Best New Restaurants of 2008

Prior to opening his South Loop Cuban-style cafe, Philip Ghantous was a frustrated actor-waiter with zero kitchen experience. So how the hell is it that this Lebanese-American from Peoria is now pressing the best damn Cuban sandwiches in the city? It probably has to do with the near-manic pursuit of perfection that should have made him a success at anything—and would probably put him out of business if he weren’t situated in a part of town desperate for a high-quality, low-investment breakfast-and-lunch spot.

The sandwiches on the board are divided between the rigorously authentic and appealing riffs on the classics. The cubano is a perfectly proportioned construction of light, cracker-crisp Gonella bread, mustard, pickle, ham, cheese, and mojo-marinated, house-roasted pork shoulder that fairly drips with flavor; it’s also used in the lechon sandwich. The steak on the palomilla, two breakfast sandwiches, and in a chimichurri-dressed sandwich is marinated in yet another mojo. I hate to use the word fusion, but that’s what Ghantous uses to describe some of his less traditional efforts, such as a Cuban-Italian hybrid of tomato, fresh mozz, and basil or a jerk chicken variant dressed with his habanero-lime mayo. He allows his Middle Eastern heritage to peek through on a roasted veggie version, swiped with jalapeño hummus. The less common, Argentine-influenced choripan—a dry, salty, Spanish-style chorizo with grilled onions and chimichurri—may not be for everyone, but it’s in the running for my sandwich of the year. Ghantous admits to having a heavy hand with seasonings, most evident in the garlicky chimichurri, which he makes a week in advance so the flavors have time to integrate. But the real secret to these phenomenal sandwiches lies in his sense of overall balance and proportion. Small-batch house-made salads fill out the backside of the menu, and the coffee comes from Tampa roaster Caracolillo. Arrow Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days, 26 E. Congress, 312-922-2233. $

Original publication: 
Chicago Reader