I think Cuban food is destined to become another of my favorite cuisines (How many times have you heard me say that about a food in the course of this 52 Cuisines project?!). Himself and I visited Mambos, a little Cuban restaurant in that part of Glendale where you think you're still in Burbank. Or maybe it's in that part of Burbank where you think you're still Glendale. Anyway, it's an easy walk from Griffith Park, in case you forget your picnic. Lest you think we completely blew it out, this blog entry features food from three trips we've made to Mambo in the last few months. It's getting to be quite a habit...
It's tempting to fill up on the Cuban bread that hits the table first thing. This bread comes in long, squarish loaves and is soft and lush on the inside (mmmm, made with lard) and crackly on the outside. It's advisable to eat your Cuban bread the day it is baked, so as not to break your teeth on it. (I visited Key West a few months ago, which has a strong Cuban presence, and found that the weapon of choice in this self-declared "Conch Republic" is a stale loaf of Cuban bread!) It's great dipped in this house-made sauce. Our server either didn't know what was in the peppery red sauce or didn't want to reveal the secret (I suspect the later). It has a decent amount of heat that neither overpowers the food it accompanies nor fades into the background. We dunked our pork and beef into it, too. Next time I'm asking for extra.
I ordered a mamey milkshake (pronounced mah-MAY), in spite of my concern that it might be too heavy for the meal. I was surprised to find that it was not terribly sweet, certainly not cloying like milkshakes made in the States usually are. It had a delicate tropical fruit flavor but one I couldn't quite put my finger on. I want to see if I can find the fruit itself in one of the ethnic groceries around town and try it fresh. From what I hear, it's divine eaten out of hand.
The deep-fried yuca was oddly both light and dense, with a pleasant starchiness--not as heavy as I expected. It came with an aggressive but wonderful garlic dipping sauce that I'm sure will protect us both from vampires for at least a week.
As if it weren't tempting enough to fill up on bread and yuca, a platter showed up on our table loaded with empanadillas, croquetas, pappa rellena, chorizo and tostones, that is, twice-cooked plantains. The plantains are cut into rounds and fried. After they cool, they're smashed and fried again, which makes them firm and chewy.
Here are the appetizers with a bite taken out of each, so you can see what's inside. The empanadilla contains ground beef; the pappa rellena in the foreground is a potato ball filled with more ground beef (are you detecting a theme here?); the croqueta is a mixture of mashed potatoes, onions and still more ground beef, coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried. Stop looking for the veggies--there aren't any in there!
This petite tamale was filled with pork and green onions. It was delicately flavored and quite seductive. I like my tamales to have those telltale signs that someone has lovingly folded the corn husks around them by hand. Those indentations down the center I'd call furrows of love.
The Cuban sandwich is made with two types of swine, both roast pork and ham (can you really have too many? Maybe they should have included bacon as well!) and Swiss cheese, all tucked into one of those Cuban-style baguettes, pressed and cut on a bias, for easy handling.
While I enjoyed the roast pork, being a Southern gal, I always expect it to be smoky, and this was not. Still it was moist and flavorful. On the far right side are maduros, sliced and fried plantains. Unlike the tostones, maduros are cooked only once and are soft. Tostones are much more toothsome.
Taking a steak and pounding it thin, breading it and frying it is not my favorite way to handle a piece of beef, but the flavor was good, and I'm sure it didn't take long to cook, which might be why it's prepared in this fashion. Using less time and cooking fuel is much more economical.
I enjoyed the black beans and thought they were quite good. From what my Cuban hair stylist tells me, though, the most authentically Cuban black beans have a balance of flavors, of sweet, sour and garlic. These didn't really have that balance. I'd still order them again, but it won't keep me from seeking out black beans at another Cuban restaurant around town.
Aguacate Fernando is a cool, fresh salad of avocado, tomatoes, onions, garlic and cilantro, a nice foil for the richness of the fried foods and meats. It was as much a necessity as it was a nicety.
We have yet to save room for dessert. I just dug out the Old Havana Cookbook I bought in Key West and started perusing the dessert recipes. I'm tempted to go in search of some fresh mamey so I can make a pudding. Each recipe in this book is printed in both English and Spanish--it might be fun to see how successfully I can make a dish following the directions in a language that's not my native tongue. Of course, the results might be inedible. I probably should think that idea through a little more carefully...
From what I've read about Cuban cuisine, the food from the west side is more Criollo, or Creole, strongly influenced by European cuisines. On the eastern side of the island, though, the influence is decidedly African. I suppose that's from the slave trade throughout the islands that lie to the east of Cuba. A country doesn't have to be an enormous land mass to host an array of culinary styles. I'm eager to learn more about Cuban food. It's a party on a plate.