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Cuba 312 Puts a 'Funky' Spin on Traditional Cuban Cuisine

ROSCOE VILLAGE — Even people who've never tasted a bite of Cuban food have likely heard of the Cuban sandwich.

You'll find one on the menu at Cuba 312, Roscoe Village's newest eatery, but Jamie Alvarez, co-owner with husband Billy, would like the restaurant to be known as much for its ribeye as for the way it presses pork and pickles between slices of bread.

"The whole concept here is 'Cuba our way,'" said Jamie Alvarez, co-owner of Cuba 312. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

"I want people to explore beyond the typical Cuban sandwich," said Alvarez, 32. "I want them to come and think, 'I can get a good steak, I can get a good piece of fish.'"

The Alvarezes already run a traditional Cuban joint, Taste of Cuba, in Lincolnwood. For their second venture, at 2054 W. Roscoe St., they wanted to stretch their culinary wings.

"The whole concept here is 'Cuba our way,'" said Jamie, who calls herself "Cuban by association," her father-in-law having immigrated from the island.

"We do traditional [food] well at the first location," she said. "Here we wanted to bring our version of what Cuba is. Let's do something funky."

Patty Wetli says it was an exhaustive permitting process for Alvarez:

On the menu, that translates into dishes like a guava-glazed pork chop and a ribeye rubbed with Cuban coffee.

The key, Alvarez said, is to first have a solid understanding of the cuisine's typical ingredients and flavor profiles and then experiment.

"If the embargo was lifted and Cuban cooks had access to the ingredients we do, you'd see this awesome, inventive food," she said.

Cuba 312 is the newest addition to the Roscoe Village restaurant scene. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

Though not a trained chef, Alvarez learned the basics of Cuban cooking at the elbows of her husband's aunts and proved her chops at Taste of Cuba.

"If anything, I'm more confident now," she said.

One thing her experience didn't prepare her for: the difference between owning a restaurant in Lincolnwood and owning one in Chicago.

Initially the Alvarezes expected to open Cuba 312 in fall 2014. Actual opening date: June 25.

Jamie attributed part of the delay to the storefront's need for more extensive renovations than anticipated — El Tinajon was the previous occupant — but said "coming soon" turned into "coming eventually" because of Chicago's serpentine business licensing procedures.

"In Lincolnwood, there's no bureaucracy. Chicago's not like that," she said. "We weren't used to the permitting process."

She's still waiting, by the way, on Cuba 312's liquor license (so it's BYOB at the moment).

The upside, she said, was the creation of pent-up demand.

"People were really waiting for us," Alvarez said.

Response has been so positive, she said, she's already had to shift staffing to accommodate more prep time before service starts.

"She thinks she's the hostess," Jamie Alvarez, co-owner of Cuba 312, said of her 3-year-old daughter. [DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]

Now that they finally have their second restaurant up and running, the Alvarezes are getting used to a new routine that has Billy overseeing Taste of Cuba most days and Jamie leading the team at Cuba 312.

Unlike at the Lincolnwood location, none of the Roscoe Village staffers are family members, though the couple's 3-year-old daughter will make an occasional appearance.

"She likes to think she's the hostess," said Alvarez.

Cuba 312 is open for lunch and dinner, Tuesdays-Sundays.

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