-1600

$$$

SOUTH AMERICAN | LUNCH: SUNDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 1, OTHER NIGHTS TILL MIDNIGHT

A cozy, dimly lit place with exposed brick, tall candles on the tables, and Argentine paraphernalia like mate gourds decorating the walls, Folklore offers a steak-centric menu of authentic Argentine fare very similar to that of its sister restaurant, Tango Sur. The squeamish may not love the authenticity, though: sweetbreads and blood sausage make up half of the parrillada, a mixed grill that also includes steak and chorizo, and there are no substitutions allowed. But there are also plenty of other options on the large menu—even several vegetarian ones and a few fish dishes (listed as pez and otro pez, or “fish” and “other fish”). A creamy risotto with asparagus, spinach, and shrimp was slightly gummy, but baked eggplant layered with spinach and cheese and topped with tomato cream sauce turned out to be one of the highlights of the meal. Empanadas of moist ground beef in a flaky shell were even better with the excellent house-made chimichurri sauce. Still, steak is what Argentina’s best known for, and Folklore offers several imported cuts of lean grass-fed beef as well as fattier domestic steaks; our bife de chorizo (strip steak) was perfectly cooked to medium rare as requested. The chorizo was also a real standout, one of the best renditions I’ve had. Because the portions were so big, it turned out that we’d accidentally ordered an overwhelming amount of food; this didn’t escape the notice of our friendly server, who brought us a complimentary flan—rich, creamy, and topped with dulce de leche—for being the “customers of the day.” We managed to find room for it. —Julia Thiel

La Fonda Latino Grill

5350 N. Broadway | 773-271-3935

$$$

SOUTH AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SUNDAY, TUESDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED MONDAY

The bulk of the dishes at this Edgewater eatery are Colombian—including starters like the wonderfully crisp spinach-and-mushroom empanadas, delicate arepas, topped with mushrooms and cheese, and morcilla (blood pudding) with guajillo chile sauce. Entrees like lengua en salsa roja (beef tongue simmered in a creamy tomato sauce with green peas) and arroz con camarones (yellow rice with shrimp, peas, onions, and peppers) are so generously portioned they’d be best shared, perhaps with soup or an order of churrasco (grilled loin of beef served with chimichurri sauce and sweet plantains). To drink there are margaritas, mojitos, sangria, and a concise but well-selected list of inexpensive wines, with glass prices ranging from $7 to $8. The servers are genuinely helpful and gracious. A lunch buffet Tuesday through Friday offers a limited sampling of the dinner menu for $8.95. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Lito’s Empanadas

2566 N. Clark | 773-857-1337

$

SOUTH AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED

How nice for Lincoln Park to have a dedicated takeout empanada depot. It’d be nicer if they were regularly fried to order instead of aged in a holding oven that dries out the fillings and softens the crust. Of 11 lukewarm varieties including beef or chicken and rice; beef, raisin, and potato; barbecue chicken; ham, cheese, and pineapple; chocolate and banana; and vegetarian, I found the simple spinach and cheese the most satisfying, which is to say not so much at all—a condition that required an emergency trip to the nearby Wiener’s Circle. —Mike Sula

El Llano

3941 N. Lincoln | 773-868-1708

$$

South American | Lunch, Dinner: seven days | Open Late: Friday & Saturday till 11:30 | BYO

The high red ceilings leave plenty of room for the numerous Colombian sculptures, artifacts, and wind chimes affixed to the walls at this steak house. Meat offerings are abundant, from carne asada and churrasco (large chunks of marinated grilled steak) to tongue and brisket. The few fish items are mostly deep-fried, like a whole red snapper seasoned with an interesting combination of spices and set off with a squeeze of lime. Most dishes come with sides of white rice, fried yuca strips, and fried sweet plantains, which, along with menu offerings such as beet turnovers, arepas with cheese, and fried potatoes, could make a meal for vegetarians. —Laura Levy Shatkin

Macondo Colombian Coffee and Empanadas

2965 N. Lincoln | 773-698-6867

$

south AMERICAN, COFFEE SHOP | 8 AM-8 PM SUNDAY-THURSDAY, 8 AM-9 PM FRIDAY-SATURDAY

This empanada joint from the owners of Las Tablas, just a few doors up the street from the original Lincoln Avenue location, offers simpler fare in a casual but elegant space filled with hardwood furnishings. A half-dozen varieties of empanadas range from tender, savory chicken with pepper sauce to sweet dulce de leche and banana; they’re fried fresh with each order and arrive hot enough to burn your mouth even after several minutes, partly thanks to the thick corn-flour shells. Other offerings consist mostly of side dishes you could easily build a meal with, like red beans, rice, chorizo, fried yucca, arepas, and salad. Aborrajado, or fried plantain covered with guava and melted mozzarella, was on the sweet side for a main dish but could double as a good dessert. There’s also a small store area with Colombian coffees, music, crafts, and specialty foods. —Julia Thiel

El Nandu

2731 W. Fullerton | 773-278-0900

$$

SOUTH AMERICAN | LUNCH: MONDAY-SATURDAY; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: THURSDAY TILL 1, FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11:30

At El Nandu there are eight kinds of empanadas to choose from, including criollo (ground beef, bell pepper, yellow raisins), maiz (fresh corn, hard-boiled egg, cheese), and espinaca (fresh spinach, white and green onion). We enjoyed the molleja, charbroiled beef sweetbreads (actually the thymus gland), which were firm, remarkably crispy, and lightly meaty, not at all what you’d expect a gland to taste like. There’s a simple grilled chicken breast zebra-striped with garlic, or pollo with chimichurri sauce, but meat’s the thing here—just driving past the place could give a vegetarian the heebie-jeebies. Asada a la parilla is a platter of juicy and wonderfully crusty short ribs; steak Milanesa is a traditional Argentinean preparation, breaded and fried. There’s a full bar where you might try Quilmes, a light Argentinean lager. For desserts there’s quince membrillo (a firm Spanish jelly) with cheese, one of the blandest sweets ever, or a fantastic flan—tough choice. —David Hammond

Rapa Nui

4009 N. Elston | 773-478-0175

$

SOUTH AMERICAN | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | BYO, CARRYOUT, DINNER, SATURDAY LUNCH, SUNDAY LUNCH, OPEN SUNDAY, OPEN MONDAY

Billed as the “House of Empanadas,” Rapa Nui (formerly the Latin Sandwich Cafe) is the place to go if you’ve got a hankering for Chilean chow. Authentic Chilean empanadas are made here of pino, a savory blend of ground beef, raisins, chopped egg, and olives, all baked in a wheat-flour shell. Rolls made fresh on the premises are used for the sandwiches, including the chacarero, a Chilean specialty featuring tender steak, tomato, and green beans. Humitas are Chile’s version of tamales; “blind” (no filling, just sweet cornmeal), they benefit from a little salsa. The dish that captured my heart, though, was pastel de choclo, a baked bowl of masa with ground beef, onion, olives, egg, and a “corn cream”: the cornmeal was caramelized and crisp around the edges, while in the center the casserole had the consistency of corn pudding. Pastel mil hojas, a cake of a “thousand layers” and dulce de leche, is so good you forgive the hyperbole. —David Hammond

Las Tablas

2942 N. Lincoln | 773-871-2414

$$$

south american | LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11

Las Tablas offers a bulky menu of Colombian favorites: empanadas, plantains, grilled seafood, chicken, and lots of beef. Specialties include multiple varieties of churrasco, South America’s staple grilled steak; melt-in-your-mouth grilled pollo al ajillo, chicken pounded flat and marinated in olive oil, garlic, and spices; and vegetarian paella. Las Tablas is not for the faint of stomach. Entrees are hefty and served on wooden cutting boards with sides of fried plantain, yuca, and potato. And although the menu does offer two vegetarian plates, the focus here is definitely on meat. The relaxed main dining room is outfitted with long picnic tables and haphazardly dotted with tall potted plants, South American handicrafts, and a stuffed parrot or two. —Martha Bayne

Tango Sur

3763 N. Southport | 773-477-5466

$$$

SOUTH AMERICAN, STEAKS | lunch: Sunday; DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11:30, SUNDAY TILL 11 | BYO | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY

At dark, dreamy Tango Sur, an Argentinean steak house, one eats beef and not much else. And why would you want anything else? The top-notch steaks are ridiculously inexpensive for their quality and size. My perfectly grilled strip steak, for instance, cost $22; I nibbled on it at breakfast for three days after. My companion’s strip steak was stuffed with cheese and spinach and served with a ladleful of chimichurri sauce that had us nodding our heads in appreciation. Our meal ended with chaja, a yellow cake made with vanilla and coconut, and an immense chunk of flan topped with dulce de leche—quite a topper to the meat fest. —Chip Dudley