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Mitad del Mundo
2922 W Irving Park Rd between Richmond St and Francisco Ave (773-866-9454)
Why the dining room of Mitad del Mundo (Spanish for "middle of the earth") is often desolate is a mystery to us. It's spic-and-span, the scent of charred meat wafts from the kitchen and the gregarious, ever-present owner, Jimmy Espinoza (pictured), is as friendly as they come.
Born in Ecuador, Espinoza has lived in Chicago most of his life, and has worked in the restaurant industry for the past 35 years. "From busboy to bartender to host, I learned everything I could until they had to put me in the kitchen," Espinoza says. "Three years ago, I opened this place, and only on the weekends do I have help. The rest of the time, I'm on my own."
The restaurant's walls are peppered with hundreds of photos of famous Latin musicians, and a clublike back room features live music on weekends. But dancing isn't what's on the minds of the small core of regulars—it's the soccer games on the TVs and the affordable, tasty Latin-American specialties. Tender, chopped steak with grilled onions, platters of fresh seafood (served fried crispy or grilled), chunks of slivered cassava in garlic sauce and cinnamon flan with fresh whipped cream all draw inspiration from Ecuador, Peru, Cuba and Colombia. And if you're looking for some late-night dancing after fueling up on the food, know that toes start tapping once midnight hits. "But remember, you no eat, you no dance," Espinoza says.—Misty Tosh