My knowledge of Cuban foodways meanders from its source in my wife's family's kitchen through a variety of Cuban restaurants in Miami, then cascades into my own home, wherever that might be. It's a cuisine that has grown close to my heart over the past 15 years, so I was excited to see Cubanacan, a new Cuban restaurant, opening in town.
Owners Irvin and Nadia Rey have successfully converted a typically horrendous Springs space into a homey gathering place. They've painted the ceiling red, sculpted archways into the drywall and tiled the floor. Contemporary art, romantic Cuba tourism posters from the '50s and beautiful black-and-white photographs line the walls. Gloria Estefan's voice sings from the (ahem) sound machine. Diners at adjacent tables tell stories about the old country and discuss where they used to live in Miami between bites of perfect tostones. The Cubanity, so to speak, is undeniable.
Results with the food are more mixed, but there's evidence of steady improvement as Cubanacan enters its second month. Although entres range from $12 to $14, daily lunch specials offer relief at only $6.99. The service has dramatically improved, and, aside from the white rice, which must change entirely, those items that failed to impress are on the right track, if still needing more time and flavor.
Everything's right with the trademark Cuban sandwich sliced roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickle pressed on soft bread except how much time it spends on the iron. It twice flirted with being cold in the middle.
Rabo encendido, braised oxtails, and ropa vieja, beef stewed in broth and tomatoes until the meat shreds like "old rags," also need more time. The meats are cooked long enough to tenderize, but not long enough for their textures and flavors to achieve perfection. Oxtail meat stuck stubbornly to the bone, and the usually heady ropa vieja fell flat. Black beans, a Cuban mainstay, suffer similarly. They're too watery to reveal their characteristic sofrito, garlic and cumin flavors.
Other items are already in good shape. The aforementioned tostones, coins of green plantain that are fried, pressed and fried again, are crisp and starchy and come with a dynamite mojo sauce fashioned from garlic, oil and sour orange juice. Little sticks of fried yucca, a potato-like tuber common in Caribbean kitchens, and coconut-battered fried shrimp served with a compelling mango ketchup also hit the mark.
Among the entres, vaca frita and masitas de puerco stood out during my visits. Literally translated as "fried cow," the former is a pan-fried skirt steak; the latter are chunky cubes of slow-cooked pork that have subsequently been returned to the fire to crisp the exterior. Both proved flavorful and juicy, with jolts of garlic and onion.
Irvin and Nadia are new to the restaurant business, and it seems like some of the inconsistencies reflect their relative inexperience. But these challenges haven't kept Cubanacan from succeeding as a casual spot for connecting with compatriots and enjoying a hearty meal. A little more time, a little more practice and a few minor tweaks should really make the difference. I'll be cheering for them and stopping by to practice my Spanish, daydream about Miami and sip on a deliciously tropical blend of mango and passionfruit juice.
208 N. Union Blvd., 302-4516
Hours: Monday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
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