Latin-inspired snacks around town

September 18, 2009 (CHICAGO) Argentina may not have the marketing muscle of Brazil's churrascos but its food is, in many ways, more complex.

Take the tiny Buenos Aires Liquor & Deli in the Cragin neighborhood on the Northwest Side. From their elaborate finger sandwiches, to the vast selection of native Malbec wines, you can easily assemble a feast. Their handmade empanadas are a real treasure: stuffed with either beef, chicken, ham or cheese, they're either baked or fried.

"Ninety-five percent here we bake, because everybody say it's a healthy food. But the best empanadas is when you fry," said Ramon Gimenez, owner of Buenos Aires Liquor and Deli.

They also make some of the best alfajores in town: creamy dulce de leche is sandwiched between delicate sugar cookies, then rolled in coconut for an Argentinian treat like no other.

In Albany Park, the flavors of Columbia shine through via the rotisserie chicken, which is given star billing up at the front window at Brasa Roja on Montrose. The key here is the marinade: fresh limes, onions, garlic.. mounds of cilantro and indigenous chile powder. Once the birds are soaked overnight, they roast slowly on the multiple spits, before being served along with corn pancakes called arepas and fried plantain.

Speaking of plantains, they're consumed by the bushel at Borinquen, a Humboldt Park Puerto Rican joint which claims to have invented the popular jibarito sandwich.

"Little by little, I started making it for my father, and then my father loved it so much he insisted I put it on the menu, and one thing led to another and here we are," said Peter Figueroa, owner of Borinquen.

Raw plantains are first fried, then smashed into flat paddles, and fried a second time, turning them into the "bread," which holds griddled steak, cheese, lettuce, onion and tomato. A brush of garlic butter finishes it off, and they're served with the Puerto Rican favorite: arroz con giandules, or, rice with pigeon peas.

In Old Irving Park, a taste of Ecuador is the focus at La Humita, which proudly features native corn on its menu. Here, they use both American and Ecuadorean corn, called choclo, which are combined with cheese and chile oil to make the namesake dish. Just don't call it a tamale.

"In Ecuador and the rest of South America we call humita, in Mexico they call tamale," said Nestor Correa, owner of La Humita.

"You see a lot of dishes with potatoes or rice in them from Ecuador, but you also see a lot of corn, which has a lot of versatility, whether it's boiled with some fresh cheese and beans, or steamed with different kinds of corn and cheese in an humita, really a delicious taste of South America.

Buenos Aires Deli
3100 N. Cicero Ave.

1720 N. California Ave.

Brasa Roja
3125 W. Montrose

La Humita
3466 N. Pulaski

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