First it was Jorge Soler. Back when he played right field for the Cubs, he really liked the churrasco plate at Cuba 312. Soler told Javier Baez and Willson Contreras and Pedro Strop, and before long all sorts of Latin American players and coaches started hanging out at Billy and Jamie Alvarez’s Roscoe Village restaurant. Then they discovered the couple’s first restaurant, Taste of Cuba, in Lincolnwood, which served a more traditional, homier menu. That was until the couple shut it down and reopened in Irving Park in February, in a narrow space formerly home to a succession of taquerias and hot dog stands (including a satellite of the once-ascendant La Pasadita empire).
Now painted a vivid pastel pink and blue, sporting a giant Celia Cruz mural on the back wall, and renamed for Billy’s abuela, Mima’s is just a ten-minute drive from Rickettsville in case any players get sick of short rib disco fries or the Pig Candy BLT.
Here the Alvarezes have installed a truncated version of their old menu, more lunchfocused and sandwich-dominated, still with a few larger plates and some desirable fried bites like yucca fries, empanadas, gooey ham croquettes, and waffle fries topped with ropa vieja and a fried egg (speaking of disco fries).
Some extraordinary frycraft is indeed practiced at Mima’s, embodied in something as deceptively simple as the tostones. Cross-sected, stacked, and smashed, these crackly coins of deep-fried green plantain have a lightness and freshness, utterly unlike the dense and starchy variant you come across all too often. Billy Alvarez says that’s because he buys and preps fresh plantains every morning, and they’re fried to order (instead of using pre-peeled-and-cut frozen bags).
Time and the freezer are often the enemies of Chicago’s native gluten-free sandwich too. But Alvarez treats Mima’s jibarito similarly: freshly fried crisp planks of plantain, drizzled in garlic mojo, bedding the usual set of ornaments (mayo, tomato, lettuce, cheese) with a choice of steak, chicken, lechon, or shrimp, and bringing it back home with a Cuban version with ham, pork, swiss, mustard, and pickles.
Alvarez is half Cuban and half Puerto Rican, and as a kid he worked a couple shifts at Humboldt Park’s late Borinquen, where the jibarito was born, so he felt obligated to include one on his menu. For the only strictly non-Cuban item available, it’s a very respectable version. But the classic Cubano sandwich itself is something extraordinary, an expertly buttered and pressed package, with all the elements of fat and acidity in balance contained within a uniformly resonant bread jacket. “You have to hear it if you flick it with your fingernail,” says Alvarez. He applies this standard so consistently to the media noche, the lechon, and the bistec, as well as to the breakfast sandwiches, that it’s likely you’ll not notice that it’s Turano bread instead of the unique lard-crisped Cuban bread that eludes most every sandwich maker north of Tampa. That’s more evident in Mima’s only unpressed sandwich, the Gordito, a fat boy stacked with mojo-marinated sirloin, grilled onions, swiss, lettuce, and mayo, with a pair of over easy eggs winking from under the bun.
Skirt steak, pork chops, a bowl of peppery ropa vieja, and juicy shredded roast pork are the core of the meaty platos, each with the choice of classic sides: arroz con gandules, or white rice and black beans, and those tostones of course, as well as their softer, sweeter caramelized whole cousins maduros, which behave almost like dessert.
The family of Cuban coffee drinks and breakfast sandwiches are available too, though Alvarez won’t open for breakfast until he finds someone willing to work the early hours. He says he wants to keep the menu tight and focused; he has ambitions to open other locations.
In the meantime the regulars from Wrigley Field have found their way to the new spot. “These people know firsthand what this food is supposed to taste like,” he says. v