Modern Comfort

Michael Nagrant / 08.28.06

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.

Blame her mother. Every addiction begins with a gateway, and my culinary marijuana, my portal to ethnic comfort food was my babcia’s pierogi. Her moon-shaped dumplings of potato and cheese pan seared in a lake of scalding butter and topped with a porky hash of carmelized onion and bacon were like Polish crack. When she died, coincidentally on September 11, 2001, my first thought was, “Who the hell is gonna make me pierogis to get me through this?”

Like a warm baguette from the best Parisian boulangerie, a great pierogi is nothing but the inspired alchemy of flour, salt, egg and water. Unfortunately, there were no culinary acolytes witnessing my grandmother’s kneading acumen and keen sense of humidity, and while the recipe exists, the true execution of it died with her.

After the supply had run dry, my allegiances turned from Poland to Puerto Rico. Strictly speaking, the jibarito, thinly sliced meat such as rib eye, flank steak or braised pork slathered in mayo, topped with tomato, lettuce, onion and melted American cheese and sandwiched between deep-fried garlicky plantains, isn’t ethnic. Like flaming Greek Saganaki, which was invented on Halsted street in the late 1960s, or Italian Chicken Vesuvio (most likely at the 1933 Worlds Fair in Chicago), the jibarito was created by Juan Figueroa, the owner of Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park.

According to a 2003 Chicago Tribune article, Figueroa had been reading the Puerto Rican newspaper El Vocero when he came across an article about the “sandwich de platano” made with plantains instead of bread. He made up his own interpretation and served it to his father. His father requested the sandwich every day for the next month. After Figueroa unleashed the jibarito on the general public, lines were out the door and the one-man operation became a mini empire of four restaurants, and spawned imitation jibaritos at most of the Puerto Rican restaurants in town. Figueroa even opened up a spot in Puerto Rico, but the sandwich didn’t catch on and he closed down.

While I haven’t eaten all the jibaritos in town, I am pretty sure the best are from Borinquen. The best aren’t served at the original storefront in Humboldt Park, but at the outpost at 3811 North Western. The key for me is the consistent garlic perfume and the freshly fried crunch that comes and goes at other locations. Served with a mountain of yellow rice flecked with toothsome earthy pigeon peas, the jibarito is hangover killer, a week’s serving of carbs and happiness.

Happiness of course is wherever you find it, and I’m a serial philanderer when it comes to my comfort food, and almost nothing’s better than a bowl of steaming Vietnamese pho or beef tendon soup.

Pho is like the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup. A good bowl of pho warms the body, soothes during sickness and satisfies the soul. Pho’s true origins are unclear, but the dish made its first appearance in the 1880s after the French occupation of Hanoi. One school suggests that Vietnamese cooks and servants learned to make “pot au feu” from their occupiers, and adapted the recipe to local tastes.

The bowl of Pho Dac Biet at Hai Yen (1055 West Argyle) is a tasty melange of tender cuts of beef brisket, beef flank, meatballs, bible tripe, tendon, rice noodles and scallions floating in a light beef broth, accompanied by a plate of fresh-cut sweet basil, sawtooth-shaped cilantro, a mound of bean sprouts, a wedge of lime and small yin-yang dollops of spicy Sriracha (garlic chili sauce) and plummy Hoisin.

The Hai Yen pho needs little accoutrement, but a dash of fresh herbs, a touch of acid from the lime, and a dab of the spicy and sweet sauces makes the bowl zing. After slurping up the first spoonful, you can luxuriate in the steam from the broth, forget about the razor chafe of winters in Chicago and savor the taste of contentment. You can forget yourself in a bowl like this.

It’s so good that even on the hottest weekend of the year I find myself contemplating a trip up to Argyle for a bowl. If you see me, don’t mention it to my mom.

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago