In Praise of the Jibarito, Chicago’s Greatest Food Invention

Stuff the deep-dish pizza and celebrate the new Humboldt Park classic.

Photo: rosidae/CC by 2.0

Update: I’m told that the jibarito is “indigenous to rural areas of Puerto Rico,” which would overturn accepted Chicago food history. If you have info, please share.

New York seized the asterisked title of the world’s tallest skyscraper this week, which is fine. Side note to the people of Blanchard, North Dakota: If guyed-mast antennae now count, then the town can just rename the KYTV mast as the “KYTV Spire” and claim the title of “World’s Greatest Minimalist Skyline.”

But then Jon Stewart had to make it some sort of competition, between Chicago’s oleaginous meat smoothie and New York’s flimsy cheese envelopes, which the cities have respectively adopted as a food called pizza.

Look, deep dish is tourist food—it’s for visitors who, stuffed with a sufficient quantity of heat-radiating cheese and slipped into a coma, can safely survive the winter sidewalks. When an artisanal deep-dish establishment comes to Logan Square, then I’ll believe Chicagoans really want it.

Serious Eats has a good list of our native foodstuff, and it leans towards carbs sublimating into fat: “wet,” Italian beef, “gravy bread,” the “tamale boat” (I think I see a trend), flaming saganaki, the mother-in-law, all best consumed while in condensed phases.

Most societies have their own forms of the cheap-meat-on-bread sandwich—the po’boy, the bahn mi (I am told the bahn mi/po’boy crossovers on the Gulf Coast are extraordinary), the lobster roll, the McRib. In Chicago, the trend has been to ease consumption, if not digestion, by dampening it.

But Juan C. “Pete” Figueroa of Humboldt Park’s Borinquen Restaurant arrested the trend with a simple innovation—putting a traditional Puerto Rican sandwich on a fried plantain. Behold: The jibarito.

Figueroa invented the thing in the mid-90s, and now it’s spread throughout the city’s Puerto Rican and Cuban restaurants.

The plantain is crispy, so it melts in your mouth, not in your hand like Italian beef; the garlic sauce is powerful but not heavy. It comes in different forms, but my favorite is Nick Kindlesperger’s pick for the “best proportioned jibarito“: the modestly sized version at Cafe Central, the old, warm, and homey Puerto Rican restaurant on Chicago Avenue in West Town, my platonic ideal for what a restaurant should look like. Me and Miguel del Valle, that is.

Other native Chicago foods have decades on it, but the jibarito deserves a hearing for the popular food we self-identify by. Or at least future showrunners can nix the weary deep-dish dialogue—just stick to the meal the Near Northwest Side is truly made of.

 

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