New visitors to Chicago invariably assume that the Loop is the city’s center for nightlife and dining activities. However, the sad truth is that the Loop has a reputation for being a culinary wasteland of fast food chains and Starbucks, which means I am always a bit flustered when asked to grab lunch in the Loop. Like a perpetual motion machine, there must be some universal law against restaurants in the Loop being good, fast and cheap. Well, I am not here today with breaking news that the singularity is here. However, the addition of Cafecito, just a couple blocks shy of being in the Loop, means that we are inching closer to achieving that perfect triumvirate.
Cafecito is a small cafe tucked inside the HI Hostel building, and their claim to fame is their Cuban sandwich, anointed the city’s best by TimeOut Chicago. They also offer an impressive display case of baked goods, pastries and side salads. The cafe itself is bright and cheery, with couches for lounging and a danceable mix of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican tunes in the background. This tends to attract a coterie of hostel travelers, students and cubicle dwellers. Aside from its proximity to the Loop, Cafecito is right next to the Auditorium Theater, making it ideal for a quick pre-theater dinner.
The cubano sandwich itself is a work of art. If you have time, I highly recommend watching the video detailing all the work that goes into it. Like a master architect, proprietor Philip Ghantous carefully layers roasted pork, ham, swiss, pickles and mustard between perfectly pressed bread. The pork is marinated in a mojo of garlic, cumin, oregano, sour orange and lime. Wrapped in butcher’s paper and cut conveniently into triangles, the sandwich arrives piping hot, fragrant with meat, and oozing with melted cheese. All this will set you back a mere $5 + tax. I would love to try the ropa vieja or chimichurri sandwiches, but thus far, I have been unable to tear myself away from ordering the cuban. Maybe next time.
For the vegetarians among us, Cafecito is still worth investigating. The Jardin sandwich, featuring jalapeno hummus, eggplant, roasted peppers and mozzarella, elevates the classic vegetable panini to new heights. For a classic tomato, basil and mozzarella combo, the Margarita sandwich is also a great bet. I have yet to try the namesake coffee, but the hot chocolate is excellent. If you are in the mood for other sweets, you can grab a crisp churro dusted with powdered sugar. Ask for a small thimble of caramel on the side.
On my most recent trip, I noticed that Cafecito was now offering shakes ($3.50). I tried a mamey shake, which was creamy, thick with mamey, and lightly sweetened, a great refresher on a warm summer day. The passion fruit shake was excellent as well, with a tarter edge. Other tropical flavors include guava, guanabana and tamarind.
26 E. Congress (at Wabash, inside the HI Hostel)