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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?

The best plantain dish I sample is the maduros, grilled ripe plantains. If you like bananas, I recommend this sweet and very satisfying side dish.

Of the entrees sampled, I favor those made with pork. Cerdo Caribe consists of three chop-size fillets seasoned with garlic, lime, cumin, salt and pepper. Simple, but oh, so good.

A hot Cuban hero sandwich is outstanding. The Cubano features Virginia ham, garlicky roast pork, melted Swiss cheese, sour pickle and yellow mustard piled atop fresh-baked Cuban bread, which bears resemblance to French bread, but with a paler, softer crust. It is hearty and delicious.

Among the losers, I would have to list the aforementioned bistec Caribe and cangrejo Caribe--nearly unidentifiable chunks of crab drowning in Creole sauce of tomato, pepper, garlic and onion.

A starter of ceviche, the day it was available, was spicy, tart and tasty. It is different from the Mexican version; the seafood is chopped more finely and mixed with a greater proportion of vegetables, primarily tomato and green onion.

For dessert, try the flan. Cafe Caribe's tiny version is characterized by a creamy, nonslippery texture and strong caramel flavor. I like it.

Finally, what does bad jazz have to do with Caribbean food? The music at Cafe Caribe definitely needs some rethinking. The current soundtrack is an unfortunate hybrid combining the worst aspects of new-age, contemporary lite-jazz and salsa. Play something with guts, something real. How about the Emperor of Mambo Perez Prado or the venerable Tito Puente?

It is hard not to want Cafe Caribe to succeed. My love for this type of food might keep me coming back, but not without a certain dread. Better management, like standardizing procedures in the kitchen, would do much to eliminate my doubts.

When Gilbert Hernandez opened Havana Cafe a little more than a year ago, his biggest problem was finding a table for everyone. After a no-reservation policy was instituted at the tiny Camelback restaurant, the problem grew acute. Customers found waiting outdoors on the cafe's small patio less than ideal most months of the year.

As a solution, Hernandez decided to develop Havana Cafe's unused second floor into an area to serve customers waiting for tables, as well as private parties.

The new room, christened Arriba!, opened in December. Accessible by outdoor stairs only, the upstairs room is outfitted with a full bar and several tables. Arriba! has a separate kitchen and wait staff. The decor mirrors the downstairs: lace curtains, gray walls, black furniture, artifical bougainvillea, bold print tablecloths.

The primary difference is the menu. Arriba! serves tapas, while Havana Cafe continues to offer a full menu. Tapas, the hot and cold "little dishes" of Spain, are best described as appetizer-sized savory concoctions of seafood, ham, cheese, olives and so forth. It is more than possible to make a meal of them. A dining accomplice and I did just that on two recent occasions.

Arriba!'s tapas menu is split into three sections: hot, cold and "sandwiches." On the hot side, my favorites are the squid sauteed in its own piquant black ink, the fried smelts with a lovely citrusy dipping sauce and the creamy potato croquettes stuffed with ground meat and peppers.

I would have to rate the greasy shrimp pancakes, the unexciting fried calamari and the so-what sauteed Spanish sausage among the less successful of the hot dishes auditioned.

Of the two cold combination tapas offered, go for the combinacion de tapas, not the combinacion de banderillas. The latter consists of chunks of cheese, meat and stuffed green olives stabbed onto six sword-shaped toothpicks. Big deal. The tapas combination offers a nice sampling of ham, garlic-tinged giant green olives and manchego cheese, along with a wedge of omelet, a small meat-filled turnover and other goodies. If you're new to tapas or simply waiting upstairs for a table, this is a good one to try.

Also recommended from the cold menu is the three-meat pate. Decorated with pimiento and served with green pepper-mustard sauce and Cuban crackers, the chicken, pork and veal pate is coarse and homey--a delightful snack. A marinated mixture of seafood is also pleasant, though a tad murky with too much vinaigrette.

The Cubano sandwich is not available during our visits. Too bad, because it sounds great--though our waitress insists it's "just like a grilled club sandwich." We do try the somewhat unspectacular empanada Gallega. Served room temperature, the square of pastry shell with a chicken, pimiento and onion filling is just not stimulating enough to order again.

 

While Arriba! succeeds as a clever solution to Havana Cafe's problem of customers' leaving instead of waiting for tables, compared to the festive atmosphere at Tapas Papa Frita, the premiere tapas bar in town, it has all the excitement of a waiting room. This is not a place to celebrate tapas as much as it is a space in which to eat them, without fanfare, and leave.

Keep this in mind if you plan to go.

Cafe Caribe, 2330 North Alma School, Chandler, 786-9791. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

Arriba!, 4225 East Camelback, Phoenix, 952-1991. Hours: 5 p.m. to midnight, Tuesday through Sunday.

anywhere

My youthful memories of pre-Vice Miami are of big pink hotels and old people staring at the ocean from park benches. caribe

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.

There is simply no excuse for not having stupendous black beans available from open to close, every day of operation in a Cuban restaurant.

arriba

This is not a place to celebrate tapas as much as it is a space in which to eat them, without fanfare, and leave.


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