Pirate of the Caribbean
Ah, Dallas, the town with no history. Think about it: We tear down centuries-old buildings so we can erect temples built of fake bricks and paper-thin sheetrock. We desecrate beautiful old churches by cramming them full of rock memorabilia, and then we tear down the church. We pick and choose who we want to be according to where we happen to be: Friday we're a sorority girl weaving down Greenville Avenue. Saturday we're a Deep Ellum hipster, ensconced in our cool brick loft (though tomorrow it may be a Starbucks).
Some people, like from, you know, New York, might consider this heresy. You don't have a history? they might demand, jabbing their little urban fingers in our face. How do you know who you are?
To which we might reply: That's the beauty of it! We don't have to be worried about identity—we can be whoever we want to be, whenever we want to be. And we can make money while doing it. So put that on your A-Train and ride it!
Given such a context, it's no surprise Big D is where restaurateur Alberto Lombardi made his fame and fortune by borrowing—some would say co-opting—the cultural flair and flavor of places with much deeper culinary histories than ours. Beginning in the 1970s, Lombardi built his empire of eateries brick by brick, or more to the point, nationality by nationality: Italy, France, Spain—Lombardi has collected each of their culinary identities and put them on display (and made quite a tidy sum along the way). Each of his establishments has the surface trappings of its country of origin and just enough authenticity, like those weird collectible international dolls—the little Eskimos wearing fur-lined coats, the sausage-bodied German boys busting out of their lederhosen.
Lombardi's latest doll wears a guayabera shirt: La Cubanita is a casual Uptown joint, a cute little rummy island of pastel-colored walls and babalu music that serves a decent approximation of Cuban food at decent prices. Upon our first visit, my eating mates and I fell under the spell of the upbeat, classic Latin songs that were playing at just the right decibel level, the light blues and yellows that colored the walls, and the casual buzz of the place. We arrived there dragging under the weight of a steamy Texas evening, but within minutes of stepping inside, we were bordering on dancing a samba.
The menu looked equally stimulating, laid-back but not boring, and we decided to kick things off with the Combinacion de la Cubanita, a sampler platter of semi-authentic Cuban appetizers. The chicken wings were extremely tender and covered by a light, crisp coat, bearing a thick sauce equal parts sweet and tang. They were clearly the best thing on the plate. Runner-up went to the papa relleno, an odd little ball of fried mashed potato and picadillo beef. Of course, this being a Lombardi menu, there were some gimmicks, such as the "Cuban cigars," which turned out to be nothing but tepidly spiced chicken flautas. The apps were served with a trio of dips: the salsa Cubana (a thick, tomato-based, shrimp-intensive little thing), the Cuban guacamole (slightly sweet and perfectly textured) and a mojo sauce (citrusy and buttery, but lacking zing). Overall, the Combinacion sounded great during our mojito-hazed decision-making process, but its actual impression on the palate was negligible.
In fact, much of the meal suffered from the same disconnect between theory and execution. We moved on to entrees, excited about our Cuban spiced salmon with Creole rice, our marinated kebab meats and especially our baby back ribs. We inhaled the rich steam as our plates arrived.
Although our spirits had been buoyed by the music and the promise of exotic island flavors, we should have just stayed on the mainland. The salmon looked and tasted like an afterthought; I'd like to report on the flavor, but there just wasn't much there. It came with rice, all right, but it proved equally dull and weirdly shoved to one side of the plate, leaving the other half stark and empty. Each of the grilled kebab meats—pineapple-marinated pork, "Caribbean spice"-marinated pork and mojo verde-marinated skirt steak—was dry and lackluster. It was impossible to differentiate the flavors of the marinades—the life had been cooked right out of them. For a menu based on an island known for its culinary heat, the dishes left us surprisingly cold.
But the minute we grabbed hold of the giant rack of ribs, things turned around. The guava-rum barbecue sauce was a miracle, zingy and sweet atop butter-soft rib meat. The ribs were less smoky than Southern barbecue-style, more subtly flavored, and combined with the unique sauce, it was the first entree to give us a taste of La Cubanita's potential.
But not the last. A subsequent visit for a late lunch proved La Cubanita has more to offer and further opened my eyes to the more nuanced areas of the Lombardi lore.
My fellow diner and I tried to get a little more native this go 'round, so we started with the Mariquitas con Guacamole. The appetizer consists of plantain, taro and tortilla chips for dipping in Cuban guac, mojo and black bean dip. Some of the chip/dip combos didn't match at all—the sweetness of the plantain, for instance, mixes poorly with the savory mojo—but all the chips were fried perfectly and were refreshing and light, a pleasant change from the usual chip/queso/salsa trifecta. The tasty black bean dip was a special surprise.
The languid afternoon atmosphere was decidedly different from the charged hubbub of our night visit. We lingered over the dish and ordered off La Cubanita's extensive and fun drink menu. Our friendly, handsome waiter was patient as we waved him off and buried our noses in books. We ordered fried plantains and crema fresca and idly nibbled the bananas' caramelized edges.
We finally ordered sandwiches. Again, a mixed bag, but as with the ribs, when La Cubanita hits, it's a home run. Ironically, the Cuban sandwich needed a lot of work. It was basically a glorified ham and cheese, as the signature pulled pork was so dry it made my tongue swell. The bistec sandwich, however, boasted the best carne asada this side of Havana. This time, the sharp lime marinade made itself known, and the beef was flawlessly tender. We caught ourselves grinning as we gobbled yucca fries, piping hot and crisp. It was at lunch where La Cubanita's concept started to match its execution.
I use that word "concept" intentionally. Lombardi himself calls his restaurants "concepts," a word you usually hear applied to arty rock albums and theoretical ideas rather than, say, burgers and fries. You'd be hard-pressed to hear such an abstraction refer to something as visceral and organic as food unless you were in Dallas. There's something Orwellian—or at least clinical—about using it to describe the places where we go to celebrate birthdays; to grab a quick, gossipy nosh with friends; or to merely sustain ourselves.
The thing is, Lombardi's got something right. At least, I figured so after that late lunch, as I picked up the reasonable bill and sucked down the last of my bright-orange virgin guava cocktail. The air was still and sultry, and as I ambled out in my flip-flops, past the good-looking Uptown couples on their way in for an early cocktail, for the briefest second I felt like I was on vacation. Only I wasn't—but I sure enjoyed the concept.
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