No American government policy can put an embargo on Cuban cooking. Good thing, too: Malanga, a restaurant venture of Connie and Eric Laslow, shows off the island's gastronomical traditions. The Laslows come to this cooking honestly, for Eric's grandmother handed down a legacy of stories, recipes and a love of the old country foods. "Para que no se te olvide," she intoned as she ground the beef for her picadillo ("So you don't forget"), and the Laslows' restaurant is her culinary memorial.
Contrary to popular belief, Cuban cuisine isn't particularly spicy or ablaze with scorching Caribbean peppers, but its hearty country-style dishes can be quite comforting and down-home, especially if your home is Havana or Pinar del Río.
The restaurant's name refers to a nutlike root, with brown skin and a white-to-lavender flesh, that's starchier than a potato and appears everywhere on the menu, even in a sweet pudding. Unfortunately, the name is prettier than its dense texture and bland taste. Other tubers with which the malanga is often confused, such as taro, also turn up frequently here, as do pumpkin and squash. You'll also find fufú, the charmingly named mix of ripe plantains mashed with garlic.
Malanga's garden, crowned by a splashing fountain, is splendid for summer dining. But when rain closes the garden, diners eat in a simple room where photographs of Cuban life hang on the walls.
Malanga offers a number of fried appetizers, which are tricky to produce without masking the interior filling. A terrific croquette of Spanish ham with creamy béchamel packs a bracingly salty, assertive flavor that blasts through the batter ($5.50). The restaurant's namesake tuber appears in a fritter creamed with the root and dipped in pungent garlic mashed with oil ($5). There's also a version laced with crab and an accompanying avocado sauce ($6.75), but the crab is too delicate to hold up against the batter, and the dish tastes as if the shellfish has been extended by starch. Two better seafood offerings include prawns sautéed with garlic and chiles, all spread on a salad of onions ($8); and a martini-glass serving of ceviche made with curls of marinated octopus, snapper and shrimp in a tart, limey liquid ($7.50).
The least attractive item on the menu, a stew of malanga, corn, potatoes, plantains and calabaza--a pumpkinlike squash--is simply a messy mush ($8). But serious meat eaters are in for pleasures like the roast pork marinated with onion and garlic, which is a marvel of tenderness and flavor ($13.75). A classic of Cuban cooking is a simple dish of rare steak and black beans, a combination of dark and deep colors with an equally rich taste--at Malanga the only splash of lighter color comes from an enlivening mound of salsa verde ($13.50). To round out the carnivorous offerings, there's a hunky shank of mahogany-hued lamb braised with cumin and plantains nestled against mashed boniato, a pleasant yam less sweet than the garden variety ($14.50).
Nothing on Malanga's dessert list (all items $5) is especially inspiring. The rice pudding is simply cold, lumpy rice with a touch of anise and cinnamon. A better choice is an intense banana ice cream or, better still, you can end your meal with one of the delicious sweet tropical drinks of rum or blue Curacao.
Over the past year, some diners have complained about slow service at Malanga, which seemed odd given the reputation the Laslows had earned at their 5-year-old continental bistro on Northwest 23rd Avenue. Recently, they've closed the original and moved to Colorado, but Eric Laslow says he's committed to returning to Portland frequently. At least for now, his supervision seems to be working: On recent visits, the meals and service offered real Cuban flair. Despite all the starch on the menu, the place doesn't feel the least bit starchy or indifferent. Even Castro might be pleased.
4627 NE Fremont St., 528-2822
Open 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. Credit cards. Children welcome. $$ Moderate.
Picks: Ham croquettes, ceviche, sautéed prawns, roast pork, lamb shank, steak and black beans.
Nice touches: One of the handsomest summer dining gardens in the city; charming bar.