Cuban meets Mexican in dishes at Cubanito Express #2, 3222 Harlem Ave. The counter service establishment opened quietly on Jan. 17 and has since been churning out a bevy of bold pressed sandwiches to hungry locals seven days a week.
“There are four Ambrocio brothers plus our chef, Marco, who own the business together,” said Lucio Ambrocio, co-owner of Cubanito Express. “Marco is like a brother to us, so yes, this is a family business.”
Ironically, Cubanito Express #2, is the first restaurant owned by the group of men. The brothers realized with five partners in the mix they had enough manpower and experience to open two businesses at once.
In June of 2021 they signed the lease on the first Cubanito Express location at 47th and Pulaski in Chicago and leased the Riverside location in October of the same year. Remodeling delays in the city combined with the smooth process in Riverside, however, allowed the brothers to open the second location first.
“It was much faster to get through the process in Riverside,” said Lucio Ambrocio. “The village president, Joseph Ballerine, personally guided me through the application process.”
Lucio, Cesar, Vicente and Rafael Ambrocio grew up working in their parents’ Mexican restaurant in Midlothian. Their parents have since retired, but the brothers came to appreciate the thoughtful approach their parents had when it came to supporting their large family.
“Working in the restaurant was just a part of our childhood, but now that we are adults, we have learned the world is not an easy place,” said Lucio. “We appreciate what our parents did with their restaurant. No matter if a restaurant is big or small is comes with the advantages of self-reliance.”
The brothers decided to re-enter the restaurant industry, but did not want to open a “straight Mexican” establishment. Estrada-Oropesa brought a wealth of restaurant experience and an arsenal of Cuban recipes to the business.
As a result, Cubanito Express marries the Mexican recipes Francisca Ambrocio used at her family’s restaurant and the Cuban techniques Estrada-Oropesa has been perfecting over the years.
Today, the restaurant offers an array of breakfast sandwiches and a large assortment of salads and pressed sandwiches suitable for lunch or dinner. While the items carry out well, many customers dine inside the diminutive space at rails along the windows and walls, hovering over generously sized Cubano, Ropa Vieja or vegan sandwiches.
Estrada-Oropesa is especially proud to offer five vegan sandwiches on the menu and notes community groups in Riverside have reached out to applaud their efforts to appeal to vegans and non-meat eaters.
Carnivores, however, will appreciate his version of the classic Cubano sandwich. The chef marinates pork butt in a house made mojo (a mix of fresh citrus, garlic and oregano) before roasting the meat until it is meltingly tender.
The pork is crisped up on the flat top before being sandwiched on a french roll with boiled ham, Swiss cheese, mayo, mustard and pickles and pressed on a plancha, a Spanish-style high-heat grill used for pressing sandwiches.
Lucio Ambrocio recommends the guacamole streak sandwich for those looking to savor some amped-up Mexican flavors. Griddled steak is served on bun, hot off the plancha and slathered with house made guacamole, topped with chorizo, melted cheese and drizzle of chipotle mayo.
Folks looking to enjoy an authentic Cuban meal in sandwich form will do well to order the pressed Ropa Vieja sandwich. This monster of a meal comprises braised beef in creole tomato sauce, house-made black beans and maduros (sweet plantains). Any meal will be made more memorable by the addition of some plantain chips with a bit of garlic mojo for dipping.
Cesar Ambrocio, co-owner and cook, has been eagerly learning Cuban cooking techniques from Estrada-Oropesa. He is pleased how the cuisines intermingle on the menu and feels especially proud that every sandwich served at Cubanito Express comes with a container of his mother’s authentic guajillo chili sauce.
“She came here to teach us how to make it and now we serve it every day,” said Cesar. “Our mother is so proud of us and she will brag to anyone who will listen about this restaurant.”
Cubanito Express is more than your average grab-and-go establishment, The brothers and business partners behind the restaurant bring considerable heart to the operation and cut very few culinary corners.
“We are more than happy to be in Riverside,” said Lucio. “We’ve been surprised by how charming and welcoming this community has been. All the neighbors support local businesses and that gives us a good feeling. All the positive feedback means a lot to us.”