By Heather Hoch
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The paella valenciana at Mimita's Cuban Café in Chandler may be one of the Valley's best edible outcomes of the saying "Good things come to those who wait." As long as it's understood that the wait is two hours and that it's best to call in the order.
After that, the good thing arrives. And, ergo, the payoff.
A mixed version of the classic Spanish rice dish, Mimita's paella valenciana has a flavor as deep and rustic as its ceramic, family-size serving vessel. It's a fortuitous combination of ingredients from land and sea, seasoned and sautéed and blended together so perfectly that they can be tasted separately and together in every bite. There are spicy bits of Spanish chorizo, red and green bell peppers, peas, shrimp, pieces of fish, onions, and saffron rice. And just in case you needed another reason for the giant wooden serving spoon, the dish is topped with chunky, golden chicken breasts with glistening skin, mussels on the half shell, and a bright red lobster tail casing artfully placed on a diagonal through the center — its bounty of sweet meat already mixed in with the medley of tastes.
1950 N. Arizona Ave.
Chandler, AZ 85225
The notion of patience paying off doesn't stop at the paella. For half the wait of the valenciana (again, best to call it in ahead of arriving at the restaurant), there is the Cuban comfort dish arroz con pollo a la chorrera (soupy chicken and rice). Served in a shallow jet-black iron skillet, bright green sweet peas dot an orange-red mixture of shredded chicken mixed with garlic, tomato sauce, wine, and rice artfully topped with long slices of red peppers and sweet plantains. Lightly seasoned, delectably creamy, and best shared among family and friends, it is a dish my server told me her grandma makes every weekend. Sure, I would have enjoyed more red peppers in each bite, but that didn't stop me from scooping up a second helping.
Save for the two aforementioned dishes, the bulk of Mimita's menu items arrives in a more familiar dining time frame. Created by owners Al and Barbara Dominguez (Al was born in Cuba and Barbara is of Cuban descent), the items — snacks, sandwiches, and entrees — reflect traditional Cuban cooking, a predominantly peasant cuisine influenced by Spanish, French, African, Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese cultures. There are no heavy sauces or cream-based dishes here. It is a place of sautéing and cooking dishes low and slow, of marinated meats and root vegetables, and of utilizing basic spices along with a sofrito base to give the foods their distinctive flavor. Most dishes are highly gratifying, and although a few miss their mark, Mimita's still makes for a notable stop for those in the area seeking Cuban comfort food, a festive atmosphere, and friendly service.
If you are looking for a true Cuban lunch, you will want to order the empanadas or a Cuban sandwich. A popular item for street vendors in the country, Mimita's empanadas taste like the Cuban version of a Sloppy Joe thanks to housemade cinnamon-tinged ground beef stuffed inside large wedges that boast a crispy and flaky crust.
And for fans of the Cuban sandwich, a variation of the classic ham and cheese, Mimita's medianoche is a satisfying spinoff. Like the Cuban, its thin slices of juicy roast pork, ham, pickles, tangy mustard, and sharp Swiss cheese are griddled together to form a crispy and gooey panini-like creation. But the medianoche (which translates to "midnight sandwich," referring to the time when it is often served) uses a sweet, eggy, challah-like bread to hold the ingredients together, sopping up the flavors in its downy texture and rounding out the salty pork and mild, nutty cheese. A side of mariquitas, thin-sliced plantain chips, works best to balance this hearty sandwich.
To start dinner, you could order flavorful appetizers such as the empanadas; croquetas de jamon, finger-sized, lightly fried and breaded fritters stuffed with tasty ham and served with Mojo, a woozy, garlic-heavy dipping sauce with onion, spices, and lime juice; or tamal Cubano, the Cuban version of a corn tamale, in which pork and sofrito seasoning is mixed with the dough and not, like Mexican tamales, treated as a filling.
Entrees at Mimita's are served as they would be for a traditional Cuban dinner, and especially, given the proportions, one where the family is returning from a day of hard labor. Plates are piled high with meat, chicken, or seafood, a choice of congri (red beans and rice) or moros (black beans and rice), and sweet or twice-fried plantains. In many Cuban homes, a small salad of sliced tomatoes, onions, and avocados may be added to the meal, but in the case of Mimita's, where the tomatoes on my visits were poor quality, you could skip this course.
There are better dishes to be found than the camarones enchiladas (Cuban-style shrimp in an average tomato-based sauce) and the bistec empanizado, a tough, Cuban-style steak in a bland breading. Best to order the Cuban roast pork dish, lechon asado (Cubans love their pork), where a heap of dead-on tender shredded meat in a garlic-heavy and citrusy marinade is sautéed with onions; the lightly sweet picadillo criollo, the popular Cuban-style hash made with ground beef, tomato, green olives, raisins, hunks of potatoes, and (of course) handfuls of garlic that can be scooped up with pieces of buttered bread or (my preference) served over white rice; or the classic ropa vieja (Spanish for "old clothes") where fork-tender strands of slow-cooked, seasoned beef, bell peppers, onions, and cumin come together in a savory tomato sauce for a decidedly Caribbean taste.
If there is room for dessert after the meal, there is creamy, eggy flan, rice pudding, and delectable bunuelos Cubanos. These lightly fried twisted pastries are dusted with powdered sugar, served on a shallow pool of lusciously light anise-laced syrup, and go beautifully with a shot of café Cubano.
And for the rum-venturous with a sweet tooth, there's panatela borracha. More or less a drunken pound cake served cold and soaked in coconut rum syrup, Mimita's won't serve their version to go or to anyone under the legal drinking age. Be warned that a little bit of this borracha goes a long way — not just because of the alcohol, but the amount of sugar. Its laser-like intensity is enough to make your teeth pulsate and your fingers immediately start shakily searching your cell phone for the number of your dentist.
The most endearing part of Mimita's may be its staff. Cheery and easygoing, they are your new best friends when your enter the restaurant, waving you inside and explaining the various dishes with a familiarity that goes along with eating them frequently. There, in Mimita's bright and welcoming room with green patterned tablecloths topped with glass, brightly painted murals of Cuba on the wall, and Latin beats pulsating through the air, they deliver rounds of Iron Beer (a Cuban soft drink that tastes like creamy Dr Pepper) to thirsty patrons, tell you that the sandwich Cubano is good but lacks the Cuban bread they've had in Miami, and will consult with each other when asked what the flavor of a mamey (the national fruit of Cuba) milkshake tastes like.
"Mamey, tastes like . . . mamey!" they will answer laughing.
It does — and also a bit like sweet potato pudding.