Sweat It Out

Beat the heat, Cubano style.

Despite America's current love affair with Cuba (the music, the cigars, those cars!), Tucson doesn't really sport many Cubano restaurants. For six years the Miami Tropical Cafeteria, owned by the Cartaya Family, served up its legendary Cuban sandwiches and fruit shakes. The business held its own, until the great slumbering beast across the street, known fondly as UA, rolled and shrugged, closing down and relocating many small venues. Miami Tropical resurfaced across the street with a brand new building and name, El Cubanito.

But reinvention is one of those traits that Cuba celebrates. My friend, a Cuban poet, escaped his motherland while still a young man. He claims that one way to carve a life in America was to be able to reinvent his past at a moment's notice. He could close his eyes and hold forth the most fabulous gastronomic recitations of incredible, nay mythic, meals that his mother had prepared for him. His mother waited until the middle of the day to serve the large meal, insisting the family gather together to eat and eat and eat. And eat he did. Mopping the sweat off his face he plowed his way through epic platters of roasted birds and beasts, bowls of rice and beans, endless plates of yuca, great lavish bowls of fresh fruits, yuca crullers and exquisite pastry until he begged his mother to let him go and rest.

I was always jealous of him for this. Not so much for the attentive, gut-busting mother, but for the effortless ability he had to transport all of us with the magic in his words. He could make us quiver with delight simply by elaborating on the extraordinary details of his mother's specialty, a pit-roasted suckling, wrapped in guava leaf and slowly basted with sour orange. When we begged for more he would give a mighty sigh as if his heart was breaking. This, he assured us, was the magical curse of la isla. All that remained were the memories and the words.

We did our best at El Cubanito to revisit his mother's groaning table. Despite the beating heat we ordered hearty and well.

We started with Ropa Vieja ($6.54)--a loose translation means "old clothes"--a spicy and redolent beef dish. Shredded beef is dressed up with onions and red and green bell peppers in a rich tomato sauce studded with olives. Served with a generous scoop of black beans and rice (traditionally called Moros y Cristianos) and yellow fried rice with a wedge or two of sweet potato, this colorful and hearty plate brought Mama to mind.

Not wanting to wimp out early, we went on and ordered Pollo Asado (Garlic Chicken--$5.75) and Pernil de Puerco Asado (Roasted Pork Leg--$7.88). Both were colorfully plated. The chicken and pork were both sauced with the colorful "Creole" sauce, a bright green aioli that carries the predominant flavor of parsley, garlic and lemon. Both plates, again completed with rice and beans and sweet potato, showcased simple, homey flavors.

Six sandwich specials are offered, but only from 3 o'clock on. Whether this is a matter of streamlining a time-consuming item during peak hours, or whether most people prefer their grilled sandwiches later in the day is up for speculation.

We had already been tipped off to this fact, so we had cheated and actually placed an advance order for the Cuban (or Midnight) Sandwich ($3.99). Grilled on crispy bread, this handsome sandwich sported a healthy portion of ham, roasted pork, a stubby pickle and cheese melted into the consistency of runny mayonnaise. While this was a filling sandwich, it didn't quite fit the allure set up by the menu's choosy time for availability.

By this time we had worked up the legendary sweat. Luckily the choice of beverages is impressive. There are over 16 different beverages to select from, which is almost double the food offerings. This doesn't really signify anything other than the importance of selecting a good beverage to accompany your meal. (Note: There are no alcoholic beverages available). Whether you choose pineapple soda or Malta, a traditional beverage made from sugar cane, you'll appreciate the wide range of fruit flavors available.

We tried the Mamey shake ($2.80), a frothy pink shake only vaguely reminiscent of Mamey, but comforting nonetheless. Coconut shakes were not available the day we visited, which is on par with one of the cardinal sins, so we tried the Guanabana ($2.80) instead. The creamy pale yellow Guanabana is faintly sweet with a slightly bitter finish. Oddly, the slightly bittersweet note accompanies many of the entrées quite well.

Naturally, we had to try the side orders to round out the experience. The Fried Plantains ($2.80) were outstanding. Almost greaseless, fried to a delicate crispy finish, and roundly sweet, these worked with the "Creole" sauce, the bright green aioli. Likewise, the French Fries "Cubanito" Style ($1.87) ended up being a large bowl of regular fries infused as well with the bright green sauce. By the time we sampled the Yuca ($2.80), in this instance boiled, we were growing slightly weary of the sauce, now fondly dubbed "Oobleck."

Out of respect for Mama, we saved room for a light dessert. Our only choice was flan, either vanilla, coconut or Kahlua ($1.40). A couple of Cuban coffees, the tiny demitasse of fragrant, fuerte brew, and the delicate sweet coconut flan finished our repast in appropriate style.

We enjoyed El Cubanito not only for its hearty fare, its violently purple walls or even the lovely strains of Cuban music that fill the room, but mostly for its simplicity. This is an honest meal, and the price is right. True, a bit of Oobleck goes a long way, but for the most part, with judicious ordering, you'll find that perhaps for a moment or two you've answered the call of la isla, that sexy little snippet in the sea, a seductive call to slow down, eat well, and enjoy the ones you're with, even if it is only the memory of Mama.

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