It's always surprising to I realize that I can be happy with something small: chunks of fried yucca; a frozen, rum-laden pina colada; a warm tamale; a minty mojito. Ever since I got back from Nicaragua last week, I've been craving those four things in major doses. Fortunately, I brought back a fantastic stash of homemade mojitos; the other three are a different story.
To fulfill my intense craves, I immediately head to El Tinajon, my neighborhood Guatemalan joint. Not only does it serve spine-chillin' margaritas (usually my drink of choice), it pours a fantastic pina colada. I ordered one a few months ago on a whim (thanks to a $5 special) and can't seem to get enough since. Served in a frozen ceramic coconut mug, the drinks are made with chunks of real coconut, the liquor pour is heavy and it comes sprinkled with little slivers of fresh coconut that always has me chewing the last sips of my drink.
Chicago's best yucca (or cassava) and tamales, however, come pouring from the kitchen of Las Delicias, another Guatemalan hut near my Roscoe Village neighborhood. Flung up on a busy corner of Western Avenue, the place looks like a graffiti-riddled shack, but once you enter the front door, it's toasty and loaded with charm and sweet-as-pie employees.
The menu offers nearly a dozen varieties of pupusas (those addictive little hand-slung corn patties stuffed with meat and cheese), but the real treat is the deep-fried yucca. Lightly crisped in vegetable oil, these giant spheres of potato-like goodness are everything the silly old French fry tries to be but isn't. A root vegetable at heart, it's surprising to cut into one and see the textured meat on the inside actually flake away, layer after layer, similar to that all-time favorite, phyllo dough.
When you order pupusas (and you should order several), the waiters always bring out a lazy susan filled with homemade cabbage (very vinegary) and different spiced salsas. The best way to eat the yucca is to slice it down the middle, slide in a bit of crunchy cabbage, spoon on some sour cream, lay on a bit of the crumbly queso and load it up with fiery salsa. These filling little monkeys put all bean-laden nachos, BBQ hot wings, hummus and pita plates and bar food in general straight to shame.
Rock-bottom prices allow me to order several tamales to go with my yucca. Dense and sweet, they are the perfect consistency: not wet and underdone like some varieties I've happened across. Really, food like this changes the way I eat. Tamales for breakfast, yucca for lunch and pina coladas for dinner. Oh, and mojitos all day long.
The Final Rave: Everything at both of these restaurants is pretty dang good and they're just off radar enough to not be busy on the weekends. Which is a good thing after a couple of pina coladas.
Keep It Going:
Read it: Cooking The Central American Way
Learn to make pupusas, tamales and yucca the Central American way in this vegetarian-friendly cookbook.
Drink it: Pina colada
Easy to make and delicious to boot, pina coladas are perfect for a mental getaway in the dead of winter. I like them with Flor de Cana rum, a Nicaraguan favorite.
Eat it: Irazu
This tiny Costa Rican restaurant has great yucca in garlic sauce; pair it with the insanely delicious oatmeal shake to make a full meal.
Get crazy with it: Fogo de Chao
Not only can you have pounds upon pounds of char-grilled meat for dinner, you can accompany it with platters full of fried yucca. Christ, talk about heart attack material.