A Cup of Cuba

When my posse and I walked into Tazablanca, we spotted a familiar sight: On the wall behind the bandstand was a colorful oil painting that we'd last seen hanging at Mambo, the huge, short-lived Cuban restaurant on the site of today's South Park Grille. Mambo opened hot but flopped when the chef walked out. The cooking and the crowds spiraled downhill, while the big Cuban band played on...Tazablanca's owner, Mike Hueso, was in fact a partner in that ill-fated restaurant, and he got custody of the painting.

Tazablanca proves to be a more appropriate and intimate venue for the cuisine, a modest-sized building with walls painted in earth tones, wooden floors, a handsome little bar, and faux-Tiffany hanging lamps. The live band is also smaller and mucho mejor, a trio of violin, keyboard, and bass adeptly playing Latin jazz. A unisex bathroom sports a tropical mural, and an eclectic local crowd runs mostly from their mid-20s to early 40s.

Cuban cuisine itself is neither familiar nor exotic but homey in a tropical way. Closer to Spanish than to Mexican food, with African influences, it's generous with garlic and onions and sparing with hot peppers. It shares with the rest of the Spanish Caribbean a reliance on tropical foodstuffs -- starchy yuca root, plantains at every stage of maturity, sweet peppers, sour citruses (Seville oranges, lemons, and limes), and ground annatto seed to lend dishes a golden color. A key condiment is mojo -- a blend of citrus, garlic, and onions -- used as both a marinade and a sauce in numerous dishes, especially roasts and grills. Another common flavoring mixture is sofrito, a Caribbean version of the Cajun "holy trinity" -- onions, garlic, and mild green peppers sautéed in olive oil at the start of the cooking process for stews and braises.

Tazablanca's appetizer list consists of an array of Cubanized pan-Latin dishes. Empanadas, for instance, are more characteristic of Chile and Argentina, but here they're made with a choice of two Cuban fillings, ropa vieja or picadillo. The ropa vieja ("old clothes") is made of stewed shredded beef with tomato, onion, and Ortega peppers. (It's also available separately as an entrée, minus the shell.) The flour envelope was large, light, and puffed with air. Its scanty filling tasted authentic but a little dry, possibly from the baking. Papas rellenas, originally from Peru, are mashed potato balls, lightly breaded and deep-fried, concealing a vivacious stuffing of picadillo, Cuban ground-beef hash, redolent of garlic and parsley. Croquetas are common to most Iberian-based cuisines, but here the rendition is atypical: The chicken "croquette" is apparently just a hunk of breaded breast meat, rather than the more usual (and luxurious) mixture of chicken and white sauce.

Our favorite starter was calamares fritos, fried calamari in a light batter (almost a "frizzle"), cooked soft and served with the zesty dip that South Americans call salsa americano, made of mayo, ketchup, and a touch of hot sauce. (The menu identifies it by the Provençale name rouille, which is similar but minus the ketchup.)

Our companions at this dinner were our good neighbors, Laurie and Francisco. The latter, Ecuadoran-born, is a fan of tostones, fried green plantain slices. "In Ecuador, they make these moister," he said sadly as he tasted Tazablanca's rendition. "But then, they're the same at every Cuban restaurant. It seems to be a national difference."

When we started to order our five appetizers à la carte, our accommodating waiter warned us that the portions would be too large. Instead, he offered to combine smaller portions of each on a sampler platter -- which we accepted gratefully. Because of this maneuver, it was sized just right. We only missed two starters: a "quesadilla" of breaded steak, ham, and Swiss cheese, and mini fritas, Cuban-style sliders of dwarf burgers with fries stuffed in the bun.

Fricasé de pollo (chicken fricassee) was everybody's favorite entrée. It's a boneless leg-thigh piece stewed with tomato, capers, green olives, and potatoes, a moist mixture that tastes like home-cooking at its most savory, the sharp garnishes contrasting with the soothing potato. Pollo con ajo offers the same cut marinated in citrus juices and garlic, but the flesh emerged a bit dry.

Lechón is another excellent dish, although it violates every truth-in-labeling law. The word means "suckling pig," but not even pig farmers can afford to serve that delicacy very often -- if ever. In Cuban cuisine, and on Tazablanca's menu, it's come to mean marinated roast hind leg of pork. Instead, the restaurant actually uses a more luscious if less traditional cut, the shoulder butt, roasted bone-in and sliced into steaks before serving. It was delicious, with its crisped bits of fat along the edges and deep flavors from the citrusy mojo marinade and the sautéed diced-and-canned Anaheim peppers heaped on top. (No complaints about canned peppers: They're more digestible than green bells and taste closer to Latin America's mild chile varieties.)

Every night there's a "catch of the day" done "Santiago de Cuba" style, marinated in garlic -- lots of garlic -- plus orange and lime juices and parsley. That night, the fish was white bass from Baja, firm but mild and gently cooked, a neutral canvas to show off the vibrant seasonings.

Each entrée is preceded by a large salad of fresh young greens, cucumber, and tomato slices, with your choice of four dressings served on the side. Our favorite was a tequila-lime mixture with a touch of garlic. The smooth balsamic dressing was a close runner-up. Most entrées come with black beans and white rice, served in separate piles, but the fish were served with an African-influenced combination of both, congrio, along with sweet, seductive fried ripe plantains (plátanos maduros). The latter are also available as an appetizer or, topped with caramel and ice cream, as a dessert.

Next night, my partner and I split a "Cuban sandwich." These are lifesavers on those endless flights to the Caribbean: Miami International's lounge is full of sandwich shops selling the drippy wonders to substitute for the dread polystyrene boxes on the next leg of the trip. They consist of an inch-high array of garlicky Cuban roast pork, sliced deli ham, melted cheese, pickles, and a splash of dressing -- the pork's natural jus and its marinade -- on a wide baguette seared and compacted on a panini grill. The ones at the airport are deliciously messy, oozing right through their wrappings and into your purse. (Don't fly south without one!) Tazablanca's rendition was acceptable but disappointingly drip-free. (The owner later told me that some of the customers objected to the dressing, fearing that it was fatty, so his chef stopped serving it that way. In the future, he plans to give the customers a choice: drip or no-drip versions.) The sandwich came with terrific yuca fries. Yuca is a bland, starchy root, similar to taro, and Cubans usually serve it boiled and dressed with a touch of garlic oil. Here (in a commercial version made by Goya Foods), the roots are precooked, ground, and shaped into tubes rolled in cracker crumbs. These emerge from the deep fryer with delectably crisp exteriors and moist, gooey centers. They really take the "yuck" out of yuca.

This visit also gave us an opportunity to sample the brief dessert list. In addition to caramel-coated plantains, there's coconut flan and guava with cream cheese. The flan is the standard item -- that is, not a coconut-milk custard but a regular flan laden with shredded coconut and dribbled with burnt caramel syrup. The guava shells are canned in sweet syrup, to dollop (Mexican-style) over a trisected crisped flour tortilla lightly spread with cream cheese. By the time you read this, the restaurant's new espresso machine should have arrived, so you'll be able to end your meal with a typical strong, sweet café cubano.

Like many other Caribbean cuisines, Cuban fare is scantly represented in San Diego. North Park is lucky to have a restaurant serving dishes that are authentic, and good to boot.

ABOUT TAZABLANCA

Mike Huesca was a hotel food and beverage manager at the downtown Marriott for 17 years before he decided to get into the restaurant business and returned there for 2 years after the Mambo debacle. "This time, I chose the opposite sort of guy for a partner. I went from a crook to a cop. My business partner here, Jorge Guevara, was a San Diego police officer for 33 years before he retired last year. At Mambo, my partner Mitchell came in after I'd already done all the hard work of starting the restaurant. He turned out to be a drug dealer -- importing and exporting from out of Miami, doing it all through the Internet and mail. He's in prison in Jacksonville now; I think he got 12 or 13 years on a plea bargain. But when we'd been partners for three months, they started investigating him, and they seized all the money that I had invested in the partnership. Over a year later, I got a little of it back. The only other things I was able to salvage from Mambo were the painting you saw here, and the liquor license, because we had that as a corporation.

"Meanwhile, I went back to the Marriott. Then Jorge called me and said, 'You had the right idea, you just needed the right partner. We both have creative minds, I want to do this all over again.' We looked at Mission Valley, and then we found this little hole-in-the-wall that I had already leased, and I was negotiating to purchase the building. It used to be a Chinese restaurant, until 1997, then it was a catering facility and storage space for another restaurant, and they'd kept up the health permit, so we decided to do it here.

"We found a Cuban chef, born and raised, who'd just come from New York. Chef Cito is in his 60s now; he's, like, the executive chef, and chef Geraldo is, like, the chef de cuisine. We have a wonderful team.

"North Park is where downtown was eight to ten years ago. Heavenly Desserts is coming on the corner. What they're going to offer is gonna be exquisite. I've heard that Fifth and Hawthorn is planning to move into the North Park Theater building in March, which will be a big boost for the neighborhood, and Sushi theater is going to move right nearby. We're looking to do a package deal with Sushi where we do dinner, then people go to the play and come back and have dessert. We're working closely with Heavenly -- because Cubans don't really do much dessert, besides flan, and it'll be nice if people can take a little walk after a big dinner here and then have a sweet. And we're talking about opening a bakery in this neighborhood, something like Bread and Cie, but just a few simple fresh breads. We're also planning to open for lunch pretty soon, serving salads and sandwiches, and we're going to expand more into the patio as the weather warms up. We'll have about 12 tables with umbrellas out there, so we'll have room for more people to eat. We're also looking at EastLake -- we want to bring another Tazablanca to the South Bay."

Tazablanca means "white cup" and is a deliberate play on Casablanca. "Casablanca is Jorge's favorite movie," says Huesca, "so that's the reason behind the name. We got a clock in the shape of a white cup, and now we're working on getting a painting, a take-off on the classic movie poster for Casablanca, with all the cast's faces substituted with local people."

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