I usually skip the plantains. Oh, I’ll take a courtesy bite, but only to prove I don’t like them. I did something similar in high school, when, struggling to read the unabridged Moby Dick, I pushed all the way to the finish, so I could tell my English class, with a certain conviction, that I did not enjoy myself while doing so.
3960 W. Point Loma Boulevard, Point Loma
Reading Moby Dick as an adult, I see why it’s considered the greatest American novel of the 19th century. And with my taste of the plantains at Embargo Grill, I came around on the banana-like side dish that pervades Caribbean cuisines.
If anyone’s going to refer to an American author while discussing a Cuban restaurant, it should probably be Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway is like the cubano sandwich: it's pickled, hammy, gooey with cheese, and comes as flat thanks to its time in the press. In each case, it's something easy for a teenager to devour.
Plantains took time and an evolving palate for me to appreciate. Or maybe it’s just a credit to Embargo Grill, this overachieving casual restaurant in a Midway strip mall. These plantains were served as maduros, described as “caramelized sweet overripe plantains.” The caramelizing made them tender, and less sweet than they sound. They had a more brightness, compared to the saccharine earthiness I’m used to, and enough savory edge to provide balance.
It probably helps that they came as a side on the vaca frita plate. For $12.75, that’s roast beef, sautéed until crispy, and served with a mixture of rice, black beans, and small chunks of chicharrones. With that much meat and salt on one plate, the occasional bite of sweet fruit pairs well.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked the beef better. Embargo serves quite a few traditional Cuban and Caribbean dishes, including ropa vieja, jerk chicken, empanadas, and a coconut curry stew. If half of these are on par with the vaca frita, this place is a winner. The beef is shredded, then fried to a crisp — kind of the way a lot of Mexican spots do carnitas. Served with grilled onions, it's definitely the thing to order for anyone who enjoys the crispy, charred end of a roast, or brisket.
Everything here tasted good, and for a guy developing a taste for Caribbean food, that’s an excellent place to start. So, for those keeping score, Embargo Grill is more enjoyable than Old Man and the Sea, not as moving as For Whom the Bell Tolls.