The jibarito belongs in the pantheon of Chicago street food classics, a delicious dish with a rich history thanks to the genius of its diverse communities. Translated to “little hillbilly” in Spanish, the typical Puerto Rican-inspired jibarito is a sandwich of thin-cut steak or shredded beef, tomatoes, lettuce, and garlicky mayo stuck between two fried and “flattened green plantains.
There’s little doubt that the jibarito was born of Chicago, though no one can agree on its exact origins. Many cite the late Juan Figeroa, the owner of Humboldt Park restaurant Borinquen, as its inventor circa 1996. His brother, Angel Figueroa, told Thrillist that he’s even trademarked “jibarito” in the state of Illinois. The state trademark process doesn’t offer as much protection compared to a federal mark. Experts say state trademarks are only useful if a party accuses another of taking someone else’s idea. Now 24 years after the sandwich’s debut, fans can find jibaritos in a variety of U.S. cities. The sandwich has even arrived in restaurants in Puerto Rico.
Jesus Arrieta, owner of popular local mini-chain Jibaritos y Más is comparatively new to the jibarito game — his mother Yelitza Rivera opened the first location in 2016 — but he and wife Tatianny Urdaneta have quickly made a name for themselves among the sandwich’s many devotees. Arrieta’s family is from Venezuela, not Puerto Rico, but he says his mom was attracted to the because of its similarity to patacón, another green plantain sandwich created in the Venezuelan city of Maracaibo. She also spent years working in Puerto Rican restaurants before striking out on her own. Jibaritos y Más now operates two locations in Logan Square, and another in Dunning. They recently opened a new spot in Lincoln Park.
Puerto Ricans began trickling into Chicago by way of New York in the 1930s, and began arriving in waves more than a decade later. Chicago is now home to one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the mainland U.S. It’s also the only American city with an officially designated Puerto Rican neighborhood, with a commercial center in Humboldt Park’s Paseo Boricua. The area, marked by metal archways designed to resemble enormous Puerto Rican flags, is home to prominent community organizations like the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, as well as retail shops, restaurants, and grocery stores that specialize in the territory’s ingredients and cuisine.
Arrieta’s jibaritos differ slightly from the original without straying too far off the path: he features additional proteins including pork, chicken, and octopus, and tops the sandwiches with minced garlic, giving it “the magic touch,” he says. In the end, though, he believes it’s the freshness of the product that keeps customers coming back.
“A jibarito has to be made at the minute — how crunchy the plantain is, how the ingredients mix together, the mayo, the garlic on top,” he says. “That’s what people love about it, the texture of a crunchy sandwich. That’s what makes it different.”
Despite its apparent simplicity, jibarito production is a laborious process, largely because of the time and effort involved in peeling a green plantain, which may look like a banana but doesn’t peel like one. It can’t be just any plantain, Arrieta cautions: it has to be the right size to hold up its end of the sandwich.
Once peeled, the plantain is sliced and fried, then smashed in a press and fried again to create the crunchy texture. Arrieta then cooks the protein — the most popular are bistec, or steak, and roasted lechon, or pork. He then slathers mayonnaise on the fried plantains and layers them with the lettuce, meat, and cheese. Pop the second plantain on top, supplemented with daubs of minced garlic, slice it in half, and stack beside a pile of arroz con gandules, or “Puerto Rican rice” made with pigeon peas and pork.
Arrieta is proud to play a part in the city’s love affair with jibaritos. He credits his loyal customers with keeping his businesses solvent during the pandemic, and he has found success with carryout and delivery. His menus offer other Puerto Rican favorites like tostones, chuelta frita, and mofongo, but the chain’s name belies Arrieta’s true loyalties.
“I love that [jibaritos are] a Chicago thing, that it’s so accepted by the people of Chicago,” he says. “It makes them happy and gives us something to have passion for.”
Correction: September 9, 2020, 9:30 a.m.: This article has been updated to accurately reflect that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.