Maggie O'Brien

Cafeteria Yesenia feels like your grandmother’s kitchen on a Sunday afternoon. This Back of the Yards restaurant, on the corner of Ashland and 43rd, is a South Side staple for Cuban cuisine.

As the only Cuban spot on the South Side, Cafeteria Yesenia has a lot to live up to and in my opinion does so quite nicely. Their menu, written in Spanish, has a vast array of food options including a hefty breakfast, which is not surprising since they open most days at 6 am (not to mention the glorious fact that they are open seven days a week).

Arriving at 11 am on a Friday, there was no wait for service—the restaurant was calm and empty. In less than fifteen minutes, a friend and I were sitting in front of baskets filled with yucca fries, vegetable empanadas, and a huge steak sandwich. The spices wafted through the air as we inhaled the scent of what would be our first meal of the day.

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As a french fry connoisseur, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into the yucca fries. A Goya bottle of mayo-ketchup was offered as well as a green chili sauce. Trying both, I was satisfied and intrigued by the combination of flavors with this unique style of french fries. Yucca, as a root, is a staple in Latin American cuisine. Jam packed with vitamins, yucca can be a healthy alternative to classic French fries. They tasted a lot like mash potatoes, without the butter or salt. They had a very earthy aftertaste, yet overall maybe a bit overbearing. If you’re looking for classic french fries, they might not be for you, but if you’re looking to try a twist or healthier alternative, Cafeteria Yesenia’s yucca fries will be the perfect match.

When I think of empanadas, a sweet apple/cinnamon pastry comes to mind. These, known as notyamama’s empanadas, strayed far from that image—they are filled with a savory spinach filling. The crust was crisp and warm and the spinach perfectly seasoned. Mediterranean spinach pie came to mind, but with more crunch and flavor. These get a 10/10 and I encourage any fellow vegetarians to check them out.

And then there was heaven in a cup: also known as Cafeteria Yesenia’s well-known café con leche. The drink is served in the type of mug you can buy for $3.99 at Marshalls, and it is everything a great coffee should be: balanced, rich, cream filled, and just sweet enough. It was great to drink with my meal; I imagine it goes well with nearly all of the items on their menu. I can easily envision making Café Yesenia my go-to stop for an excellent coffee. It was that damn good.

Cut in half and served on a white, lightly seeded hoagie bun, the steak sandwich was artfully crafted by the cooks at Cafeteria Yesenia. Unlike a lot of fast food spots, Cafeteria Yesenia serves a more classic steak sandwich with veggies like lettuce, tomatoes, and perfectly grilled onions. The smell of its seasoned beef and fresh veggies wafted in the air long after it was almost gone. A non-vegetarian friend of mine, Ahmani, was kind enough to give his review on the steak sandwich. When asked to rate the sandwich, Ahmani gave it a 7/10 because, although delicious, he wished there was more steak and sauce in the sandwich. However, he did say he  regretted being so full because he “wanted to finish the rest”: a sure sign of a good meal.

Cafeteria Yesenia has a charming setting with pastel colored blinds and huge potted ferns. The walls are beige and white and their menu has a charming illustration of a young Cuban girl with pigtails, drinking from a paper cup with blue flowers. It’s a place you can go for a quick lunch, or an afternoon spent with friends, chatting over Cuban sandwiches and good coffee. With its relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, you can feel right at home in this South Side gem.

Cafeteria Yesenia, 4244 S. Ashland Ave. Monday-Friday, 6am-5pm; Sunday, 8am-4pm. (773) 523-8480.

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Kristen Simmons is a contributor to the Weekly. She is currently in her third year at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying English Professional Writing. A Mississippi native, she has had the opportunity to live in multiple Chicago neighborhoods. Her favorite South Side food is well seasoned french fries with mild sauce. She last wrote for the Weekly in March about youth arts organization Yollocalli Arts Reach.

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