Resourcefulness and classic Colombian cooking bring a couple's ambitions to fruition.
“I think these are Pizza Hut cups,” my friend commented as the server at Gloria’s Café dropped off our water.
The red plastic cups were definitely reminiscent of the days when families made an event of dining at Pizza Hut, before delivery became the norm. Looking around the bright room of the Logan Square restaurant, we found more endearing touches. Colombian chef-owner Gloria Santiago and her Puerto Rican husband, Jaime, outfitted their small spot with gently used chairs (“given to us by a friend,” Jaime explains); sturdy wooden tables (“some we had, some we found”); vibrant yellow, blue and red paint (“the colors of the Colombian flag”); and hand-crafted wooden wall hangings (“like the country houses you’d see in Colombia”). The point is, in a city where gajillion-dollar restaurants are opening left and right but showing little concern for the food, the Santiagos did what they could for their space, knowing that what’s on the plate would take care of the rest.
And it does. Gloria cooks like her name is on the door (a lesson some big-name chefs could learn from), sending out comforting, home-style dishes she picked up from elders in her former community in Colombia. During a recent lunch visit, a steaming bowl of herb-flecked broth was brought to a woman at the adjacent table, who promptly dug in to carve up the hen leg and plantains floating in the soup. After gawking, we followed suit with a “we’ll-have-what-she’s-having” and minutes later, we were dipping spoonfuls of white rice into the sancocho (stew), rich with poultry stock, bright from cilantro, and packed with hearty hunks of yuca and plantain. Coupled with a sweet, creamy avocado licuado (smoothie, pictured above), it was a perfect lunch.
The chuleta Colombiano (breaded pork sandwich) listed on the wall’s chalkboard was another good lunch bet. The tenderloin was a bit chewy, but its breading was crispy, and the toasted rustic bread was a good contrast to cool tomato, lettuce and mayo. Alongside the board’s list of sandwiches (a Puerto Rican jibarito, a Cuban-style ham and cheese, good ol’ American turkey) is a lengthy list of licuados that can be made from tropical fruits like soursop, lulo and tomato de arbol, which has a tart, tamarindlike flavor. Coffee drinks (including an awesome café con leche) come in handy after a dinner of coma-inducing dishes from the main menu.
Repeating the copycat style of ordering, for dinner we asked for the same dishes our neighbors were devouring (a couple whose table was covered with heaping plates of fried egg–topped steak, plump sausages and glistening, brown-skinned chicken). Turns out, the rotisserie chicken tastes as good as it looks; even the usually dry breast meat was juicy, a sure sign of a good marinade and perfect roasting. The bandeja paisa (country plate, pictured above) was a commitment-phobe’s dream, an assortment of tender skirt steak, fantastic housemade pork sausage links, a dense corn cake, crispy chicharron, a hunk of avocado, and enough beans and rice for three people. Cut up the over-easy egg, the sausage and the avocado, add a dash of salt and pepper (Gloria has a light hand with seasonings across the board) and try to get a bit of everything in each bite. The flavor combination is amazing, proving that great food can show up even in spots where fancy glasses don’t.—Heather Shouse
3300 W Fullerton Ave at Spaulding Ave (773-342-1050). El: Blue to Logan Square. Bus: 56, 74, 82. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $11.