Little Havana's Cuban restaurants feel strangely uptight, like they're run by Republicans. One of the best lunches I've had all year, at the Versailles Bakery in Miami, was marred by the unshakable sense that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were somewhere in the building playing dominos, smoking cigars and plotting the privatization of Yosemite. Sure, you find sun-bleached scenes of purple Chryslers and bongo drums hanging from the walls, but the overall vibe is more in line with that hairy-chest, gold-chain thing insurance salesmen do at Jimmy Buffett shows.
I'm not sure about the personal politics of El Cubo de Cuba's ownership, but the Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard restaurant feels very different from the rabidly anti-comandante crowd in Florida, where the focus is on the problems of that part of the island not housing our country's political prisoners without charges for more than a decade. As good as the food at Versailles was—and several of the pastelitos were extraordinary—I was ready to eat and get the hell out. El Cubo, on the other hand, is the sort of place where you relish the chance to sip wee cups of milky coffee and listen to Cuban jazz while waiting for your to-go order as torrential rains pound the poor little potted palms on the sidewalk. And while the food at this former food cart isn't perfect, it's got a lot going for it.
El Cubo makes faithful versions of Cuban standbys—pork, chicken, rice, beans, Cubano sandwiches—most from rich ingredients buoyed by a heavy spritz of citrus. The best entree I've had is the mojo pork ($9.75), which comes on a plate with rice, black beans and one starchy side from a list that includes two types of fried plantains, yuca fries, sweet potato fries and avocado salad. The pork is juicy, shredded shoulder meat, brightened with citrus. It's especially good with chewy brown rice.
It's hard to go wrong with the sides. Either of the plantain options—salty, crunchy tostones or sweet, gooey maduros—are very nice. The sweet potato fries with a hard sprinkle of coarse salt are better than what you'll find at most Portland restaurants, and the fleshy yucca fries recall top-flight tempura.
The Cubano sandwich ($9.50) also uses the shredded mojo pork, on a feathery toasted baguette-style bun with ham, pickles and Swiss cheese. Only in a town that's home to Bunk's obscene pork-belly version of a Cubano, would this sandwich seem balanced and restrained.
Not everything is quite so good. El Cubo's black beans are chalky and underseasoned, and the guava chicken ($8.50) has a moist and smoky thigh and leg, but offers more lime than guava.
I'm happy to look past all that. El Cubo de Cuba succeeds by being a warm and inviting room with dark roast coffee, a damn fine working man's sandwich and beautiful plantain dishes. It's very much a restaurant of the people. I can't picture Marco Rubio here—that alone is enough to get a "Vive Cubo!" out of me.
- Order this: Cuban sandwich with maduros ($9.50).
- Best deal: Cafe Cubano ($2).
- Iâll pass: Underseasoned black beans.
EAT: El Cubo de Cuba, 3106 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 971-544-7801, facebook.com/elcubo.decuba. 11:30 am-10 pm Tuesday-Sunday.