Any good Catholic kid worth their weight in wafers knows that the best part of misa is when it’s over. While Mom was in the Navy and Dad was nowhere to be found, my brother and I were being housebroken by Grandma, Mom’s mom, the kind of woman whom friends and relatives referred to as “Doña Blanca” long before she turned 50. “Ita,” as we called her (short for Abuelita), had moved from Honduras to Humboldt Park in the early Seventies, opened a clothing boutique in Wicker Park, and built herself into a pillar of the community, with an extensive social network of business associates, customers, fellow immigrant mothers and, of course, church ladies, which meant my brother and I were forced to attend misa every week and sit as quietly and motionlessly as possibly, a commandment which we invariably failed to keep. Listening to the padre drone on about God knows what, my eyelids would begin to close on their own, usually in tandem, but sometimes independently of each other. Pain ultimately resurrected me every three minutes or so, as either Ita would reach over and pinch the hell out of my forearm, or my head would slump backwards and crack against the pew’s back rest. The only times I ever stayed awake through the whole ordeal were when one of the female congregants wore Sunday gear that sent me to my knees begging the absentee father in the sky for forgiveness.
Once we were out on the steps of St. Sylvester and Ita had made the rounds saludando the other matriarchs and exchanging judgments, it was time for our reward. If it was Easter, we went to IHOP, but on less fancy occasions, we just went to Marianao, on the southwest corner of Armitage and Albany. The order was always the same: jamón, huevo y queso and a Kola Champagne for me and Chris; Ita got the same, only with a cafecito con leche. She chatted with the owner — naturally — while I watched one of the underlings fix our sandwiches. He’d split open sections of French bread and slather the insides with an unhealthy-right amount of butter and then place them face-down in a press. Meanwhile, he fried up some eggs and thin strips of jamón on a flattop grill, using a metal spatula to form rectangular omelettes, the clank of the spatula mixing with the sizzling of the jamón y huevo, the chitchat of customers, and Celia Cruz on the radio. When the bread and eggs were nearly ready, the cook laid white slices of cheese on the eggs, waiting for them to melt a bit before he slid the whole thing into the toasted bread, closed the sandwich and split it down the middle on a slant with the side of his spatula. He wrapped the sandwiches in wax paper and tossed them into a brown paper bag, handing it to Ita with a nod before moving on to the next customer. The place was rarely packed but never empty.
The closing of the Armitage location was a big deal in my family, at least to me. Mom had long since returned from Gitmo and moved her now three kids to the Northwest Suburbs; I was herded into a private university whose only merit, to my mind, was its esteemed name (which also happened to be the only thing I knew about the school), and I hoped to shave a cool $10,000 off the yearly tuition by staying with Grandma during the week, since her house was a straight shot to school on the #73 Armitage bus. I realized the old neighborhood was changing when I spotted an outdoor ATM on Kedzie and the retro street lamps the city had put up along Armitage, but I thought a joint as poppin’ as Marianao would be the last vestige to be disappeared by the 21st-century conquistadors, a.k.a. the gentrifiers. Then it was gone, moved to a smaller location on Milwaukee, a couple blocks from the California Blue Line station.
I made pilgrimages to the new spot just as I had the last, sometimes with family, but mostly with friends and girlfriends, and then my wife. (They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but women take the cake.) First-time companions grew visibly more uneasy as we left cozy suburbia and entered what, to them, seemed like urban blight in high relief but what, to me, was simply home. Pulling up to a shack under the belly of the ‘L,’ the person I was hoping to impress would ask “Is this it?” — verbally on occasion — and I’d smile with nervous excitement. Having come of age in their habitat, I knew what they were thinking — that this all looked ghetto, that I was ghetto, that they should’ve just insisted on Walker Bros. from the start. “Just wait to you try this sandwich,” I said, half reassuring them, half reassuring myself. In the end, though they all liked the sandwich, they ate theirs a lot slower than I ate mine, and they never requested or even mentioned Marianao afterward.
I, on the other, fell deeper in love with the place, especially once I started having my jamón, huevo y queso con un cafecito con leche, as Mother Nature intended. Marianao became a physical, delicious remnant of my childhood, of a life that, however depressing it may have been at times, seemed more idyllic the more I spiraled into my twenties and felt life slipping through my fingers, Alamo Junior reenacting the fate of Alamo Senior. It was my happy place, an island of crispy, cheesy goodness in the tempest that was my present existence. On an especially dark spring day, finding it emotionally impossible to make it through another lecture (this time at a university on the other side of town), and with only a few bucks in my wallet, I caught the Blue Line up to Logan Square, heading for Marianao. The closer I got, the better I felt. I forked over my last dollar on a jamón, huevo y queso and a cafecito con leche and ate standing at the window counter, watching the old and the new course along Milwaukee. That sandwich was like therapy, a pep talk from my younger self. I can still taste that one.
Last month, DNAinfo’s Paul Biasco reported that Cafeteria Marianao has closed its doors yet again, only this time it might be leaving Logan Square for good. “The restaurant and the double lot it sits on at 2246 N. Milwaukee Ave. went on the market Wednesday for $1.39 million and has already received interest,” Paul writes. The broker, Carlos Alers, affirms my belief in Marianao as a local institution: “You mention that name to any Hispanic person and they all know. Their kids, their grandkids, their dads, everyone has eaten there.” Everyone has eaten there, but nearly everyone has been forced to move away.
Suffice it to say I tried recreating the Marianao magic in the confines of my own kitchen once or thrice, with mixed results. My attempts sort of tasted like the real thing but sort of didn’t. For one, I didn’t have a press and resorted to toasting my sandwiches between two frying pans with a large can of pinto beans on top as weight. I’m positive I didn’t use the same butter or ham or bread, and it could be that the eggs were Marianao’s special ingredient this whole time. Still, now that I’ve moved to Vegas and Marianao is no more (at least for now), my ersatz sandwiches will have to be enough to reignite the memories that so desperately need remembering; those of home; of Ita and her house; of the old hood, even the boring church; of my brother and I eating jamón, huevo y queso and drinking Kola Champagne, still guiltless, hopeful, and dressed in our Sunday best.
Featured image: sarabrammeier/Instagram