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The Big-Voiced, Big Softie with a "Gift of Gab" Who Serves Homestyle Latin American Food in Logan Square

Maggie Hennessy
Omar Cadena standing at the ordering window at Omarcito's
“The message I want people to receive is one of love, kindness, appreciation, and inclusivity to every f--king living person," says Omarcito's owner and chef Omar Cadena. Credit: Maggie Hennessy for WTTW

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Approaching Hamlin Avenue as you walk west on Fullerton Avenue in Logan Square, you’ll hear – and smell – Omarcito’s Latin Café long before you glimpse it. The upbeat pulse of salsa and Latin pop and aromas of garlicky carne beckon from around the corner on its quiet, tree-lined street. Then, as you pass through enormous yellow gates to the patio, outfitted with sunny yellow, red, and orange furniture, a booming voice from the window of a white shipping container carries over all others.

“Omarcito’s, good afternoon!”

“Hey, Mami. What do you need? My love, give me 15 minutes, yeah?”

“Papi, thank you so much. I appreciate you guys.”

This conspicuous voice belongs to Omar “Omarcito” Cadena, the Chicago native behind this counter-service cafe specializing in homestyle Latin American plates and handhelds. Of course, customers line up time and again for the roasted lechon jibaritos with garlic mojo, empanadas stuffed with guava and cheese, and cornmeal-fried catfish. But they come for the man, too, in his black chef’s coat and blue Chicago Cubs (sometimes Bears) cap, who describes himself as a big softie with big energy and a big voice.

“I’m here to cook and share the food I loved to eat as a child,” he says. “The message I want people to receive is one of love, kindness, appreciation, and inclusivity to every f--king living person.”

After a winding career in and out of restaurants, Cadena debuted Omarcito’s in the summer of 2022 with his business partner and sister Priscilla Cadena and sous chef Mario. Cadena is Cuban on his mother’s side and Ecuadorian on his father’s side, a blue-collar city kid who grew up on pan-Latin cooking: Cuban steak sandwiches with vinegar-steamed onions from Cafe Marianao – “like a Philly cheese steak, the way it drips down your arm!” he effuses – and fried catfish heaped on rice and doused in chunky, Ecuadorian salsa criolla with tomato, red onion, cilantro and his grandmother’s cure-all: olive oil. No one made ropa vieja quite like his great-aunt’s sister-in-law Ercilia, he says, and he still gets emotional each time he adds white wine to sizzling sofrito, one of the secrets to his mami’s Cuban black beans.

Fried catfish from Omarcito's
The fried catfish from Omarcito's, served with rice and salsa criolla with tomato, red onion, and cilantro. Credit: Maggie Hennessy for WTTW

Omarcito’s is named for the nickname Cadena shares with his grandfather, who immigrated to the U.S. as a political refugee from Cuba in 1968 – and that’s not the only thing they had in common. “He had a good gift of gab and was a magnet for people,” Cadena says.

Cadena’s grandfather worked as a butcher in the Back of the Yards. Eventually he opened a jewelry store on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square in 1980, a year after Cadena was born. Cadena was convinced he’d eventually take it over, but his grandfather sold it in the ’90s. Instead, Cadena found his way into hospitality, working in the front of house at Calypso Cafe and the Pasta Shoppe and Cafe, both of which closed in the 2010s.

“I was so good at being the face of restaurants, at being in the public eye,” he says. He left the industry for a while in his 20s due to burnout, returning in 2008 to work at the ascendant Irazu, where he became front of house manager before becoming a general manager at BIG & little’s. There, the dream of being his own boss began to materialize.

“Do you want a coffee, love?” he asks me, mid-anecdote. He prepares one Cuban-style: sweetened, volcanically hot espresso with steamed milk, the kind that warms your soul and inevitably burns your tongue. A customer walks up to the window, a little cruda, to retrieve her pickup order. Cadena promptly prescribes his go-to hangover cure: pouring Topo Chico into a deli container with lime wedges and a few dashes of salt. He slides this across the counter along with the order of tacos dorados, crispy rolled chicken tacos served inside consommé with garbanzos, potatoes, and anisey epazote.

“You can add the tacos to the consommé if you like,” he says, “but make sure these two m-therf--kers touch, OK?” He gestures to the salsa criolla and tacos. “That’s where the magic happens.”

He tends not to ask customers what they do for a living. “That’s none of my business; and it doesn’t define you,” he says. The window is a safe space, to ask “How are you?” and mean it, to check in on the crew, to commiserate about dwindling bank accounts. “I need it as much as they do,” Cadena adds.

Another customer picking up jibaritos congratulates Cadena on his January win for Best Counter Service at Chicago’s local food awards, the Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence. The win took him by surprise, he says, telling me he felt out of place as just a working class Chicagoan among the “tweezer boys” – fine dining chefs.

“The recognition … left me completely speechless, which is why I’m here doing this,” he said a few days later on Omarcito’s Instagram, speaking from the window of his container restaurant and wearing his medal. “The day of, I was tongue-twisted. Also, I wasn't behind the window, which in all honesty, you guys who know me, know this is where the words flow best at.”

It took almost two years to open Omarcito’s, between business license setbacks and fundraising through side hustles. The building owner, a longtime Cadena regular who’s also behind Taqueria Chingon and The Stopalong, brought his vision to life with the sprawling buildout that could easily be plunked into Miami’s Wynwood district.

Cadena and sous Mario, also formerly of BIG and little’s, opened the window for weekend pop-ups in the summer of 2022. Cadena’s 70-year-old tía got in the kitchen to help prep the crush of orders using little more than electric burners and a folding table. Back at Cadena’s apartment, his mami whipped up vats of her famous black beans to send to the restaurant.

At first, they changed the menu every two weeks, testing dishes like chia seed pudding with edible flowers and plantain cups filled with burnt tomato guisado.

“I was trying to be too creative, trying to be a tweezer boy,” Cadena says.

With time, he leaned harder into the Ecuadorian, Mexican, and Cuban cooking that colored his childhood, embracing it as an extension of his identity. Despite swearing he’d never put ropa vieja on the menu like every other Cuban joint, Cadena caved and asked Ercilia for the recipe. Tangy, rich, and silky, it’s now a routine best-seller, served traditionally with rice and black beans or stuffed inside corn tortillas with muenster and topped with green garlic aioli, crema salvadorena, and queso fresco in the deliciously messy Mexican-Cuban mashup quesa’ropa.

The pan con bistec from Omarcito's
The pan con bistec from Omarcito's. Credit: Maggie Hennessy for WTTW

The pan con bistec might be Cadena’s greatest triumph, created in homage to Marianao's: marinated sirloin tip sliced razor-thin and griddled, topped with vinegared white onions and sliced tomato on squishy french bread from Il Mulino de Valenzano bakery in Franklin Park. It’s juicy, garlicky, piquant – elemental in the best way. “Just like when we were kids,” Cadena says, stealing half my sandwich.

Like many have probably done before me, I mix up the squeeze bottles of pale-green house-made garlic sauce and (also green) fiery, delicately grassy serrano-olive oil hot sauce. I absently douse the last few bites of my sandwich in the hot stuff while Cadena and I discuss his forthcoming trip to Disney World with his seven-year-old daughter. Mario lunges forward in concern.

“You’re OK with spicy?” he asks. Hell yeah I am.

Lips afire, stomach full to bursting, soul cleansed, I finally get up to leave. I thank Mario and Cadena, and tell them I’ll be back soon.

“Don’t just say it,” Cadena calls from the window. “Act on it.”