Havana daydream of Cuban encounters

Coco Loco, Mambo, Kool Korners and Las Palmeras

Back in the 1970s, Midtown underwent the second of several radical transitions. During the late '60s, it became our local Haight-Ashbury, aswarm with hippies who took up residence in the area's then inexpensive apartments in old subdivided homes. They were followed by an invasion of Cuban refugees.

For years, Cubans were the main Latin minority here. Besides Midtown, they took up residence in the area around Lindbergh Plaza. At the time there was an enormous development of cheap apartments in that area. Cubans nicknamed it "La Pastorita" after a neighborhood in Havana, as I recall. That area is still heavily populated by Cubans and other Hispanics, and the businesses at Lindbergh Plaza have long catered to them. (Incidentally, just as Midtown was gentrified, that area is now undergoing a radical change and Lindbergh Plaza is scheduled for destruction, eliminating a longtime commercial center for the city's Hispanics.)

The 1970s — and a brief marriage to a Cuban woman — left me with an enduring love of Cuban food, at first mainly available at counters in markets like Kool Korner. Soon enough, though, restaurants began to open, one of the earliest being Havana Sandwich Shop.

Now, Cuban dining is easy to find intown. Interestingly, Riccardo Ullio, the owner of Sotto Sotto, recently told me that during a visit to Cuba, he found the food in Atlanta's restaurants better than on the island itself. The reason is simply because meat remains a luxury in Cuba, thanks partly to the American embargo.

One of the older "serious" Cuban restaurants in town is Coco Loco (2625 Piedmont Road, 404-364-0212), located across from Lindbergh Plaza, facing Sydney Marcus. My first encounters with the cuisine here were quite favorable about 10 years ago but the restaurant's enormous popularity seemed to negatively impact its quality in subsequent visits. It had been at least five years since I visited when I returned last week.

The restaurant looks festive, with aqua walls and murals of Cubans dancing on a floor that picks up the black and white tile on which you rest your own feet. Unlike at most places intown you get real-live Latino servers with whom you can practice your Spanish.

Coco Loco calls itself a "Cuban and Caribbean Restaurant," meaning there are dishes that aren't strictly Cuban. Even what we normally think of as Cuban is itself a fusion of many cultural influences on the island, including Spanish, French, African, Arabic, Chinese and Portuguese — as is true throughout much of the Caribbean.

My personal impression, from dining in many Cuban restaurants and homes, is that the "purest" Cuban cooking is really a rustic cuisine. The fancier it gets, the vaguer it becomes. An exception might be the phenomenally expensive Asia de Cuba in the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood. Its nuevo take on Cuba's classic Chino-Latino is quite likable.

Still, I prefer the simplest Cuban dishes, those cooked with a sofrito of sauteed onions, green peppers and a few spices, or flavored with mojo, olive oil with lemon, garlic, cumin and, optionally, onions. My favorite dish of all time, prepared by my ex's grandmother, was pigs' feet stewed with potatoes and yuca.

You find classics at Coco Loco like ropa vieja (shredded flank steak cooked with tomatoes and sofrito, $9.50) and picadillo (a stew made with ground beef which should have olives and raisins in it, $8.50). There is the Cuban favorite, roasted pork ($9.95), and masitas de puerco ($9.95), chunks of pork served with mojo with onions. All are decently prepared.

We started with a sampler plate of fried appetizers ($8.95). Conch fritters, croquetas (filled with a ham pate) and empanadas (filled with beef) were savory and spicy but served with an utterly repulsive, syrupy sweet sauce. The plate also held a couple of shrimp fried with coconut batter, one of my least favorite dishes on the planet, whether from Thailand or the Caribbean. I'll leave their judgment to you.

I decided to take a turn from the strictly Cuban dishes and ordered the Argentine-style grilled skirt steak with chimchurri sauce ($15.95). Although a bit oily, the huge steak — you can get a smaller size — was hot and smoky from the grill, cooked to order. I didn't care for the restaurant's chimichurri sauce much, though. Although appropriately garlicky and filled with cilantro, it needed a substantial shot of acidity — either vinegar or lemon, which I added. On the side, I had moros (black beans and white rice cooked together and served much too dry) and good fried yuca with mojo and onions.

Wayne ordered a fish dish and its quality prompts me to suggest you stick to meat dishes here. The sad little piece of overcooked mahi mahi, topped by four grilled shrimp, was simply not worth its $14.95 price. He ordered mariquitas, fried plaintain chips, on the side. Skip them and stick with yuca or the regular fried bananas.

We also visited Mambo (1402 N. Highland Ave., 404-876-2626) last week. This is certainly the city's most serious Cuban menu, ranging from peasant classics (perfect ropa vieja and masitas de puerco) to nightly Chino-Latino and seafood specials.

My favorite dish here is the pricey arroz negro — squid cooked in its ink and served over rice ($18.95). The ink gives the rice a velvety texture and I much prefer the dish over the restaurant's paella made with saffron rice for the same price.

I didn't order my favorite last week but I did start with ceviche negro, a fabulous blend of lime-marinated fish with flash-cooked squid, all dressed in squid ink and served in a cup of red lettuce ($8.95). Wayne chose fat grilled shrimp served "cocktail-style" with a goblet of chipotle-spiked sauce in which avocado was sunk ($7.95).

I decided, for purposes of comparison, to order a steak here too — the "firecracker steak," a grilled top sirloin stuffed with "fiery" peppers and served over black beans garnished with sweet plantains ($16.95). The dish is good, though its peppers are far from "fiery." Interestingly, Mambo is about to revise its menu and add, a la Coco Loco, a chimichurri-style steak.

Wayne chose his usual, a chicken breast grilled in a guava-lime glaze and served over greens, tomatoes and yuca ($10.95). Like the cooking with sofrito, the use of fruit marinades is common in authentic Cuban cooking.

Mambo gets extra points for being the most attractive Cuban restaurant in town. Featuring a Carmen Miranda-esque mural and bright colors, it's perhaps more South Beach than Havana, but we love it.

Kool Korners Grocery (349 14th St., 404-892-4424) remains nearly everyone's favorite for Cuban sandwiches. Honestly, as much as I love the hole-in-the-wall near Georgia Tech myself, I think its appeal is largely nostalgic since the only thing you find here is the "classic Cuban." The rest of the menu is a few of the usual American deli sandwiches.

The main appeal of the actual sandwich is a very good roasted pork, combined with average ham and Swiss cheese. Also, the shop adds jalapeno peppers to the sandwich, which is unusual. Some people theorize that the owners must be from Oriente, the part of Cuba where a spicier cuisine is favored.

My favorite inexpensive Cuban restaurant for homestyle cooking absolutely remains Las Palmeras (368 5th St., 404-872-0846). The masitas are perfect here and the restaurant serves a killer boliche. I think this cafe, which has a pleasant patio, is one of the intown area's under-appreciated jewels.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504 or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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