It’s not often I give great thanks to corporate America or the Chicago bureaucracy. But on this occasion—with a stomach full of the best Puerto Rican food I’ve had in Chicago in a while—a salute is in order. For without corporate America, Cely Rodriguez (a former paralegal) and Moraima Fuentes (a former counselor for a nonprofit), friends, dreamers and purveyors of the great Puerto Rican eats of which I speak, might not have opened their excellent new Pilsen restaurant The Jibarito Stop. “We used to sit around and talk about how there has to be more to life than doing the 9-to-5 thing,” Fuentes said. “We were tired. We wanted to be passionate, to create something and make a contribution to society and fill a need.”
There are a lot of things about Belly Shack, the new Chino-Latino (technically the style is “Puerto-rean,” as chef/owner Bill Kim is Korean and his managing partner/wife Yvonne Cadiz-Kim is Puerto Rican, but that sounds like a bad stomach ailment) restaurant in Humboldt Park that I don’t love. The menu with sections titled “SAMMICH” and “U KUD LIK THIS” (for the soft-serve ice cream—Is that “like” or “lick”?) which seems to be the literary collaboration of the dyslexic cow mascots of Chik-fil-A and Tony Soprano is pretty groan-inducing. Then there’s the cutesy faux wall graffiti featuring Hallmark-card friendly protest aphorisms like “Enjoy More. Use Less” and “More Bike Lanes.” There’s also a painting of a dude grasping at a chain-link fence looking like he’s about to get frisked while sporting a t-shirt that says, “Eat it.” If this were a comic-style mural, I’m pretty sure the next frame would show that dude surrounded by rabid cops unholstering billy clubs and going in for a little Jon Burge-style Chicago Police justice. I guess I’d really like to see a little more incisive commentary here, maybe a painting of a befuddled Mayor Daley caught in the cross-hairs, Public Enemy-logo style, or something…
Urban Belly, Chef Bill Kim’s new Avondale noodle and dumpling house, is decent Asian food for unadventurous pseudo-foodies and hipsters with money to burn. Of course, you wouldn’t know it, as most of the local-eater-and-journalist set are drooling in their noodles and falling over their Twitter and blog-software interfaces and Yelp postings anointing it as the Second Coming.
It took ethnic comfort food to make me forsake my own mother, but, Puerto Rican jibaritos (hi-bar-itoes)–deep fried plantain sandwiches–and Vietnamese pho (fuh)–beef tendon soup–have displaced her chicken noodle and grilled bologna and cheese in my personal comfort-food pantheon. If you ever saw my mom tenderize a recalcitrant pork chop or bring the gleaming business end of her Wusthof cleaver to bear on bloody tenderloin, you’d know that I’m betting a whole lot on the notion that the mother and son bond will keep me safe.