Long before KFC was clogging our arteries with the “Double Down” (a sandwich that uses two fried chicken filets instead of bread), there was El Jibarito. Swapping out bread for plantains that are sliced lengthwise, smashed, and fried, the jibarito sandwich contains luxurious layers of slow-stewed meat (usually steak or pork), topped with lettuce, tomato, onion and a slice of melted cheese. You can’t fool yourself into thinking one is good for you, but it’s absolutely good for the soul. Plus, the absence of bread in the sandwich makes it naturally gluten free, so there’s that.
Jibaritos made their debut in the late 90s at a Humboldt Park Puerto Rican restaurant that still exists today, eventually becoming a Chi-town staple. Today, only a handful of Chicago restaurants serve them, and even fewer do it well. But that didn’t stop the legendary sandwich from lending its name to a new Puerto Rican spot smack dab in the middle of Chicago’s historic Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen.
The Jibarito Stop, which recently transitioned from successful food truck to a storefront on Pilsen’s 18th street, stands apart from the familiar smells of roasting chiles, smoky carnitas, and warm and sweet pan dulce wafting down the street.
For Cely Rodriguez, a former paralegal, and Moraima Fuentes, a former non-profit worker, the decision to bring Puerto Rican food to Pilsen was laced with mixed emotions – particularly for born New Yorker Rodriguez.
“I heard in Chicago that there was a rivalry between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans so I didn’t know how [the neighborhood] was going to feel about a Puerto Rican restaurant in a Mexican neighborhood,” said Rodriguez. “I thought, ‘I hope they don’t smash our windows.’”
But not long after the duo began serving fresh pernil and habichuelas from their food truck, their Pilsen customers began suggesting they open a shop nearby. Little did they know they weren’t far from where their future storefront would be.
“People would tell us ‘Oh you should open up a restaurant around here be cause we always have to go all the way to Humboldt Park,’” said Fuentes. “I was hoping the response would be good because there’s nothing but Mexican options here!” added Fuentes. “I’m Mexican but I don’t want every restaurant to be! You want options, you want variety.”
Based on The Jibarito Stop’s first day of business however, it seemed the people of Pilsen felt the same way.
There’s a huge [Caribbean] population that isn’t being catered to, and we want to do that.
“All I can remember is a big blur of people!” laughed Fuentes when recalling their storefront’s opening day just two weeks prior. At 11:00am on the dot, there was already a line of ravenous customers out the door. The demand was so high they ran out of food– a stock that was meant to last two days–in just a couple of hours.
“We were prepared!” said Fuentes. “We go to downtown for lunch [with the truck], people line up, we sell a lot of food, and from the people we’ve talked to, some restaurants [in Pilsen] don’t do as well. So we thought okay we’ll make three times the amount we usually sell and we should be good.”
“So we ran out of food!” added Rodriguez, laughing. “Puerto Rican food is not easy to make…alcapurias? Are you kidding me? That’s so hard to make! Especially if you’re making a ton of it.”
But for the duo, the endless work days and hours spent cooking, chopping and frying are worth it. Their efforts are stepping stones to their ultimate goal of breaking Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine into the mainstream.
“Our idea in a nutshell is to open fast casual Puerto Rican restaurants–a chain basically,” said Rodriguez. “It feels like no one caters to [Caribbeans in Chicago] you know? And that’s including Jamaicans and Dominicans…there’s a huge population that aren’t being catered to and we want to do that.”
“We’ve always wanted to make Puerto Rican food as common as the Mexican or Chinese option,” added Fuentes. “Like how you can go to a Panda Express or Chipotle and get that cuisine. So we’ve been setting up this restaurant in a way that would be easy to replicate in other states.”
For around $10, customers at The Jibarito Stop can order a Puerto Rican feast–and fast. Set up similar to a Chipotle, the go down a line, verbally assembling meat, rice and sides into either a jibarito combo, fritter basket or the traditional rice and meat platter. It’s impossible to go in wrong –all of the meats (bistec, pernil and pollo) are slow stewed, tender and perfectly seasoned. If the massive combo or platter portions seem too daunting, go for the fritter basket–which stars beef, chicken or shrimp empanadas (named some of the best in the city) or alcapurias that you can pair with rice and beans or sweet caramelized maduros. Traditional Puerto Rican soft drinks, Malta India and Kola Champagnes, are conveniently placed by the cashier stand.
A platter of bistec y cebollas with rice and perfectly seasoned pinto beans tastes so good you’ll almost feel you’re betraying your abuela. And that’s exactly what the women of the Jibarito Stop want their customers to experience every time they come in. That, and the fact that achieving your dreams is possible.
“You never think of [owning your own business] because it always seems so out of reach,” said Fuentes. “But if you have a dream and you’re willing to work really hard, it’s attainable.”
The Jibarito Stop
1646 W. 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608