Yelitza Rivera made at least one easy adjustment after she left Maracaibo, Venezuela, almost 20 years ago. It was thejibarito, the mojo-slicked pressed plantain sandwich invented in Humboldt Park by Juan C. Figueroa at the late great Borinquen Restaurant. See, her hometown in northwest Venezuela is the birthplace of the patacón Maracucho, a sandwich of strikingly similar construction, best eaten when the starchy green bananas are still hot and crispy from the fryer, and you’re in the right frame of mind and physical circumstances to negotiate the unstable strata within.
When she found work at a food stall in the now-erased Mega Mall in Logan Square, jibaritos were on the menu, as they were in nearly every Puerto Rican restaurant in town by that time (though they hadn’t proliferated anywhere else—not even on the island).
The fillings were foreign: shaved bistec, shredded iceberg, tomato, mayo, and American cheese. But Rivera understood this sandwich.
Like all the other native-born icons in Chicago’s sandwich canon—the Italian beef, the pork chop sandwich, the gym shoe—the jibarito or “little hillbilly,” is an ungainly mess, and there’s only one way to eat it to fully appreciate its potential.
“You have to get dirty,” says Jesus Arrieta, Rivera’s son, who enlisted with his mother four years ago when she opened Jibaritos y Mas at the corner of Fullerton and Kimball, the footprint of a nascent jibarito empire. “You gotta hold it with your two hands and don’t be scared of it. You have to attack it.”
Arrieta, who runs the family’s second spot, Jibaritos on Harlem in Dunning on the very western edge of the city, says a lot of people don’t get this—or don’t care. Like the mothership, the place does a thrumming takeout business, but “the real experience is when you eat it at the moment,” he says, just after the plantain has been bisected to order, deep fried, smashed flat, and fried again. It nearly doesn’t matter what you choose to fill it with—roast pork, chicken, ham and cheese, octopus, blood sausage; a plate, with a side of arroz con gandules, and a half-inch stack of paper napkins is the only civilized delivery system for the jibarito.
Nevertheless, there aren’t too many tables at the original location, and the frenetic takeout business they do there abides. Don’t bother trying to phone in an order at noon. They’re slammed. They can’t pick up the phone.
Not just jibaritos, but all of the classic Puerto Rican comida criolla funded a third expansion in January when they opened a dining room next door to HQ. There’s no longer a legitimate reason to snuff out a perfectly executed jibarito in a Styrofoam coffin. The cuchifrito game in general at both locations is extraordinary. Often overlooked dishes like the pollo frito, an unbattered, shatteringly crispy leg-thigh combo, or the mofongo, dense orbs of garlicky chicharrón-larded mashed plantain, reveal their true textural dimensions when eaten on the spot. Other, nonfried dishes made-to-order, such as the annatto-tinged chicken soup bobbing with silky pieces of leg and thigh, are also at odds with a takeout model.
It’s almost as if Rivera somehow absorbed the lifeforce of a Boricua granny in the 14 years she worked down the street at Ponce, saving up to strike out on her own.
Now she’s striking out on new turf. Old turf in fact. This spring the family is opening its fourth door at 2616 N. Clark in Lincoln Park, Chicago’s original Puerto Rican neighborhood. This one will have a bar, which can accommodate the next level of jibarito connoisseurship: paired with a piña colada or passion fruit mojito. v