I don’t often act on tips out there in the Blogosphere, but sometimes, they yield ripe fruit. One of my colleagues, The Frugal Foodie, happens to be a pretty, twenty-something woman named Gillian in real life, and her tastes are generally quite reliable.
Recently, she wrote about a place on the Northside that serves Cuban food, a cuisine I fancy. It enticed me to visit, and I’m happy I did. I live near another Cuban restaurant, Havana Grill, owned by the same folks who have Havana Café just south of Downtown, on the Strip. Varadero beats that place all to pieces, in spite of a modest atmosphere and no salsa music piped in over an expensive sound system.
And even if it didn’t, it’s much cheaper, as well. The restaurant takes its name from one of Cuba’s most famous beaches, one we might visit someday, if El Lider ever decides to co-operate with the Department of State and croak. Right now, ordinary Americans are not allowed Cuban visas, only those Americans with families there. I’m itching to go. Raul Castro won’t be around for long after Fidel joins Stalin and Mao.
Varadero is a storefront, with a few posters of Cuba, and the owner’s charming Salvadorean wife at the front counter. Her husband, the chef and owner, cooks with charm and rusticity. When I called to ask about the arroz con pollo, the classic Cuban chicken and rice casserole, she assured me that the rice and chicken were cooked together.
Indeed, it was true. Chicken rich flavor permeated every bite of the rice, the meat fall apart tender from slow heating in the clay vessel called a cazuela. That’s the kind of care our other Cuban restaurants lack. My mantra for ethnic cuisine is slow cooking. Let the worlds roll off our tongue. Slow cooking. For an authentic Cuban repast, no other technique comes close.
Three of my intrepid friends and I made the trek from Green Valley, the better to taste a broad range of dishes.
We started with the appetizer platter Varadero Special, a soft tamale in the husk filled with garlicky minced pork, fried, mashed potato balls called papas rellenos, the one thing I didn’t like here, a one ham, the other fish, both cylinders of crisp, creamy goodness, and a pile of plantain chips.
We also ordered a spin-off on the Cuban sandwich called media noche, or midnight. It’s a sandwich of pressed egg bread with roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese, plus pickles, mustard and mayo. (A normal Cuban is served on a sweeter white bread.)
The quality of the roast pork is what makes a Cuban sandwich great. This pork, fragrant with orange, garlic and the natural juices of the pig, is as good as any Cuban roast pork I’ve ever tasted.
Nothing else we ate here quite came up to that sandwich, but we were all pleased as punch, as Hubert Humphrey used to say, at the finish. I’d come back for that arroz con pollo, and also for the vaca frita, strips of ridiculously garlicky fried beef that you eat with congri, the black bean and rice combination jokingly called Moors and Christians by Cubans.
Soups are ethereal here, especially the chunky black bean, and crema La Reyna, a sort of Caribbean take on Campbell’s Cream of Chicken. If you want to get real ethnic, you can order calamares en su tinta, squid served in its own ink. Perhaps the most cafeteria-like dish is picadillo, ground beef cooked in Creole sauce, a tomato, onion and pepper stew.
If there is one caveat here it is speed. This kitchen cooks to order, so I recommend you not visit if time is limited. Oh, and don’t miss this tres leches cake, topped with fresh whipped cream. One piece is not going to be enough, but two pieces and you’ll be joining Fidel soon.
At 5081 N. Rainbow Blvd. 463-3609. Inexpensive.
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