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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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Airbags

When Café 28 expanded its dining space a couple years back and tacked on an outdoor patio, I wasn't exactly pleased. For one thing, the addition of the enormous new backroom detracted from the quaint, cozy atmosphere I had once enjoyed so much (now, the restaurant is loud and impersonal). Also, the back patio, although pleasant in fair weather, isn't much to look at.

But the real reason for my irritation with the new digs was that Café 28 practically doubled the number of seats in its restaurant. And, frankly, I hate sharing.

Over time I've learned to live with the expansion (although there was a six month period when I refused to go) and now realize that it was a blessing; this North Center restaurant had become too popular for its own good. Word about the delicious food served here had spread far and wide, and the wait for a table was insanely long.

With the extra space, the waits are now more reasonable, and I don't feel so bad lingering a bit over coffee after dinner. Exposed brick and large windows (looking out over the ridiculous amount of construction currently taking place on Irving Park Road) make up the interior. A couple years ago, I would have recommended this place for a quiet meal for two or an intimate dinner with a few friends; now, much of the romance of the place is gone, however, the wide open space and boisterous atmosphere is quite ideal for large parties or after-work functions. And while the setting may not be as charming as it once was, the food has never been better.

The cuisine at Café 28 could be described as "Nuevo Latin" -- it has definite Mexican and Cuban influences. On a recent warm evening around dusk, my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed a fantastic appetizer of coconut shrimp on the patio. Tender shrimp were tossed with diced red pepper and green onion and covered in a sweet coconut glaze. The vegetables had a subtle kick to them, which balanced quite nicely with the sweet glaze and accompanying curried rice. My only complaint at this point in the meal was the metallic grating of a steam shovel scoping up gravel in the alley behind us, but Café 28's fabulous strong mojitos made everything better.

The ropa vieja, which I ordered for dinner, was just as excellent. Melt-in-your-mouth beef was slowly simmered in a tasty tomato sauce with hints of garlic. White rice, spicy black beans, and sweet plantains made for terrific sides to this dish. Also good was the chipotle grilled chicken entree; a large breast of chicken was smothered in a thick, fiery tomato sauce and served atop jalapeno mashed potatoes and green beans -- definitely not a meal for those who can't handle spicy food.

I wasn't as impressed with the almond-crusted halibut. The jalapeno mashed potatoes (same as in the chicken dish) had a lot of flavor, but the fish itself was too bland and the accompanying grilled asparagus was tough. At $17.95, this is one of the most expensive items on the menu, and although the fish was fresh and high quality, I felt the ropa vieja and chicken (both priced about $6 less) were better values for my money.

Other outstanding items on the menu include the honey-jalapeno grilled pork chops, blackened duck with Portobello mushroom sauce, and the bistec with caramelized onions and mojo. Café 28 also has an extensive dessert menu featuring decadent tres leches, pistachio cake and flan, but the dinner and appetizer portions are so generous, that I've rarely had room for a final course.

For all of my complaining about the atmosphere of this restaurant, I should admit that it really isn't that bad -- I just feel that my dining experience now has a more mass-produced feel to it. I may long for the time before the expansion, but the food is so great that it keeps me coming back. And can I really fault them for capitalizing on a great concept? Of course not, even if it means I now have to share.

Café 28 is located at 1800 W. Irving Park Rd.

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About the Author(s)

Kim Conte loves to write and eat, and dreams that one day someone will pay her a lot to do both.

If you feel the need to get in touch with her directly, do so at .

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