Mayra Fernandez dishes about rum cocktails and the hectic holiday season at Cafe Cubano. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

Café Cubano’s owners Mayra and Javier Fernandez Jr. have spent 20 years building their restaurant at 7426 W. North Ave. in Elmwood Park. The extended warm weather has kept the restaurant’s outdoor patio bustling well into November and indoor dining has finally normalized much to Mayra Fernandez’s delight.

“We are staying busy because of this warm weather, and we are happy indoor dining is back,” said Fernandez. “Things have been slowly coming back to life since the pandemic and I am happy to see people packed in here again.”

Café Cubano’s menu is winter-ready and Fernandez is eager to draw attention to the array of warming dishes the Cuban eatery takes pride in serving. The restaurant is known for comforting braised stews and homestyle meat dishes that surge in popularity during the cold winter months and especially during the holiday season.

“We are taking our focus away from sandwiches and salads and looking toward the comfort foods we are best known for,” said Fernandez. ““Nothing screams holiday more for Cubans than roasted pork!”

During the holiday season Café Cubano anticipates prepping more than 400 pounds of Cuban-style roasted pork known as lechon. Chefs use mojo, an assertive citrus and garlic marinade, to bring the classic Cuban flavors of bitter orange, oregano and cumin to the classic dish. Fernandez says Café Cubano marinates their premium pork butt in their house-made Mojo for two to three days before slow roasting the meat four to six hours.

“We know it is done when the bone comes out clean,” said Fernandez.

Cuban lechon with arrzo congri and boiled yuca with garlic. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

A regular menu item at Café Cubano, the succulent pork is served with yucca with garlic and arrzo congri, a traditional mixture of black beans and rice. The lechon meal is also a holiday favorite and preordering of this classic meal is available for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Café Cubano’s heat-and-eat meals, suited to serve 10, tend to sell out. Christmas orders should be placed by Dec. 20.

The owners learned everything about large-batch cooking from Javier Fernandez Sr. who served as a cook in the Cuban army. He was a master of high-volume cooking and used his vast experience to set up the family run restaurant for success. Fernandez cooked in the Café Cubano kitchens until 2009 and the restaurant relies on his recipes to this day.

“He was here cooking until the day he died,” said Fernandez of her beloved father-in-law. “He loved food, especially Oxtail Stew. That’s why we were serve it today. And God forbid we run out; customers love it!”

The homestyle oxtail stew and long cooking Ropa Vieja offer warming options for diners during the winter months, but the smoked pork chops are a menu standout all year round but prove to be a cold weather favorite at Café Cubano. Cubans “tend to like smoked meats” according to Fernandez who emigrated to the United States from Cuba more than 50 years ago. A smoked pork chop must be “perfectly fried” to rise to restaurant standards and chefs at Café Cubano plate up two golden-brown chops per order. Sides including fluffy rice, savory black beans and tender plantains round out the hearty offering. The chops look unassuming, but diners will have to resist the urge to pick the bones – the crispy edges are devilishly good.

Dine in customers at Café Cubano have come to expect a guitarist to be on site on weekend evenings.

An assortment of rums served at Café Cubano used in tasting flights. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

While he mills around entertaining restaurant goers, Fernandez hopes to see customers enjoying a thoughtfully prepared cocktail like autumnal spiced mojitos or an adventurous rum flight.

Rum flights, featuring a trio of 1.5 ounce tastings, are gaining in popularity at Café Cubano. Spiced rum cocktails and coffee drinks are also part of the program and Fernandez is especially excited about Café Cubano’s spiced mojito. Made with dark rum, this cold weather take on a traditional summer drink is deceptively complex and comes garnished with a festive cinnamon stick.

Those who clamor for classic Cuban sandwiches and rich Chicago-style Jibaritos can still satiate their cravings all winter long at the Restaurant Row mainstay in Elmwood Park. There is something for everyone at Café Cubano!

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