Cafe Cubano serves nostalgia in every dish

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For 20 years owners of Cafe Cubano, Mayra and Javier Fernandez Jr., have been honoring Javier Fernandez Sr. by bringing authentic Cuban fare to North Ave. in Elmwood Park. The restaurant, at 7426 W. North Ave., uses nostalgia and comfort as key ingredients in every dish pushed out of their kitchen.

Mayra and Javier Jr. learned everything about large-batch cooking from Fernandez Sr. who served as a cook in the Cuban army. He was a master of high-volume cooking and used his vast experience to set up the family run restaurant for success. Fernandez cooked in the Café Cubano kitchens until 2009 and the restaurant relies on his recipes to this day.

"He was here cooking until the day he died," said Mayra of her beloved father-in-law. "He loved food, especially Oxtail Stew. That's why we were serve it today. And God forbid we run out; customers love it!"

Dishes like Rabo Encendido, oxtails braised with tomato and sweet peppers, are made in 35-pound batches when the weather begins to turn colder. Lechon, a seasoned roast pork served with Cuban style rice and beans called arrzo congri, is another autumnal favorite at Café Cubano.

If Mexican food is spicy, Cuban food is milder, but no less complex. That less intense flavor is what attracts people to Cuban food according to Mayra.                                      

"People love our food because it is very authentic," said Mayra. "There is no fusion here. We serve straight up Cuban food. Well, except the jibarito."

The jibarito, created by a friend of the Fernandez family, is a Chicago creation with Puerto Rican roots. Pressed and fried plantains stand in for bread in this unusual sandwich traditionally filled with meat and garnished with mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and American Cheese. To give the jibarito a decidedly Cuban flair, the restaurant offers a ropa vieja jibarito. Ropa vieja, a braised beef and vegetable dish, is among the national dishes of Cuba.

"For Cubans our food reminds them of home or the food their grandma used to feed them," said Mayra. "For non-Cubans our food is often new and unexpected, but also comforting."

The Fernandez family is trying to stay safe and survive the pandemic. After remodeling the interior to add a counter area and new flooring, the restaurant opened for indoor dining two weeks ago. A robust catering business and family dinner specials support Café Cubano through these unusual times.

"The Village of Elmwood Park has been phenomenal. They are always offering help and support," said Mayra. "The support of the community helps us stay busy. There is nothing like everyday sales to keep you afloat."

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