I am a huge proponent of observing birthdays. I'm not sure if it's the excuse to plan and execute a celebration of some nature (goodness knows, I love to plan a party), or that I just like to make the people I love feel special, but I hate to let a friend's birthday go by unrecognized. Occasionally, this drives my friends crazy; I recognize the fact that some people don't like to make a big fuss out of getting older, but that doesn't mean I have to accept it. This year, when I found out that Natasha would turn be turning 30 and starting a new decade of life, I immediately began pestering her about her birthday plans. Thankfully, Natasha likes to plan parties as much as I do -- in fact, one of our favorite bonding activities is to plan hypothetical theme-parties, even if they never actually materialize. However, with only two weeks remaining until her job is terminated, she didn't feel that a huge soiree was appropriate. Instead, I suggested she have a low-key dinner with friends, just to ensure that the day wouldn't pass without being commemorated in some way. This was how we ended up taking an epically long, crowded bus ride to Humboldt Park, Chicago's Puerto Rican enclave, on the day of the Puerto Rican Day Parade and Festival.
Natasha's restaurant selection was Sabor Latino, the only Puerto Rican restaurant in Chicago that Natasha's Puerto Rican family deems worthy of their business. I was excited, not only to recognize the passing of Natasha's 30th birthday, but also to try Puerto Rican cuisine for the first time. However, when my mother pointed out that she'd seen on the news that Natasha's birthday celebration would coincide with the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, my excitement was considerably dampened. After all, Humboldt Park does not have a stellar reputation in terms of safety. In fact, it consistently ranks among Chicago's more dangerous neighborhoods, although it experiences less gun violence than infamous areas such as Austin, Englewood, and Lawndale. Add a bunch of drunken festival-goers to the mix, and the potential for danger seemed heightened in my mind. It was too late to cancel her birthday plans and reschedule, so Natasha decided to press forward, but I quietly resolved to be out of Humboldt Park before nightfall.*
Getting to the restaurant turned out to be an adventure unto itself. Thankfully, we boarded the bus at the beginning of its route, and were able to get seats, because within two stops, the bus was completely packed with people headed home from the beach and people heading to the Puerto Rican Day Festival. It was one of the more crowded buses I've ever ridden, and considering the fact that I commute through the heart of Chicago's tourist district on a daily basis, that's saying something. Notably, a fight broke out between two women on the bus, resulting in a major delay as the driver was forced to intercede and evict one of the ladies from the vehicle.
As we neared Humboldt Park, we began to spot an increasing number of vehicles with Puerto Rican flags -- flags attached to windows, hanging from trunks, draped across hoods, attached to roofs, and being waved by scantily-attired girls hanging out of car windows. If the color green and the shamrock are the symbols of Chicago's Irish pride, then the Puerto Rican flag is clearly the most potent icon of theirs. My favorite example consisted of a vehicle with no fewer than twelve flags, three attached to each window. There were Puerto Rican flags, American flags, Cubs flags, Chicago flags, Illinois flags, and unidentifiable flags that Natasha hypothesized represented some Puerto Rican provinces. It was impressive. Unfortunately, since we were on the bus, we didn't get any photos of the hoopla.
After nearly an hour on the bus, excaerbaled by typically Chicagoan idiocyncratic street closures and police road blocks related to the festival, we finally made it to the restaurant. Overall, I would say I had a positive first encounter with Puerto Rican food. My entree of roasted pork and yellow rice with beans was rather delicious: the meat was succulent and the rice was surprisingly good, considering the fact that I generally ignore any rice that accompanies my food at Latin restaurants. Natasha ordered a large selection of appetizers for the table, all of them fried. I thought I didn't have a problem with consuming lots of heavy, fried food, but this meal tested even my limits. I found myself eating the sad little pile of salad on my plate just to distract myself from all the grease I had consumed. Granted, it was tasty grease, but I still felt a little gross and a lot guilty afterwards.
Still, if you can't induldge at a birthday fête, when can you? I was glad to be on hand to celebrate with Natasha on her special day, even if it was somewhat of an adventure to do so. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Happy Birthday Natasha!
*As it turns out, my paranoia was not unjustified. Despite the massive police presence, there were still 3 shootings in Humboldt Park on the day we were there.