La Unica: Memories R Us {From The Raving Dish}

Dscn2537Nostalgia is a funny thing. For me, it's the most intense blob of emotion flowing through my veins. Whether it's the slow memory of an old lover's lingering gaze or the first sip of a well-made Cuba Libre (rum, coke and lime) that takes me straight back to a lush Caribbean island (man, the tan I had), the sensation that is nostalgia is the most beautiful thing I can think of. Especially when it comes to food. All I can say is, bring on the late-night flashbacks.

It was a mere few days ago that I returned from another wild sojourn in the majestic country of South Africa. I was there for a few months working on an epic documentary about Oprah's plans to open a girl's school in a small suburb of Johannesburg. Of course, as hectic as the production schedule was, I still managed to make time to eat and drink like mad. But as many prawns, mojitos, halloumi cheese salads and Red Bull's as I slammed, all that I really craved was flavorful Cuban grub. To be more specific, La Unica, a warm restaurant in the back of a tidy grocery store on Devon Avenue was the main senorita singing my name. This sort of homestyle, primitive food simply doesn't exist in modern-day South Africa.

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Cafe Mariano and a Lovely Cafe con Leche

Dscf0189I am absolutely, 100%, bona-fide a travel hound.  I can't get enough of the plotting, the planning, the research--all the usual mayhem that goes along with discovery.  I'm barely even on my next trip before I'm planning the next one and the next one and the next one.  The thing is, though, the more I learn about other cultures, the more  I wonder if I'm living in the right I doing the right thing, living the right life...all that good stuff.  Should I not be shacked up in some insanely cheap, remote part of the world, just eating & drinking, snorkeling, reading and researching my next trip that I can now afford because the little hut I live in only cost $2 per day? 
But, then of course...I happen across some random hovel--this time it's Cafe Mariano (2246 N. Milwaukee Ave.) and I get a taste of a whole new country (Cuba)--one that I've been dying to go to...but haven't quite made it yet.  And, I think, "Well, hell yeah!  I'm in the right city, doin' the right thing." 
I've been tipped off by another foodie (thanks Jeff B.), spent less than $3 and had a fantastic cafe con leche and some pan con mantequilla (Cuban toasted bread with at least a stick of butter oozing out of it---for proper tastebud effect, dunk bread into coffee).  Where the hell else am I gonna get to traipse the whole globe and fill my belly with new wonders without spending a small fortune (besides Chicago)?
It's all good, baby...the sun is on it's way back to this part of the world, there are new international restaurants poppin' up on every corner, and I'm on my way to Bali in a few weeks.  Life is right on.

La Unica: Perfect Cuban Coffee

Dscf4010I've been on a Cuban whirl lately, devouring pressed Cuban sandwiches, firm Cuban tamales and delicious Cuban coffees with wild abandon.  My new favorite place to slurp down a richly potent Cuban coffee is a charming little grocery store/restaurant up on Devon called La Unica.  For less than a buck, you get an awesome (and super-strong), piping hot Cuban coffee and I'm also very fond of their just-firm-enough pork stuffed Cuban tamales (also less than a buck)...they come bathed in a bunch of oily pork drippings and it's hard to just have one (usually two does the trick).  Everyone here in this little makeshift cafeteria is so happy and just delighted when they see you again (weren't you just here yesterday?) and as I've said time and time again, something about folks from south of the border just makes me smile!

Tropicuba: One Bad-Ass Cuban Sandwich

Dscf4068My current addiction is the simple, yet profound, pressed Cuban sandwich.  There's a tiny grocery store/restaurant in Logan Square that whips 'em out called Tropi Cuba (3000 W. Lyndale) and they come pressed tight and packed with roast pork, ham, pickles, mustard, mayo and swiss cheese.  Perched right on the side is a big batch of super-thin, homemade french fries and I cannot say enough how brutally delicious this sandwich is.  Today, I had one of these and a small sample of the delicious oxtail (ever tried that treat?), along with a few bites of the shredded pork sandwich and I just cannot believe what $2.99 buys in ethnic restaurants.  That would barely cover the fries alone in most places.  Tropi Cuba only has a few stools at the bar, but it's a great place to hang out with a cup of wickedly strong Cuban coffee with milk.  I love places like this~