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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Palate
Good wine
by BILL ST. JOHN
2003-02-12

This article shared 1400 times since Wed Feb 12, 2003
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Good wine that's inexpensive tastes better than any wine ever.You know how the bouquet in a bar of soap begins to fade with use? Same thing happens with the flavor in even the most carefully prepared dish. The first few bites might pack a punch, but eventually the palate just seems to tire.

That, however, rarely happens at Café 28. This place is more of a tongue tickler than, well, than a lot of things.

It starts with the butter, something most restaurants leave well enough alone. Café 28 whips honey, roasted garlic and herbs into its butter before dashing it about the tables with thick-sliced wads of bread. Compound butters always seem pretentious—why mess with one of milk's best get ups?—but this stuff sings.

The main line at Café 28 is Cuban food: plantains everywhere, rice and black beans everywhere, but, oh, have they any better setting? The flavors in the meats and side dishes, even out of the simplest of components (corn or vegetables), is captivating.

For a starter, introduce your tongue to a 'Taste of Cuba' ($6.50), a selection of terrifically herbed and spiced empanadas and what might sound Indiana-pedestrian—'ham croquetas'—but aren't. These little, super-crisp, no-filler pillows of pleasure go a long way to say that pork is the other right meat.

'Green tamales' ($6) aren't anything like the tubular tamales served at most Mexican eateries. Café 28's are verdant, harlequin-like triangles, crisped until the edges could cut cheese, and set atop a piquant pico de gallo. What's so delicious about this dish is the earthiness, the pure vegetal basis, that the kitchen manages to keep in this, its interpretation of corn.

If it's a sweet tooth you're favoring, check out the coconut shrimp, for it modulates the sugar of shrimp and coconut meat against a bath of curry and pepper spice. The shrimp are perfect, cooked just through so that they still squeegee against the teeth.

A forte of any Cuban restaurant must be how it works with its meats—always the most wretched cuts—the necessary result of hardscrabble cookery under a totalitarian regime where t-bones and tenderloin were reserved for only the few wealthy.

The benefit of dealing with the brisket, say, or the chicken thigh (over the breast or loin) is that the pot always wins a lot of flavor. However, you need to know how to cook with either, these being gnarly pieces of meat, less forgiving than their richer, sweeter, less muscular neighbors.

Café 28 has good pots. The classic ropa vieja ($11.50) is classic beef: meltaway, quietly spiced but with well-developed flavors. The name means 'ripped rags' and signifies the manner in which tough, long-cooked beef comes shredded and set aside the obligatory tostones (flattened, deep-fried plantain cakes).

Cuban roast pork ($12) looks like an everyday Sunday dinner—a few slices of pork loin set against some beans and rice—but the flavor's anything but run-of-the-mill. Here's a good example of the way a chef can layer flavors, one atop the other, for killer effect. The pork's been dusted with a rub before it's slow-roasted (tender is my name), then sauced in a mojo that is simple and delicious complexity: fire, tang, sour, all served slightly chilled for offset. Terrific.

More skill—nothing fancy, just good cooking, and lots of it—you'll find in both the tender Cuban style chicken ($15) and the Atlantic salmon ($17), this latter one of only a few dishes on, what?, an Anglo side of the menu (I avoided the 'honey jalapeno pork chops' and the 'blackened duck' because, face it, we can find those kinds of things elsewhere, in less self-possessed places).

It's deliciously Cuban that a wee woman runs the front of the house—and strongly and well—and that the bar is better for its rum selection than its Scotch whiskies, and that everyone here—everyone—works with a smile, and that the music rocks—yes, it's probably Cuban.

Nice décor, too, marble-topped tables, lots of exposed brick, just enough light to flirt by, even a sexy location, in North Center, tucked under the Ravenswood El.

These days, it's uncommon, strange as it sounds, to find food with flavor. But at Café 28 that's the everyday.

----------------------------------------

Café 28

1800 W. Irving Park

773-528-2883

Cuban and Mexican

Entrees from $8-$16

Dinner daily; lunch, Tuesday to Friday; brunch, Saturday and Sunday

Noise: Latin loud

Smoking at bar


This article shared 1400 times since Wed Feb 12, 2003
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