When winter really kicks in and my tolerance begins to expire, I start chasing the equatorial sun. Not literally, of course, but via the most affordable way I know: my belly. I traipse about the city on the hunt for restaurants that whip up food from any country south of the equator. If I can't be there in person, soaking up the food, drink, culture and personality of countries like Brazil, Argentina and Peru is the next best thing. My proudest find is a wildly simple Ecuadorian establishment, Mi Ciudad, 3041 W. Irving Park Rd.
This blissfully deserted home-style restaurant is one of my favorite haunts. I discovered it years ago when I lived on the fringe of Albany Park, and spotting it was one of those drive-by, slam-on-the-breaks moments. Me and a team of my compadres wandered in to an empty dining room and proceeded to get crazy with Ecuadorian wine and deliciously simple, made-from-scratch food.
I've been back a number of times since and discovered that practically everything on the menu is made in-house, and the friendly bunch of regulars that populate the low-slung tables are loyal types whose sunny disposition breeds happiness.
The first thing that rolls out to every table is a basket of just-warmed French bread with a small bowl of spicy aji (Ecuadorian salsa) and creamy butter. The kitchen will gladly keep refilling your basket with toasty little rounds, so you have to be really careful not to load up on this freebie.
I always start my feast with one or two corn cakes that come planted with a big square of melted white cheese draped across the top. The cake looks like suspiciously like a round compact disc with a plain white napkin on top, but the sweet ring of fresh kernels of corn will disappear in two bites (hence, the double order).
The most perfect house salad in the world arrives next. It's just a fistful of various lettuces with an olive oil-based dressing peppering each leaf, but there is something so refreshing about each crispy bite.
If I'm in the mood for meat, I order up a plate of juicy, sunset-orange rib tips. They're laden with just enough fat to make them insanely flavorful and before I know it, my face, hair and clothes are usually smeared in BBQ sauce, but it's all worth it. Make sure to request an order of the homemade French fries. South America has a way with potatoes that rivals no other. Each fry is thin, yet thick, starchy, firm and utterly jaw-dropping.
The charming owner is a gregarious fella that greets every customer like family and ends up doing almost everything himself. From running food and delivering bread to bussing tables and making cocktails, he's a hands-on sort of gentleman that turns every experience a quietly relaxing evening. Just like the beaches of South America, it's a place you never really want to leave.
The Final Rave: Sundays are usually a little busier than others, especially when church lets out. Be a bit more respectful and graduate to a nice pair of pressed slacks like the super-sweet Ecuadorian couples wear.
Keep It Going:
Play it: Old Town School of Folk Music
This always-happening music house has an on-going roster of jammin' performers who come from all over the world to play in the cozy auditorium.
Drink it: Coobah
They say that the mojitos at this popular Southport eatery are some of the best in town. I'll take a mojito anywhere, anytime...
Eat it: Rinconcito Sudamericano
The atmosphere is bright, the food is spicy and the staff is helpful. Plus, many of the dishes utilize the subtle flavor of being cooked in wine. Gotta love that.
Get crazy with it: Mekato's Colombian Bakery
This always-packed storefront is the most authentic Colombian bakery in Chicago. The coffee is hyper-strong and most treats ring in for less than a few dollars.