Last week while everyone in Chicago suffered through the first real snowstorm of winter, I was lounging on the beach on a tiny island off the coast of Nicaragua. I gleefully played in the clear-as-glass waters of the Caribbean, snorkeled frantically with sharks and napped in colorful hammocks. Come dinner-time, I'd feast on just-caught lobster tails that cost a scant few dollars and guzzle (seriously) dozens of garden-fresh minty mojitos made with the best rum, Flor de Cana. What a life.
Now that I'm back from the beach, I'm making my old rounds and daydreaming about third-world countries. That might sound weird but it's amazing to me just how far the dollar stretches south of the border. It's put me on a mad quest to find out how far my dinero can go in the city. My first pit stop is Mekato's Colombian Bakery.
The first time wandered across this place was on a stroll up to Bel Ami for some mouthwatering chevapi. It was packed, with loads of people streaming out the door. I could hear the Colombian music blaring from outside the glass windows. I just stood there, gazing in (looking crazed, I'm sure) and wondering how all of these folks knew about this tiny gem. Wanting to find culinary bliss at my first re-entry into Chicago ethnic food, I knew this would be the place. I couldn't have been more on target with my assumptions.
With only two tiny tables and a smattering of bar stools, it's best to get situated in Mekato's before the crowds arrive (do not go after church on Sunday). Stroll in around 9 a.m. on a Saturday, score a great seat at the counter and watch in awe as the fresh baked goods make their way out of the kitchen. It was as if the helpful staff could sense my delight and curiosity at the pans of garlicky sausages, just-fried empanadas and soft-baked cheese sticks because they paused to tell me what each item was on their way to the hot case. I order them all. Many times over.
Starting with a handful of palito de queso (75 cents each), I was immediately hooked. These piping hot, semi-pretzel tubes stuffed with cheese are the best things I've put in my mouth in some time. I follow up with big balls of fried ground beef and potato chunks along with lightly fried empanadas stuffed with chicken. The giant chorizos ($2) come sliced in tiny rounds and are served with a side of lime; it's all so damn genteel. I quickly decided that I will never eat another American meal, if I can help it.
I try not to get too full because I want to cram in every sweet the bakery has pumped out. Imagine tiny tins of firm flan (flan de leche), huge wedges of black cake (pedazo de torta negra), spheres of thick bread pudding, powdered sugar cookies (perfect for dunking in Mekato's strong cafe con leche), soft green figs stuffed with caramel, triangle pastries stuffed with guava and caramel, and brilliant napoleons with layers of thick vanilla pudding, crispy phyllo and chewy caramel (clearly, caramel is a theme here). After trying everything on display, I make a vow to support all ethnic restaurants and bakeries and lay off the $25-a-plate joints that frequently make my acquaintance.
The Final Rave: The old-timer baker is delighted to tell you what each item is, so don't be afraid to ask. Really, though, there is no bad choice.
Keep It Going:
Read it: "Mangoes and Curry Leaves"
This awesome coffee table cookbook about one couple's eating adventure through the great subcontinent has me hankering to get the hell outta dodge yet again.
Drink it: Solstice
Sticking with the rum theme, Wednesday nights pour Bacardi cocktails for a mere $4, and if you buy two appetizers, you get one free.
Eat it: Las Tablas
Allegedly some of the best Colombian food around and guess what? BYOB, kiddies!
Get crazy with it: Casaiguana.net
Treat yourself for X-mas and hop a flight to where I just was (Little Corn Island). This eco-friendly lodge has the best mojitos in the world and casitas on the beach start at $25.
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.