CARIB CAGE

Like most of you, I've never been to Cuba. I fell in love with black beans and Caribbean-style Spanish cuisine nearly twenty years ago during a monthlong stay in Puerto Rico. Family friends drove us all over the island--from Santurce through the mountains to Ponce--to taste the best it had to offer.

A few years later, I sought out Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurants while living in Nueva York. I shall never forget the succulent zarzuela at Victor's on Columbus Avenue or the piping hot tostones at a Chinese-Puerto Rican joint on Broadway.

Of course, the best place to sample Cuban cuisine is in Miami's Little Havana. Sadly, I haven't had the chance to feast in its streets. My Florida voyages were all undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s, so my youthful memories of pre-Vice Miami are of big pink hotels and old people staring at the ocean from park benches. All of this may explain why I am happy, yet unhappy, with Cafe Caribe and, to a certain extent, Havana Cafe's ­Arriba!. While no one could have been more excited than I to have not one, but two Cuban restaurants open in the Valley this past year, my enthusiasm has been tempered by experience. I've simply had better comida Cubano.

I fervently wish this weren't the case.
Take Cafe Caribe. Enrique Delgado and partner-chef Eduardo Diaz opened the doors of their little Chandler eatery this past summer. I visit twice: once shortly after its opening--a true disaster--and once more recently.

Cafe Caribe claims to cook like at "Mom's house." I can say this much: The decor of the restaurant is definitely homespun. Knickknack shelves laden with diminutive seashells look insignificant against Cafe Caribe's bright aqua walls. An island of large booths splits the room into two distinct halves. The dark booths seem to swallow people up, while diners at the tables seem too exposed.

In the food, inconsistency is a major problem. Parsley-and-onion-speckled bistec Caribe is tough to the point of jaw dislocation on one visit, gray and still on the tough side when we chance it again. Black beans are excellent--rich and flavorful--one time, watery and dull another.

Even the service varies. On my first visit, our waiter is a bandanna-headed surfer dude who appears oblivious to the conventions of service. After ordering, we sit without food for many long minutes. Our waiter rationalizes his inept performance. "There's only one of me," he wisecracks, then adds, "At least you're not throwing dishes." No, that would be difficult. We don't have any yet.

In his defense, Surfer Dude comes through at the most critical moment. When I report that my bistec is too tough to eat, he does exactly the right thing. He tells the chef.

Moments later, a jolly, conciliatory Eduardo Diaz emerges from the kitchen to apologize. "We try," he says, proffering a plate of complimentary chicken-and-rice stew to make up for the offending bistec Caribe. The asopao is very good. When Mr. Surfer Dude brings the check, the steak has been removed from the bill. This is not just good manners, it's good business.

Fortunately, on my return trip, a dining accomplice and I are blessed with a young woman who knows what she's doing. But again, her efforts to coordinate with the kitchen are problematic.

For instance, Cafe Caribe seems routinely out of things or unprepared for business. On one visit there's no ceviche. The next time, there's no kidney bean soup--though it's still listed on the menu--and the black beans "aren't done yet."

What? No black beans? Our waitress casually explains that someone in the kitchen didn't start them on time. "They're still kind of watery," she warns. I'm flabbergasted. Frijoles negros are the backbone, the soul, of Cuban cuisine. There is simply no excuse for not having stupendous black beans available from open to close, every day of operation in a Cuban restaurant. Think of it this way: Can you imagine eating Japanese, Chinese, Indian, or Thai food without rice? The relationship is the same. Essential.

Happily, when Cafe Caribe's black beans are good, they are very, very good. Order them either as soup or a side dish; there's virtually no difference between them--though there should be. The soup is served as it is in Puerto Rico, with chopped white onion.

Speaking of rice, Cafe Caribe's is disappointing. Cool, dry and broken hulled, it makes me long for the steaming masses of white rice I'm routinely served elsewhere. This is just plain carelessness on the part of the kitchen.

The preparation of plantains is another area in which the kitchen could improve its performance. This "cooking" banana is a mainstay of Caribbean cuisine. When the green fruit is sliced and twice fried, the resulting half-inch-thick chips are called tostones. Best when served hot, Cafe Caribe's tostones are thin, barely warm and taste of grease.

Even thinner plantain chips called chicharitas taste commercial. Sure enough, when I ask our waitress about them, she admits they're straight out of a bag. They shouldn't be, not in a Cuban "homestyle" restaurant. Wouldn't a good mama make them from scratch?

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