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La Unica One for Me

Misty craves Cuban tamales all the way home from South Africa.
Monday Jan 22, 2007.     By Misty Tosh
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Cuban is the name of the game.
photo: Misty Tosh
Nostalgia is a funny thing. For me, it's the most intense blob of emotion flowing through my veins. Whether it's the slow memory of an old lover's lingering gaze or the first sip of a well-made Cuba Libre (rum, coke and lime) that takes me straight back to a lush Caribbean island (man, the tan I had), the sensation that is nostalgia is the most beautiful thing I can think of. Especially when it comes to food. All I can say is, bring on the late-night flashbacks.

It was a mere few days ago that I returned from another wild sojourn in the majestic country of South Africa. I was there for a few months working on an epic documentary about Oprah's plans to open a girl's school in a small suburb of Johannesburg. Of course, as hectic as the production schedule was, I still managed to make time to eat and drink like mad. But as many prawns, mojitos, halloumi cheese salads and Red Bull's as I slammed, all that I really craved was flavorful Cuban grub. To be more specific, La Unica, a warm restaurant in the back of a tidy grocery store on Devon Avenue was the main senorita singing my name. This sort of homestyle, primitive food simply doesn't exist in modern-day South Africa.

Well, you know where it's headed from here. The moment I landed at O'Hare, I headed straight to La Unica. The weather was crapola, but Cuban tamales were on the horizon; nothing was going to get in my way of tossing back a couple of these babies along with some classic sweet fried plantains.

The thing I love about this place is that as infrequently as I show face some months, I'm still considered a regular after weeks of being gone. The grinning waitstaff/smoothie maker/cashier/busboy/barista always remember that I must have lime with my black beans and that I like my tamales to be of the Cuban varietyónot Honduran, not Mexican. No, I need my piping hot tamales to come out stuffed with juicy tidbits of pork (which I never eat) and swimming in ruby red, liquor-laden juices (which I practically lick off the plate). The flavor of these firm, compact little packages is so insanely beatific, I literally close my eyes every time I take a bite. Here's the way I rock my legendary meal:

I order up a side of black beans, a side of lightly oiled rice (sometimes white, other times yellow), and a lone Cuban tamale (grand total is less than $4). I blast through the perfectly done rice with the entire bowl of black beans, and then I take the tamale, with it's pure juices, and fork the whole thing to death. I expertly dump the maize mess over the rice and bean concoction and squeeze a whole, brilliantly green lime with wild abandon (sometimes a whole avocado straight from the grocery store finds its way to my table, too). The acidic flavor of the fresh-squeezed lime mixed with the smoke of the beans and coupled with the texture of the tamale is like no other. I swear to you, with every bite, I moan with honest-to-goodness bliss, my eyes rolling back in my head with sheer happiness. It's such simple, gifted fare and the kitchen knows it, too. With or without the liquor (this place is cocktail-free), it's good to be home and right in the mix of things.

The Final Rave: You have not had coffee until you've tasted the cafe con leche this kitchen doles out. This cupajoe is hyper sweet, crazy strong and full to the brim. Plus, at less than two bones per large cup, the good times just keep flying.

Keep it Going:

Drink It: Mojitos
I cannot tell you how easy it is to make this very special elixir. Fresh mint, loads of sugar, Flor de Cana rum, soda water and fistfuls of mint. Mix like mad, and drink liberally.

Taste It: Ropa Viejo
You have never tasted meat this tender and magical. Habana Libre is said to have one of the better versions in town. Everything in the world pales in comparison to this delightful bite.

Do It: Maxwell Street
Cold as it is outdoors, Maxwell Street vendors pound out such good renditions of tamales that it's worth it to brave the elements. Plus, all those rustic spices popping up at every little stand will make you smile.

Get Crazy With It: Cuba
Even though you might have to get there via Canada and you cannot spend any US dinero while you're there (yeah right!), if you make it to this Castro crazy land, you will not wanna come home. Trust me.

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.


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