Chicago doesn’t have many Dominican restaurants, as the city’s population lags behind places like LA, Boston, and Atlanta. But Morena’s Kitchen, on the city’s West Side in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, has been cooking traditional Dominican food like fried chicken, oxtail, and red snapper for the last four years at 5054 W. Armitage Avenue. It’s a tiny space with room for just a table with a total of 10 seats. Chef-owner Miriam Montes de Oca has bemoaned the lack of room in her kitchen. But that will all change next month when she moves into a larger space next door with room for 15 tables at 5058 W. Armitage Avenue.
The restaurant’s name will transfer to the new space which will feature table service and a chance for Montes de Oca to regularly serve food specials like shrimp in coconut sauce. She’s planned to move to a larger space for a while, but encountered problems finding the ideal location. She’ll open Morena’s Kitchen as a BYO and hopes to add a liquor license down the line. Grilled chicken, salads, and different fish will be on the menu.
In recent months, local writers have lauded Morena’s fried chicken as among the city’s best. The pica pollo is marinated double-fried chicken that comes hacked-up in pieces. Montes de Oca won’t reveal the seasoning, but food writer Titus Ruscitti described it as “Popeye’s turned up to ten.” Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader wrote the chicken will “present a compelling reason to lick your fingers.” The chicken’s served with fried plantains, ketchup, special habanero sauce, and lime.
The chicken is nice and all, but the new space will present a chance for Montes de Oca to serve more items and be known for more than what’s become a signature item. She hopes to hold on to the current restaurant and rename it Morena’s Cafe. It will focus more on fast food sandwiches and empanadas. Just because it’s fast food doesn’t mean quality needs to suffer: “We don’t have anything like this in the area,” Montes de Oca said.
It takes a lot of effort to serve international cuisine. Tracking down goat, Dominican oregano, and other items isn’t as easy as calling a supplier which serves big restaurant groups. There’s also the matter of teaching other workers how to cook traditionally. Some culinary techniques don’t translate to others and it takes time and experience to learn how to cook like Montes de Oca.
“I’m everything — I don’t have a husband, I don’t have a partner — I have my daughter right now in the corporation,” said Montes de Oca.
But the work is worth it for Montes de Oca. She hopes to open the new restaurant in three weeks. Stay tuned for updates.