Monday, April 19, 2010

El Oriental de Cuba Brings Little (Bites of) Havana into Jamaica Plain

Poor foreign relations may have always prevented Fidel Castro from frequenting the United States, but perhaps the intoxicating aromas and flavors emanating from a wonderful, little restaurant situated in Jamaica Plain just might entice him here. El Oriental de Cuba, founded in 1994, offers up some of the finest authentic Cuban cuisine north of Miami.

Don’t fret about the restaurant’s interior. The front-to-back setting doesn’t allow for seating parties of more than six, and not a high chair in the establishment had functional seat fasteners for children. The service, though certainly friendly, is a tad too leisurely (more like Caribbean-team), as waters were poured and orders taken nearly fifteen minutes after seating.

But let’s face it: it’s not the ambience you’re after here, but rather, the delectable cuisine. For starters, you’ll find a variety of savory soups and stews, including a marvelously hearty take on traditional seafood stew with rice ($8.95). The beef patty ($2.50), served empanada style, was a revelation: a flaky exterior packed with tender minced meat whose flavor is enhanced by a variety of secret spices. Fried sweet plantains ($1.95) were equally good, with a crème-brulee-like exterior and a heavenly gooey center. While others in my party raved about the octopus salad, I found the fish’s texture too tough, with zero rubberiness and give, and the abundance of vegetables surprisingly added little flavor to the dish.

Entrees fared equally well. While whole red snapper in spicy sauce ($16.95) proved to be a dull disappointment, the shrimp in garlic sauce with mofongo ($16.95) was playfully presented and perfectly prepared. Upon initial glance, El Oriental de Cuba’s Cuban sandwich may sound less appealing than more exciting options that include drunken goat and rabo (braised oxtail). But listen closely to the locals, and they’ll swear by this sandwich, and for good reason. It is served on an airy, baguette-like bread, layered with succulent strips of pork, and lathered with a special sauce, along with traditional ingredients of mustard and pickles. I dare any restaurant’s imitations to match the simplistic, yet optimal flavor of El Oriental’s standout version. And don’t forget to wash all of your meal down with one of the restaurant’s revered tropical shakes ($3.00). They are blended with milk or water, and given the wonderful potency and richness of the fruits, the former ingredient need not be required. Guanabana (semi-tart and semi-sweet) and horchata (rice and banana creating a mild chocolate flavor) are unique and exceptionally good.

Prior to entering this establishment, I discovered that El Oriental de Cuba’s location was firebombed a few years ago, only to re-open at the local residents’ insistence. Not only does that demonstrate the public’s acute sense of what qualifies for fine food, but also the owner’s sense of resiliency amidst hardship. I applaud this little restaurant-that-could as it continues to feed the masses. Count me amongst them.

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