When I first had the idea about this blog I had a totally different attitude and idea about what to write and the message I wanted to convey. The blog was first titled, “Enough with the ordering of that sandwich!!” The premise came from a long time feeling I had about the widespread popularity of the “jíbarito” sandwich. I feel that much of our food items are forgotten and will eventually disappear from our menus if we don’t order them. I was bitter and created a photo album via Facebook of more than 180 plates of food to plainly say: “look at how much food we have.” I wanted to create the tagline #fuckthejibaritosandwich. I even vowed that if I ever opened an eatery I would never have it on my menu.
Overall, I strongly wanted to challenge the foodies in Chicago to ask for other things on the menu at Puerto Rican restaurants. After speaking to two Boricua restaurant owners in the Chicagoland area they both expressed that they did not necessarily want to put the sandwich on their menu, but customers are requesting it, and it’s their #1 selling item. After digging a bit deeper I became a fan of it’s creator.
For those who don’t know, the jíbarito is a ChicagoRican sandwich with twice-fried green plantain, which substitutes the bread, filled with anything from steak and onions, to the more common chicken and pork. Today you can find many variations including the vegetarian jíbarito, which includes eggplant, a “jíbarita” which uses sweet plantain, and even a breakfast jíbarito with eggs. The literal definition of the word Jíbaro is a rural or mountainous dweller of Puerto Rico. In the mid 1990′s, it is said that Juan “Peter” Figueroa of Borinquen Restaurant in Chicago’s Humboldt Park area, created and put on the market what we in Chicago know as the “Jíbarito sandwich.” In Colombia and Venezuela, there is a similar concept called “Patacónes.” El Plátano Loco in Aguada, Puerto Rico, is said to have served a “sandwich de plátano” as early as 1991. In Haiti, it’s called the “Shackabana” and is considered the official sandwich of the nation. Twenty years after it hit the menus in Chicago, it has been in “The Huffington Post”, “The Food Network”, “Chicago Tribune”, “Esquire”, “Chicago’s Best”, “Travel and Leisure”, along with multiple foodie lists like “Best sandwiches in Chicago”, “Best sandwich you never heard of”, and so on. It has gained so much popularity that it can be found in many types of restaurants around our city.
Juan “Peter” Figueroa thought outside of the box and created something that was not on other menus. He evolved his concept of traditional Puerto Rican cuisine and created something no one in Chicago had ever heard of. He then sat back and watched other restaurants use his concept and sandwich name for their own restaurant. According to Juan, there was even a restaurant in Cleveland that used his tagline, “La Casa del Jíbaro.”
I wanted to seek him out and talk to him personally, and so I did. On Wednesday, October 14, 2015 I went to Borinquen Restaurant at 5249 W. Belmont on the northwest side of Chicago. He seemed to me a gentle, older man about my father’s age. I shook his hand and really was a bit scared that we would clash; that our opinions about food and the industry would not mesh and that we would both walk away frustrated. After all, I’m the healthy food blogger/ cook and he’s the creator of my current frustrations. But I wanted to know about the man behind the jíbaro sandwich and so the interview started:
RP: How did owning a restaurant first start for you?
JPF: Started in the late 1970’s when me and my dad opened a social club called Cabaña in Humboldt Park. It had a kitchen in the back, and that’s where I cooked. At that time I was in my 20’s. I owned that one with my father, who was my best friend. He really believed in me. Unfortunately he passed. After that I opened El Flamboyán in the early 1980’s with my two brothers. Then I moved to Puerto Rico and worked in a few kitchens in downtown Caguas. After P.R., I came back to Chicago and opened Restaurant Parador, also in Humboldt Park. In the late 1980’s, I opened up Borinquen Restaurant, “La Casa del Jíbaro”, as it was named by radio personality Rey Rubio. That one was open for twenty-plus years. Now I’m here.
RP: How and when did the idea of the Jibarito sandwich come to be?
JPF: Well, every morning when I was working at the restaurant I would sit down and read El Vocero newspaper from Puerto Rico. You know El Vocero? And I would always look at the recipe section. One day I came across a recipe for “sandwich de plátano.” I cooked it and made it for my father. He loved that sandwich so much. He looked at me and said, “this is it. This is what we’ve been waiting for”, and so it was. I started making this sandwich about 1990, but it became famous in 1993 or 1994. It became famous because there was an older lady who was sick at St. Mary’s hospital. She told her daughters she wanted some sancocho from Borinquen Restaurant. I make a mean sancocho. Her daughters brought her sancocho, but it wasn’t from my place. They had to then go back and come to Borinquen to get the sancocho she wanted. They came in a few weeks later when she was out of the hospital and brought her daughter who is a really important food critic named Monica Eng. At that time Monica worked for the Chicago Tribune. She must have had the Jibarito sandwich and really liked it. She put a review in her paper and the rest is history. At that time I would have lines of thirty, forty, sometimes fifty or sixty people outside my doors and halfway down the block.
RP: How do you feel about other restaurants now using the Jibarito sandwich and its popularity?
JPF: Even though I am not profiting I feel great because others are making money. I remember being in a position where I needed to make money too. I have been offered money by a few restaurants for using the sandwich, but I don’t accept it.
RP: Do you yourself say, “there’s more to Puerto Rican food than the Jíbarito sandwich?”
JPF: Absolutely! I love to cook cuajitos, bacalao con verduras, alcapurrias, gandinga. But that’s not what people want. They are not interested in other foods. They want to eat the Jíbarito.
RP: I saw you have some new innovative food items on the menu, such as the “Boricua sandwich”, and “Volcano.” Can you tell me something about that?
JPF: It’s delicious! The Boricua sandwich is a tripleta (pork, chicken and steak) sandwich with bacalaítos used as a bread substitute. The Volcano is really similar to a stuffed mofongo. It’s something one of my cooks suggested because she used to cook it in Puerto Rican kitchens. But I’m always making new dishes. I also make jíbarito hamburgers, which I’d like you to taste.
RP: As we can see, there are some healthier food trends in the industry. People want to eat healthier. Have you made any food adjustments because of that?
JPF: Well, we have some vegetarian menu items. I like to make salads, but if I’m not here the cooks struggle to make them as good as me. Honestly, my food is not too nutritious. A lot of it is fried. But I try my best not to buy things I cannot pronounce. I make my own adobo. I make my own sofrito. I make my own hot sauce, which people love. I make two different types of BBQ sauce, one spicy and one mild. But I am open to trying new things, especially if it sells.
RP: What one accomplishment can you say you are most proud of?
JPF: Out of all my accomplishments, I’d have to say it was the day I was able to purchase back my farm in my hometown of Jayuya. That is my pride and joy.
After more than an hour of talking about food, family and recipes, it was time for me to wrap it up. We exchanged information and made sure we’d meet up again and eventually cook together. I left overflowing with thankfulness for people like Peter. A fearless, kind, entrepreneur with nine lives. I truly never felt during our interview like he was bullshitting me. I went in thinking that Peter would be bitter about others putting the sandwich on their menus, but that wasn’t the case at all. I find myself with hopes that he does well; that his son continues the legacy of “La Casa de Jíbaro.”
My challenge to our restaurants here is to continue to create different things as Pete did. A good example is what Owner/ Chef Yari Vargas is doing at “Casa Yari” in Chicago with flan. Even though flan has been done before for many years, she has created pumpkin flan garnished with candied walnuts, tequila walnut flan, apple pie flan, plátano maduro flan, and more. She is creative and it shows on her menu.
Let’s continue to evolve as our population has. Cook from scratch with fresh, non-synthetic ingredients. Take a stand against GMO’s and food that has no nutrients. Continue to create and innovate fresh palate with traditional ingredients. Because if we don’t, then we will never see the next jíbarito sandwich.
Peter, the creator of Chicago’s Jíbarito sandwich can be found at Borinquen Restaurant Two at 5249 W. Belmont Ave in Chicago. They have plenty of space to accommodate large parties and are open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. This location accepts credit cards, is BYOB and does catering jobs. Here I ate the first jíbarito sandwich I’ve had in many years. It was ingested before I could even start the interview. The location was clean and the customer service was polite and attentive.
This special recipe I will share is for former Miss Puerto Rico Destiny Vélez, who with her anti-muslim rant was rightfully eliminated. Here’s a dish that comes from the Moors, who resided in Spain for almost 800 years and with them came their food. A dish I am sure Destiny enjoys: “Guineitos en escabeche” (vinegared green banana salad) for six: