Give Cuban fare a chance
A friend of mine called to share the news of meeting writer-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe and how we should all get together the next time he's in town, blah blah, blah blah, blah blah, before closing with, "Oh yeah, don't go to that new Cuban restaurant. I've heard it's horrible!"
"What?! Oh no, I'm going tonight! Whydju tell me that?"
"Sorry! Bye, love!"
I try not to let other opinions sway me, but, as it's been said, "Out of the mouths of babes come the darndest things," referring to a plain-spoken honesty that's hard to ignore, especially because said friend is a fair judge of restaurants and never would have mentioned it unless she'd heard the same assessment from a lot of people. She had nothing to gain from the remark, no connection to the restaurant. It was just one of those bits of information passed friend to friend, not friend to restaurant critic.
Undeterred, I headed off to Soul de Cuba Cafe, where I chanced upon a grand opening celebration. Rather than tell us to go away, however, staffers warmly welcomed two of us strangers like family. And I was relieved to find the food is not horrible, though I can see how some of it might leave that impression, due to the power of high expectations.
As Jose Villa, head of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said at the party, he's lived here 20 years and has been waiting all that time for someone, anyone, to open a Puerto Rican or Cuban restaurant. And, as he said, anyone who did so would be bound to do well, simply because the Hispanic community would turn out in droves to support the ONLY such restaurant on Oahu. Zero competition makes for good survival odds.
Well, a lot of people here are starved for something new and different and they were flocking to Soul de Cuba before its doors were officially opened. Maybe Cubans knew what to expect, but, as our server told us on a repeat visit, most people coming in expected the food to be more like Mexican cuisine.
It's a mistake to think that spicy Afro-Cuban music and dance correspond with similarly zesty cuisine. In that way, Jamaican or Brazilian fare -- for which I have been waiting for more than 20 years, BTW, and brief stints don't count -- are better synched to local expectations.
Cuban fare's blandness is magnified for those who've grown up with the strong flavors of this particular island, where home cooks tend to pile on the shoyu, sugar, garlic, shrimp paste, fish sauce and ko chu jang, while restaurants mix and match herbs, sauces and cooking styles. We don't back down from strong flavors and find it easily anywhere from lunch wagons to fusion restaurants. If experiencing fireworks on the tongue is non-negotiable, go elsewhere. Otherwise, come on down.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
The walls of Soul de Cuba Cafe are lined with portraits of family and saints. The new restaurant is at 1121 Bethel St., across from Hawaii Theatre.
SOUL DE CUBA is across the street from Hawaii Theatre, so well-positioned to host work-day, pre-theater dinner and First Friday crowds. The restaurant's interior, done up in toasty sienna and dark colors, is cozy and inviting. Photos and Cuban memorabilia on the walls exude the warmth of family and hospitality.
Like its Puerto Rican counterpart, Cuban food is built on sofrito, a sauté of onions, garlic, bell pepper, sometimes tomato and seasonings such as oregano, citrus and cumin. It marks an auspicious start to black beans, stews and meat dishes. Here, a little sofrito is asked to go a long way.
The menu starts with Devil Crab -- crab meat fried in a compact ball of bread crumbs -- a Tampa Bay favorite of owner Jesus Puerto's family. His great grandfather had immigrated from Guanabacoa, Cuba, in the early 19th century. Did I tell you Cuban food is humble? In our rich, spoiled society, this squishy ball of dough is hard to appreciate, unless you really love freezer siu mai.
The soul sampler ($15) offers each of four appetizers, or take my word for it and simply order the vegetarian empanadas ($6) filled with diced potato and other veggies, and the camarones bailando ($8), jumbo shrimp in a black-bean sauce served over rice in a martini glass. Or, just skip the shrimp because chances are you'll be seeing a lot of black beans and rice later.
Health buffs attuned to the dietary benefits of black beans will soak up black bean soup ($3 cup/$5 bowl) or black bean chili (same). Pair it with a Cubano sandwich ($7) of roast pork, Swiss cheese and pickles or a fried steak ($8) sandwich by day, but skip the soup/chili at night, when most of the entrées also come with black beans and wonderful slices of fried plantains.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
One of chef Jemmari Kamal specialties is the Cubano Sandwich filled with marinated roast pork, Swiss cheese and pickles, in Cuban bread.
As for the entrées, picadillo ($9) seems great until you taste it. How can anyone go wrong with ground meat in a tomato sauce with Spanish olives, onions, peppers, capers and tomatoes? Well, olives and capers are mostly invisible and there is no sauce to the dry sauce. You'd be better off cooking at home.
Luckily, our server has already gleaned the hits vs. the misses and guided us to two of the most popular dishes. One of them, rabo encendido ($16), is quite familiar. The dish comprises three to four oxtails braised in red wine sauce and spread over white rice. With this portion, you'll have to eat all your rice and beans to make a dent in your appetite.
I had my doubts about the breaded, fried chicken breast that is "Pollo Soul de Cuba" ($18), even if it is topped with a salsa of mango, guava, black beans, pineapple and rum. Trusting our server I ordered it anyway. The chicken did turn out to be tender and the salsa is amazing, packed with fruity sweetness that local palates crave. Similarly, it would be hard to go wrong with a fillet of red snapper (market) topped with mango salsa.
Other women walking into the restaurant mentioned a friend had told them to order the pollo and they would not look at any other dish.
Your other fish option is pargo, red snapper broiled in foil with cilantro, tomato and onion. Totally healthy, although you'll find yourself wishing those onions were sautéed for stronger flavor. Good health does call for sacrifices. If you won't make sacrifices, lechon asado ($14) pairs lean pork and onions instead.
Even if you're puzzled over the rest of the menu, the language of dessert is universal. I enjoyed both the toothsome, sturdy flan ($5) and guava empanada ($6) filled with a mix of guava preserves and cream cheese.
I hate it when ethnic restaurants adjust their flavors to pander to local tastes, but it's not wise to challenge years of culinary tradition. I'm glad Soul de Cuba is here, and I'm sure it will find, if not already has found, its audience. But mutual enlightenment must take place if it is to avoid the gut reaction of the man on the street.