Sky Full of Bacon

South American Jam Session: #45-46: Macondo, Tainayri’s Bodega

My camera went away on a school camping trip with my wife and younger son, so let me just paint a couple of pictures in your head:

• A middle-aged Latina in her restaurant’s kitchen, posing proudly in front of a whole roasted pork leg, its skin gleaming brown and stretched over a heaping arch of meat like the Thanksgiving turkey in a Norman Rockwell painting, the warm scents of pig and island spices in the air.

• A crowd of people jammed into a tiny corner grocery on a summer Saturday night… to listen to Paraguayan folk songs, belted out by a sweating singer and accompanied on guitar with the easy confidence of old friends who’ve played together for many, many years.

Actually, I only saw one of these on a Wednesday afternoon at lunch. But the other one will be coming up soon, at the same place.

But let me back up, because as the headline suggests, this post is actually about two places. I needed to meet with my friend Wyatt about the upcoming redesign of this website. He suggested Panera, because they have wi-fi. This seemed heretical to me— talking about Sky Full of Bacon at a chain restaurant!— so instead I checked an LTHForum thread about places with wifi that aren’t Panera, and found Macondo, a place in my neighborhood I’d been meaning to try (and which, surprisingly, had had no other mention on LTHForum, though plenty of other press).

Basically, when Las Tablas, a South American restaurant long resident on Lincoln and in a couple of other spots around town, built a newer restaurant down the street, they turned their old location into a coffeehouse serving empanadas, bunuelos and other light-ish breakfast and lunch items. Now, I’ve never been that excited about Las Tablas, it seems to me the most gringo-friendly, tamed down of the various South American places I know (not the downtown steak-on-a-sword places, which are pure gringo bait, but neighborhood places like El Llano, where you might actually see a South American dining). I wouldn’t say Macondo exactly breaks with that tradition; the empanadas are pretty much exactly what you’d expect, basic stuff like ground beef or cheese with chipotle spread, deep fried. The frying is done well, the inside tastes exactly like you think it will, and no more. But it’s a pleasant place, the service is very friendly, the wifi is free, they have some books and CDs and stuff for sale which suggests a certain earnest desire to spread their home culture to the gringos of Lakeview. A South American alternative to Starbucks or Caribou in my neighborhood. Cool.

* * *

But that tempered enthusiasm did remind me of something more intriguing I’d seen a while back, while I was out scouting Supermercado Taquerias. It was a Latin American grocery, on Laramie in the middle of nowhere in particular, which seemed to have at least a few menu items for sitdown service as well.

I’m not sure at first why I thought it might be South American; the menu pretty quickly revealed itself to be mainly Cuban and Puerto Rican. But I had had decent luck with that combination not too long before at La Bombonera, so I went inside and found the proprietor sitting at one of her tables with some papers and a shiny aluminum MacBook pro. Behind her was a kitchen, which took up nearly half of the room; the grocery part was limited to only a few shelves of Puerto Rican packaged goods. With few things to choose from (and little enthusiasm for Hamburguesa or Hot Dogs con Fritas), I ordered a Cuban sandwich.

While she was making it, I poked around a little. There was a warmer case with a few empanadas and some round fried things in it. I asked what they all were and she pointed to one which she called alcapurria, basically a kind of fritter made of starchy green plantains with ground beef on the inside. Now, the eating of flavorless starches (like yucca) is one of those things that sometimes deters me from eating non-Mexican Latin American food, and filling it with unseasoned ground beef seems only a modest improvement, but she seemed enthused about it, so I gave it a try.

It was surprisingly flavorful, the hint of banana mixing provocatively with the fried-ness and the meat. More than that, it was exotic, maybe even soulful, two things you could not say the textbook-perfect empanadas I’d had a couple of days earlier had been. A moment later my Cuban sandwich came out; now, no Cubano in Chicago is textbook-perfect, there’s always a compromise on what kind of bread you use and so on (nobody bakes the authentic lard-based roll, apparently), so in judging Chicago Cubanos, it’s not a matter of how closely they approach a Miami ideal but how well they succeed despite obvious heresies. And this, well, I kind of think this was the best Cubano I’ve ever had in Chicago, right up there anyway, maybe a long ways from the best example of a Cubano (try La Unica for that, probably), but that roasted pork was so good, moist and full of roasted and well-seasoned flavors, that even as there was too much of it, as there was too much cheese, as the supermarket French bread it was on was significantly off the model, it was just a great sandwich. (You could skip all my existential angst and just have the lechon sandwich, and enjoy the pork qua pork.)

So this modest little grocery, easy to drive by (I might not have ever noticed it if I hadn’t parked to try the taqueria across the street), had proven to be a real find— but there was still more to it than I realized. The owner, Palmira, was happy to chat (posed proudly behind her roast pork leg); she was Puerto-Rican, her husband Paraguayan, and they had owned a restaurant called El Arpa on Peterson for some years.  Like Ramon Delgado of La Bombonera, having gotten out, they wanted back in, but without the responsibilities of managing a large place and staff. So they started this grocery to cater to Puerto Rican and South American customers missing the authentic taste of this or that product they grew up with. Fairly quickly, however, the few prepared foods blossomed into a kitchen that largely overtook the grocery, and now she roasts a fresh pork leg nearly every day, presumably mostly for evening takeout (since I was the only customer at lunch).

But food isn’t the only cultural taste of home they’re keeping alive; a couple of Saturday nights a month, they move the tables out of the way and local musicians play, not so much in performance for an audience but in the kind of gathering, like in a pub in rural Ireland, where anyone in the community can join in and play or sing. There will be one of these this Saturday, the 22nd, of Argentinian music, from 7 to 12, and another on June 12 featuring Palmira’s husband and a Paraguayan friend who will be visiting.

So there’s a lot going on inside this tiny grocery with an unpronounceable name. I asked Palmira where that came from; she said the Tainos are the native Americans of Puerto Rican, and she has a granddaughter born around the same time she opened the store, who’s half Puerto Rican-Paraguayan— and half Irish. So Palmira calls her Tainayri, the little Indian, to encourage her to know all her different ethnic heritages. Not bad advice for any of us living in a place where a whole vibrant culture can be hidden behind the signs of the bodega on the corner.

2965 N. Lincoln Ave.
(773) 698-6847

Tainayri’s Bodega
2525 N. Laramie

If you like this post and would like to receive updates from this blog, please subscribe our feed. Subscribe via RSS

Comments are closed.