Friday, December 30, 2005
A Little Havana In Tokyo: Cuba Central, Downtown L.A.
Now you know I'm a huge fan of the melting pot. My friends come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Hell, I'll even be bringing China and Puerto Rico this much closer in international relations with my upcoming marriage and future spawn. Yes, we make the world a much better place by mixing it up, but I can also sense when something's oddly out of place like for example, the Havana-chic restaurant Cuba Central located right smack-dab in Little Tokyo. Don't get me wrong...I like that it's there. I'm just wondering what made Mr./Ms.-Owner-Of-Cuba-Central say "Hey! I think I'll open a Cuban restaurant in Little Tokyo!" OK Pam, maybe you'll never know...just let it go already.
Making the place seem even more out of place is its windowless facade--a big terra cotta colored block donning a painted Cuba Central palm tree logo and murals of tropical plants and flowers. On the open sidewalk, a few hardly-ever-occupied tables shaded by patio umbrellas dressed up to look like thatched roofs.
Little Tokyo is the usual stomping ground not only for myself and Isaac 'cause we practically live down the street, but also for my girlfriend and I, who love the variety of cheap Japanese eats in the area. We've tried just about every restaurant covering the area surrounded by 1st, 2nd, Central and San Pedro Streets including the non-Japanese ones like Weiland Brewery and Mandarin Deli (when it was still there). If you know me well enough by now, you'll also know that me & my crew get off on trying new places. But for some reason, despite the countless times we've walked right past Cuba Central, nothing has ever lured us in. That's how odd it is. No "Hey, I wanna try this place one day." No mention of it in any of our "What do you want for dinner" conversations. That is, until my girlfriend called me up the other day and asked me if I wanted to go out to dinner.
"Yeah, ya wanna just go somewhere in Little Tokyo?" I responded.
"Um, OK. But I sorta feel like having Cuban food," she replied. The rest was history.
Fortunately, she arrived just a minute before I did, because it didn't seem like there was anywhere to sit down and wait. I walked into the big terra cotta block through its single door to find my friend standing there in their dim foyer in front of what seemed like a host's counter. After the usual hugs and squeals of "Hiiii! How are you???," we were steered to our right into a small, dimly-lit dining room. The surroundings were a bit claustrophobic, considering the place has no windows, so as with the outside, the owners of this place had to also do a little "trompe l'oeil" with the inside using Cuban kitsch and mood lighting to transform what would normally have been a low-ceilinged box into a Caribbean paradise reminiscent of Cuba's golden age. The room was abuzz with an unwinding after-work crowd and had alot more energy than I could have ever imagined it to have, but how could I have ever known? The place has no windows!
I don't like mint leaves, so why the hell would I want a cocktail made with them? That's exactly why I ordered a sangria to take the day's edge off instead of the more popular mojito. It wasn't as good as homemade, but was pretty decent in that it was neither too wine-y nor too juicy. There was a kiwi and citrus fruit skewer protruding from the glass reminiscent of a sad after work sangria I had a couple months ago and shreds of orange floating within my drink, but I wished there would have been just a tad more fruit in the glass to enjoy as an after drink treat. I quickly forgave the lack of booze soaked fruit, however, alternating sips with bites of free plantain chips--thin, crisp, and complimented by a tart and spicy side of garlic sauce--and concentrated on the fact that this was a great way to end my day. Also a decent drink, or so I heard, was my friend's mango margarita.
It's OK that you don't have more fruit, just make me happy!
Extra plantain chips were the highlight of the bistec empanizado sandwich we ordered, because the sandwich itself was just OK in my opinion. The breaded steak, though tasty, was a tad too much on the tough side, creating a bit of a slip-and-slide situation with the toasted and pressed bread, the mayo, the iceberg lettuce and the tomato slices. I ended up eating my half of the sandwich with a knife and fork.
Hey, I didn't know that Slip & Slide made sandwiches too!
Way on the other end of the delicious scale, however, was our plate of lechon asado, or Cuban roast pork. Just like carnitas, I love the way that Cuban roast pork has different kinds of goodness to it. It's got crispy, salty bits. It's got luscious fatty bits. It's got substantial, meaty bits. Any imbalance of these elements and you've got a roast pork that is sub-par. Fortunately, Cuba Central's lechon asado makes the cut. They give you alot of it too, along with fluffy white rice flavored with salt and oil, rich black beans that had a nice hint of garlic, and a few sweet and nicely caramelized plantains.
Teamwork on a plate
A rather pleasant surprise this place turned out to be! I feel like a closed-minded old fart for having judged this book by its cover and not giving it a chance in the first place. I wonder if any of Cuba Central's other entrees--picadillo criollo, mojito chicken, cuban steak, vaca frita--are as good as their lechon asado, and am definitely making it a point to go back and find out very soon, though it will be increasingly difficult with all the great restaurants to choose from in the area! They also apparently have happy hour so I'm sure you'll find me back in there in my eternal quest to find happiness after 5pm.
114 S. Central Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90012