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Cafe Iberico stands the test of (tapas) time with pleasing fare

Cafe Iberico Chicago N. LaSalle - patatas lriojana.    |  Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Cafe Iberico in Chicago on N. LaSalle - patatas a la riojana. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: September 21, 2011 12:43PM

Today, we are at Cafe Iberico on North La Salle Street in Chicago. Cafe Iberico continues to be one of the hottest go-to tapas restaurants in Chicago. Soon the restaurant will be celebrating its 20th anniversary, which is testament to the consistently good job that it does in exploring the wide world of tapas.

Almost 25 years ago, the word “tapas” became the culinary buzzword around town. It’s a Spanish thing — appetizers, snacks. And just like that, tapas became a hot item in Chicago.

Through a bit of menu manipulation here and there, though it’s simply a matter of semantics, appetizers were kicked aside (for the most part) in favor of small plates. And lately small plates have been downgraded (or upgraded relative to your point of view) to “snacks.” It has been rumored that I am not a fan of small plate restaurants. To a certain degree, that’s true. Why would I be happy with an overpriced, thimble-sized portion of food? If it’s trendy to be ripped off, count me out.

Given the option, however, give me a tapas experience every time. And exercising that option, give me Cafe Iberico every time. Yes, I very much like the cut of this place. From the expansive menu to the celebratory atmosphere.

The flavor and enjoyment of the tapas at Cafe Iberico can begin with something as simple as jamon Iberico, which puts together thin slices of Spanish-style cured ham and Manchego cheese, laying those atop tomato bread (pan con tomate). You could call it an open-face sandwich, but that wouldn’t do justice to its overall goodness.

Following that cold tapa, it was patatas brava, in which generous chunks of tender potatoes mixed it up with a tangy tomato sauce. While that doesn’t sound all that interesting, it is that simplicity that makes well-made tapas so special. A take-off on that dish, the patatas a la Riojana, brings another dimension of flavor with the addition of Spanish sausage and a richly flavored sauce (the Riojana part).

And on it goes with a thick and rich with flavor tortilla Espanola, which is as basic to a tapas restaurant as steak frites is to a French bistro. It’s called an “omelet” on the menu, because eggs are used to bind the potatoes and onions. This “omelet” is cooked in a deep pan, and after it has been cooked, portions are sliced into wedges. It’s one of my favorite tapas.

Don’t overlook the weekly specials list. On one visit I polished off a rather large portion (for a tapa) of fricase de pollo, which is a casserole made up of chunks of chicken, chickpeas and chorizo. You get the essence of this dish — texture, flavor — from the three main ingredients. Actually it was enough for two of us to share. And tapas is all about sharing.

Desserts included fancy ideas like homemade crepes layered with white and dark chocolate and a creamy custard sauce. More dark chocolate would have moved this dessert to another level of deliciousness. But then there were the basics like caramel flan, rice pudding and crema Catalana.


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