The breakfast jibarito at Chicago’s Cafe 23
Screenshot: Chicago’s Best (WGN)

Welcome to American Sandwiches Week, a celebration of the mighty sandwich through the lens of Americana.


In Chicago, jibarito sandwiches are found at nearly every Puerto Rican restaurant. Until I had to write about them a few years ago, I didn’t realize they’re not from Puerto Rico. The jibarito is the invention of Chicagoan Peter Figueroa, a Puerto Rican native who found his fame after creating this half-Caribbean, half-American sandwich at his family’s restaurant, Borinquen.

In 1990, as Figueroa is happy to share, he was at Borinquen with his father and felt inspired to create a sandwich using plantains instead of bread. He took green plantains; fried, smashed, and refried them; then layered American ingredients in between—steak, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and American cheese (the kind that comes in white or yellow). He added copious amounts of garlic along the way and finished it with a dusting of Adobo—an all-purpose seasoning used in Puerto Rican cooking. Figueroa served it with a side of arroz con gandules, or pigeon peas and rice, and voila! The jibarito was born.

Photo: Jean Iversen

Named for a jibaro, or a laborer from the mountains of Jayuya, Puerto Rico, the jibarito was a smash hit. At the height of its success, Borinquen was going through about 1,000 plantains a day. Though the restaurant is no longer open, the jibarito is now a staple at many casual Latin American restaurant in Chicago. I’ve also heard of it being served throughout the Midwest and East Coast.

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People ask whether Figueroa had some kind of legal protection on his sandwich. The answer is no. Figueroa is not concerned that other people are cashing in on his creation, only that, as he says, “they represent me well.” Figueroa was more than happy to give me the recipe for his sandwich when I was writing his story for my recent Chicago cookbook Local Flavor. His price? I just needed to write the recipe down. He dictated, I typed. I read it back, he revised.

I then had the opportunity to represent Figueroa’s invention. While hosting a cookbook club at my home, I gave everyone recipes that were going in Local Flavor. We needed to taste-test about a dozen before the book went to press, and I chose the jibarito sandwich—a big mistake for a procrastinator with zero deep-frying experience.

While cookbook club was arriving, placing their carefully made dishes on the kitchen counter, my jibarito ingredients sat, waiting to be sliced, fried, smashed, and assembled. No big deal, I thought. I knew that jibaritos tasted like cardboard when cold, so my plan was to make about a dozen fresh, hot sandwiches for my guests just after they arrived. All I needed to do was follow the recipe, and it would only take a few minutes.

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Right?

Plantains and bananas
Photo: Jean Iversen

Green plantains are long, thin, and fibrous. Think of them as the banana’s starchier cousin. As I tried to peel and slice a dozen hard, green plantains, I could barely budge the skin, and my fingers were digging into the flesh. My heart sank as I stared at a full house of cooks who had finished their dishes and showed up on time, including my book’s editor. Add to that my total lack of experience deep-frying or smashing anything other than a spider, and what you get is a flustered host still making jibaritos an hour after cookbook club arrives. I was slightly consoled when my Aperol spritzes were a hit.

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A couple of friends took pity on me and crept into the kitchen to help as I pounded the fried plantains into submission like a mad woman, trying to flatten them into pieces of “bread.” I glanced sheepishly at my editor, exasperated that I might be projecting culinary incompetency. One friend smiled at me through her teeth with a look that said, “chill the fuck out. Everything will be fine.”

I took deep breaths and eventually, eventually plated and served piping hot jibaritos. By this time, everyone had tasted the rest of the food, taken notes, and, by my estimation, were quite full. To my surprise, they tore into the jibaritos, and the first batch disappeared. I looked at my remaining ingredients for what was supposed to be a second batch. That was not gonna happen.

Sweaty, exhausted, and frustrated, I tried to salvage what remained of the evening. I had excellent notes from experienced cooks on all the delicious dishes. My book’s recipes were tasted and tested. Done.

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The next day, I read up on green plantains to learn a bit more about these unyielding beasts. As it turns out, my biggest mistake was using unripened green plantains. I’ve since learned to use them when they’re at least slightly yellow. They’re much easier to peel and smash. Green plantains, as it turns out, turn yellow then black as they ripen, just like sweet plantains and bananas. (Hey, I grew up in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago, where tangerines were considered exotic.)

I’ve since made jibaritos many more times, toying with plantains in various stages of ripeness. Why bother to make jibaritos when they’re available all over Chicago, you ask? Truth is, if they’re not served fresh, or if they’re made with too much oil, they’re a gross, greasy mess. And since Borinquen is no longer open (the restaurant closed in 2016, although there is still a Borinquen Lounge on North Western Avenue) and I have the original recipe, I can make them exactly the way I like—crispy, without too much garlic.

Here are a few tips I learned about making this sandwich, so you don’t embarrass yourself the first time you serve it to friends. First, buy the sirloin pre-sliced in thin, small portions. This isn’t hard to find at most meat counters. Second, I only use one clove of garlic per sandwich. It blows my mind that Figueroa used five, but it’s in the recipe here.

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Photo: Jean Iversen

Peeling green plantains, even when they start to ripen, is a bit of a challenge, as they’re not nearly as pliable as bananas. I use a paring knife to cut into the ridges, then peel off each section, one at a time. The trick is to avoid cutting into the flesh; this takes some practice, so buy some “spare” plantains as you perfect your technique.

To deep fry the plantains, you will need a deep-frying or candy thermometer, as a meat thermometer only goes to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Frying the plantains at the proper temperature is essential, and I always cut them into quarters before placing them into the oil. It’s much easier to control smaller pieces.

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And finally, serve these immediately. If you do need to warm them up, the oven works nicely. Now go represent!

Photo: Jean Iversen

Borinquen’s Jibarito

Makes 1 sandwich

  • 1 green plantain
  • Corn oil
  • 5 cloves smashed garlic
  • 4-6 oz. thinly sliced sirloin
  • Adobo seasoning
  • Sliced onion (Spanish yellow preferred)
  • 2 slices American cheese
  • 2 slices tomato
  • Lettuce
  • 1 Tbsp. mayonnaise

Heat about one inch of oil to 300 degrees Fahrenheit in a frying pan.

While oil is heating, peel the plantain and cut int in half lengthwise. Fry plantain halves at 300 degrees Fahrenheit until they float. Float for 1-2 minutes. Monitor the temperature carefully; if it is too low, the plantain will be oily.

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Drain plantains by setting on paper towels for 1-2 minutes. Once the plantains are drained, transfer to cutting board and smash with a wooden block.

In a separate sauté pan, heat 1-2 tablespoons of corn oil. Add 4 cloves smashed garlic. Cook until soft, about 2-3 minutes.

Sprinkle beef with adobo and place in pan with oil and garlic. Cook 2-3 minutes on each side or to preferred doneness. Add onion slices to pan, cook for another minute until lightly browned.

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Put plantains back in oil; raise temperature to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Fry for 3 minutes, more if you prefer more crispy. Drain on paper towels.

To assemble sandwich, put one of the plantain slices down, layer two slices of cheese on top, add steak and onions, tomatoes, and lettuce. Spread mayo on the top part of the plantain, place on top.

Take a drop of corn oil, add one clove of smashed garlic, mix, drizzle on top of sandwich. Dust top with Adobo, cut in half, and serve immediately.

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Reprinted from Local Flavor: Restaurants That Shaped Chicago’s Neighborhoods. Copyright © 2018 by Jean Iversen. Published 2018 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.