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Havana Affair

Looking for good Cuban food in the Bay Area? Meet Los Cubano's.

By Stett Holbrook

THE BAY AREA is blessed with more than its share of culinary riches. We've got bushels of farm-fresh produce, trend-setting chefs and a United Nations of excellent, hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries. But Cuban food in these parts is harder to come by. We can't have it all, right?

Other than the island nation itself, Miami, not the Bay Area, is the place for Cuban food. But save your frequent flier miles. We do have great Cuban food right here.

Master Cuban chef Alcides Calvo, 75, came out of retirement to open Los Cubano's, a small, casual restaurant in downtown San Jose. While I'm not sure about the use of the apostrophe, I can vouch for the food at this 6-week-old restaurant. Cubano's is Calvo's 17th restaurant, and it's fair to say he's got the Cuban cooking thing down. Using recipes and skills he learned from his father, Calvo opened his first restaurant when he was 17 in Cuba. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1970 and he opened a succession of restaurants in Los Angeles and later San Jose.

Calvo and his family opened Habana Cuba on Race Street, but sold the restaurant about four years ago. He stayed behind to help run the kitchen, but finally hung up his apron. Soon after he retired, however, he realized he missed the business and set out to open another restaurant with his wife, Edenia Calvo, and his grandson, Erwin Calvo Caraballo. After a lengthy search, they settled on a North Almaden Avenue storefront, formerly occupied by Lombok. Other family members help run the place, giving it a friendly, familial vibe. The walls of the dining room are covered with maps of Cuba and portraits of Jose Marté and other Cuban heroes, giving the restaurant a strong sense of island pride.

Cuban food is Caribbean soul food. Instead of the spicy, bright flavors that characterize Mexican food, Cuban food exudes an earthy, slow-cooked seduction. Meat dishes burble over a low flame to produce rich, satisfying food of great depth and flavor. Soupy, pork-accented black beans and sweet fried plantains are the signature accompaniments. Los Cubano's serves mainly Cuban specialties but a few Brazilian and Puerto Rican dishes as well.

The beans alone are worth a visit to Los Cubano's. The aforementioned black beans ($3.25) are the best I've had. Served with a plate of fluffy white rice, they're a meal by themselves. But then there are the Spanish garbanzo beans ($5.75), a thick stew of tender chickpeas afloat in a velvety broth with thick chunks of fatty pork. Frijoles colorados ($3.25) may be the best of all. The big, kidney-shaped beans are bathed in rich gravy steeped in deep pork flavor. I also loved the arroz con granadules, or pigeon rice ($3.25). This Puerto Rican dish combines dark green pigeon peas with stock-infused, yellow rice. It's a simple but immensely satisfying plate of food.

Those are just the side dishes. Entrees are equally good. Lechon asado ($13.95) is one of Cuba's national dishes. When the roast pork arrives in a small bowl alongside rice, black beans and fried plantains, it looks less than impressive. But a dios mio, what flavor. The exterior of the meat has a tangy, salty flavor that is utterly delicious. Once I finished off the tender, juicy pork, I spooned the meaty broth onto the rice. Together with the black beans and plantains, this is Cuba on a plate.

To complete your immersion in Cuban food, order a bottle of Hatuey beer ($3.75). Like several former Cuban cigar companies, the Bacardi-owned brewery fled the island after the 1959 revolution and set up shop in Puerto Rico. The beer bears the profile of Hatuey, a Taino Indian chieftain who led a rebellion against the Spanish in the 16th century. Los Cubano's also serves Malta ($1.75), a molasseslike beverage that's something of an acquired taste but beloved by Caribbean expatriates.

The rabo encendio ($16.50), oxtail simmered in a red wine and tomato sauce, was so tender I ate it with a spoon. The sauce verged on too salty, but adding rice into the bowl tempers it and makes sure you soak up every last drop. To ensure I got the last bit of meat off the bone, our server recommended using my hands to suck off the last bits. Good advice. Carne asada ($12.25), falling-apart-tender slices of roast beef simmered in a red wine sauce with green olives and tomatoes, is another soulful stew. For something a little lighter, fricase de pollo ($12.25) combines big chunks of chicken on the bone in a stew of potatoes, green olives and capers in a light tomato sauce.

The one dish that was less than great was the Cuban sandwich ($8.95). Finding a good Cuban sandwich in Northern California is like tracking down Bigfoot. Aficionados of the pork, ham and cheese sandwich inevitably compare it to the real thing served in Miami's Little Havana. I confess to never have sampled the real thing; Los Cubano's version ($8.95) was good but didn't rise above the sum of its parts.

Desserts follow the same simple but good principal of the rest of the menu. Casca de guyaba ($3.50) combines sweet, syrupy pieces of guava with a chunk of plain ol' cream cheese. Together, the tropical fruit and the cheese create a wonderfully balanced dessert. Arroz con leche ($3.25), cinnamon-sprinkled rice pudding, is creamy and good as is the coco rayado ($3.50), shredded, sweetened coconut served with cream cheese.

Lombok, Los Cubano's predecessor, was a good Malaysian and Indonesian restaurant that never quite got off the ground. Hopefully Los Cubano's is here to stay. The restaurant does a bang-up lunch business but the dinner crowd is a little spotty. Downtown San Jose can be a lonely place for restaurants once the sun goes down, but here's hoping Silicon Valley gives this great outpost of Cuban food place the attention is deserves. Miami is too far away.

Los Cubano's Restaurant
Address: 22 N. Almaden Ave., San Jose.
Phone: 408.279.6037.
Hours: Open for lunch 11am-2:30pm Mon-Fri, dinner 5-9pm Tue-Thu, 5-10pm Fri, 3-10pm Sat and 3-8:30pm Sun.
Cuisine: Cuban and some Brazilian.
Price Range: $8-$24.

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From the May 11-17, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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