Jibaritos must be the most unpredictable of our iconic Chicago-style foods.
Sure, there are nuances to the best hot dogs, Italian beefs and caramelized crust pizzas, but you mostly know what you’re going to get. With the Puerto Rican-inspired sandwich, there’s always that crucial moment you pray the garlic-smeared plantains will crackle and crunch.
Or at least you should. Some poor souls don’t even know the tough cousin to the banana can achieve the shattering texture of chicharron.
At Jibaritos y Mas in Logan Square, they make the best I’ve had in the decades since the sandwiches were invented in the Humboldt Park neighborhood next door. The restaurant has built a modest family dynasty with not just the golden plantains, but by pushing the boundaries of what can be sandwiched. The traditional steak, however, remains the fan favorite, with what have become canonical jibarito toppings: mayo, lettuce, tomato and American cheese.
“We start with freshly peeled plantains,” said Jesus Arrieta, son of founder Yelitza Rivera. “They’re fried, smashed and fried again.”
They slice sirloin steak thin, season the meat (with an in-house adobo mix) and a little vinegar, then cook with onions and butter on a flat top griddle, Arrieta said. The top plantain gets a glorious gilding of crushed garlic in oil before they cut the sandwich across in half.
The toasted, nutty plantains tend to slide against the subtly spiced beef, all with notes of cheeseburger from the unlikely cooling toppings. I highly recommend the house hot sauce, a fiery blend inspired by the Puerto Rican chile pepper condiment pique.
“That’s our sauce,” Arrieta said. “We mix it with a bunch of spices, vinegar, oil, salt and garlic, too.”
It’s part of the secret sauce behind the trio of family-owned Jibaritos y Mas restaurants with a complex origin story — but one that’s not nearly as messy as that of the sandwich.
Juan Figueroa has been widely credited with creating the jibarito in 1996 at his restaurant Borinquen in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, now closed.
“Each morning I would get in, cook the food and then sit reading the Puerto Rican newspaper El Vocero while I waited for the customers,” Figueroa said in a 2003 Tribune story by my “Chewing” podcast co-host Monica Eng. “There was this article one day about the sandwich made with plantains instead of bread. It was called the sandwich de platano. So I thought, ‘I can do that,’ and I made one for my father.”
They christened it the jibaro, a complicated identifier for a rural person on the island, although its diminutive, jibarito, has become the accepted culinary name.
The same year as that interview, Rivera immigrated to Chicago from Maracaibo, the second-biggest city in Venezuela.
“Since the moment she got here, all she did was work in Puerto Rican restaurants,” her son said. She first learned how to make jibaritos at a food stall at the old Discount Mega Mall, then worked at the venerable family-owned Ponce restaurant and was married to a Puerto Rican man for several years, Arrieta added.
In 2016, Rivera opened Jibaritos y Mas on the corner of Fullerton and Kimball avenues. It was total chaos in those early days, with a takeout counter in front and just a few tables, but they cranked out their signature crackling-crusted sandwiches relentlessly.
In October 2018, Arrieta and his wife, Tatianny Urdaneta, opened a location the couple owns on Harlem Avenue in Dunning. In January 2020, his mother and her best friend, Betsy Gonzalez, opened a dine-in restaurant, around the corner from the original flagship. Even after the pandemic hit, Arrieta and Urdaneta opened yet another location, on Clark Street in Lincoln Park, in June 2020.
“We all share the same recipes to keep the original flavor,” Arrieta said. The restaurants are 100% Puerto Rican, he added. “But Venezuelans have something very similar to jibaritos called patacones. I think we enhanced the jibarito, and made it better than it already was, by adding a lot more choices.”
And choices they have, with 11 jibaritos and much more at the original Fullerton Avenue corner store alone, now converted to a pandemic-era takeout-only shop. It is one of the smoothest operations around town, especially shocking in contrast to its early chaos. I think it’s still the best of all the locations, as I discovered on recent visits — so much so that it’s become part of my regular family dinner rotation.
The impeccable bistec jibarito may be traditional, but I’m hard-pressed to choose between the fatty lechon, tender pulpo and snappy morcilla, too. The mountainous octopus salad and blood sausage defy sandwich physics, but sides of aromatic arroz con gandules catch every coveted crumb in a soft rice bed.
You can probably skip the desserts, understandably outsourced. Try the passion fruit juice or Puerto Rican soda pops instead, perhaps with maduros, delicately sweet and soft fried plantain bites.
If you’re tempted to visit the centrally located Lincoln Park outpost, do note they cater to different diners from those on the Northwest Side, which means you should expect to ask for more of the defining garlic. At the table next to me on Clark Street, some young friends had to explain to one of their own that they were in fact not ordering burritos, but jibaritos, and what they were.
Had they seemed inclined, I would have also recommended the tour de Puerto Rico platter.
“There’s some of the most traditional things you will find on the island,” Arrieta said of the dish. “Like if you go to Luquillo Beach. That’s what they sell, all fried stuff. You’ll find fried pork, bacalaitos (cod fritters), sorullos (cornmeal cheesesticks), empanadas and potato balls.”
It’s a great sample that captures the original corner store vibe ,too, with Puerto Rican beach food that’s not quite ceviche or ice cream, but fried snacks, plus morcilla.
And summer is the best season for plantains, Arrieta said.
They’re seasonal and not quite like bananas.
“They can be so hard to peel,” he said. “And sometimes no matter how much you cook them, they won’t get crunchy. They’re stubborn to work with.”
But when you’re making the best jibaritos in Chicago, you have to be more stubborn than a bunch of plantains, and squash them into delicious submission.
3400 W. Fullerton Ave.
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Open: Daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Prices: $3.75 (jugo de parcha, or passion fruit juice), $5.50 (arroz con gandules), $8.45 (bistec jibarito), $8.45 (lechon jibarito), $11.45 (pulpo jibarito)
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible with restroom on single level
Tribune rating: 3 stars, excellent (Logan Square)
Ratings key: Four stars, outstanding; three stars, excellent; two stars, very good; one star, good; no stars, unsatisfactory. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.