When Don Kramer was offered the chance to open a restaurant in the landmark Humboldt Park boathouse in early 2002, he had only two years’ experience in the food business. The owner of Puerto Rican restaurant La Palma on nearby Homan Avenue, Kramer had responded to an open solicitation from the Park District, which was finishing up a multimillion-dollar restoration of the boathouse. The Prairie-style open-air pavilion–built in 1907 overlooking the park’s large lagoon and long a neighborhood destination for picnics, concerts, and other public gatherings–received landmark designation in November 1996. By mid-2001 the boathouse deck and docks had been restored and the lagoon dredged, and the Park District decided it wanted to add a food concession to the complex.

Kramer, a Northbrook resident who runs the Remark Paper Company in Wheeling, bought La Palma four years ago, after a real estate investment brought him into Humboldt Park. “I stopped in for lunch one day and found out the owner was looking to sell and move back to Puerto Rico,” he says. He immediately liked the food and impulsively made the deal. Two years later, when he heard about the Park District’s search, he couldn’t resist the idea of expanding the franchise.

He soon learned that the resource he’d need in greatest supply was patience. “I guess it took about six months” to get word from the Park District, Kramer says. Upon being selected, he hired architect Ben Neuberg of the Charles Bender Company (which did North Pond Cafe’s restoration a year or so ago) to do the plans. Still, it took nearly a year for them to be approved. “Plans for every nail, every hole–none of which could be made in the building’s exterior–had to be approved by the Landmarks Division of the Department of Planning and Development,” says Kramer. “Just doing the exhaust system without cutting holes in the ceiling was difficult.” Construction finally began this February, and La Palma in the Park opened mid-June.

The 50-seat restaurant occupies a 1,000-square-foot space at the west end of the pavilion; inside it’s decorated with a colorful mural of a tropical scene, complete with a smiling frog wearing a straw hat and waving a Puerto Rican flag. Diners can serve themselves from steam tables full of Puerto Rican and Dominican staples such as pastelillos (fried ground-beef pockets) and alcapurrias (deep-fried balls of plantains) and pay by the pound. Or they can order from the counter, where heaping plates of meat, rice, beans, and a vegetable–yuca, green plantain, name (yam), or malanga, a purplish root vegetable with a nutty, sweet taste that’s Kramer’s favorite–are priced at $6.95 for a regular and $7.95 for a large. The staff is quick to offer tastes to customers who aren’t sure what they want.

Kramer notes that good Puerto Rican and Dominican food is “highly spiced, but not necessarily spicy.” At La Palma in the Park, the mofongo is no bland dish; instead, this mashed combo of green plantains and pork rinds is nicely garlicky. It’s shaped in a flanlike dome and served with a side of short-rib-size carne frita, thick strips of fried bacon on the bone topped with a half-inch layer of crackling fried fat that Kramer characterizes as “what Lipitor is for.”

House specialties also include a spicy, salty bacalao, pollack stew in a red or white sauce served over vegetables that soak up the juice; chuletas, pork chops in a tangy red sauce; and, for traditionalists, stews made of pig’s feet or fried pig’s ear. Jibaritos–sandwiches of chicken, beef, or pork served between layers of fried plantain instead of bread and accented with lettuce, tomato, American cheese, mayonnaise, and garlic–are worth a special trip. Pernil, or roast pork, is La Palma’s pride: the 20-pound hams are seasoned and roasted for six hours in special ovens at the original restaurant, then brought over to the boathouse.

Kramer is prohibited from posting signs on the restaurant’s exterior, but a small placard that sits at the parking-lot entrance has been supplemented by word of mouth among neighbors who picnic and play baseball in the park. The restaurant, which can seat 80 outside on the veranda, made do with large, family style card tables there this summer; next year special Park District-approved wrought-iron furniture will be installed. Kramer’s staff also serve parties of up to 300 on the veranda for special events.

While the attraction of the boathouse may be the lagoon, where picnickers laze on the grass on warm summer days and fishermen catch catfish up to two feet long, La Palma in the Park will be open year-round. And once his second restaurant hits its stride, Kramer would like to open a third La Palma, and more down the road. “Mexican has been incredibly popular for years, and I think there’s a similar opportunity for Puerto Rican food,” he says. “I’d like to have as many restaurants as I can as fast as possible. I’d definitely like to open a third La Palma in the spring of 2004, probably on the northwest side near the Brickyard Mall. I don’t know how fast I can get all these La Palmas open, but the plan is in my head.”

La Palma in the Park is at 1359 N. Humboldt, 773-227-8222. The original La Palma is at 1340 N. Homan, 773-862-0886.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.