Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: The Elusive Joys of Cuban Food

Ropa vieja French dip sandwich with a side of jerk sauce from Little Cay.
Ropa vieja French dip sandwich with a side of jerk sauce from Little Cay. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
This week, we checked out two spots serving Cuban food, a great but locally unheralded cuisine. The first is a classic Cuban cafeteria, the second a kitchen of Caribbean fusion with a strong Cuban leaning. Both had some surprising bright spots.

Angling for Cuban in a North Phoenix Kitchen of Caribbean Fusion

About two days after vowing to quit a coffee habit, I found myself in a high-ceilinged, vibrantly orange-and-pink room, looking down at a cafe Cubano. The coffee, an espresso, traditionally lacks milk yet has a head somewhere between crema and steamed-milk froth. Usually, this is formed by vigorously stirring sugar into the espresso. The one here, at Little Cay, has a long sweet note that dominates the sipping. You warm. You snap back to life.

click to enlarge A cafe Cubano at Little Cay. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
A cafe Cubano at Little Cay.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Little Cay isn’t a bootstrapped mom-and-pop eatery. The owners clearly had a design budget, judging by the vibrant colors, sleek bar, framed pictures of powdery sand beaches in turquoise waters, and flatscreen TVs. The food, by the owner’s reckoning, is modern. “We go out of our way to be [a] fusion of island fare,” he says.

He is Ben Sinon, and he flits from kitchen to table to table of his north Phoenix restaurant, making sure diners are enjoying. For 10 years before opening Little Cay in early October, he served as a general manager and sommelier at Christopher’s and Wrigley Mansion. Sinon isn’t from the Caribbean, but he often vacations there. At Little Cay, Sinon says he hopes to recreate the feeling and food of Caribbean islands as diverse as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, plus Caribbean-adjacent countries like Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Part of his pre-opening efforts entailed, in the early stages, consulting a wide range of sources, some being people with family recipes. Those early stages flowed into later stages. “It has always been about fusion,” he says. “It has always been about taking traditional things and transforming them.”

Even so, as one section of the menu explicitly reveals, some of Little Cay’s deeply Cuban-inflected menu hews closer to how food has been.

click to enlarge "Tostonadas," a Little Cay creation. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
"Tostonadas," a Little Cay creation.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
As in the Cuban tradition, picadillo, a beef hash, cores empanadas. A light-and-flaky dough clamshell gives way to flavorful ground meat. A huge portion of vaca frita, fried beef shreds, comes in an entree-sized order. Fried curls of onion punctuate, but the fried steak shreds are on the dry side, and there aren’t as many heat-born crackly bits as you’d hope.

Classic ropa vieja gets a remix at Little Cay, one in the form of a “French dip” sandwich on a pressed, Cuban-style bun. It’s a brilliant idea. Eaten alone, the meat — a combination of ropa vieja and chorizo slick with melted Swiss cheese — could have more punch. In the end, it gets just that from a jerk-doctored jus for dipping.

click to enlarge Little Cay's bright interior. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Little Cay's bright interior.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Little Cay excels most when spinning these riffs. Simple fried yuca is slightly overcooked, hamstrung by hardness. But “tostonadas,” an original Little Cay creation that is basically an open-faced sandwich on crisp-fried plantains, melts with luscious slow-roasted pork (lechon). You’ll enjoy these more freewheeling bites. And you’ll enjoy the eatery if you come not for the intimacy and doctrine of classics, but for the mild thrill of the new.

Seeking Lunchtime Nirvana in the West Valley

A late-middle-age man with plastic gloves and a soft grin looks down, lifts a metal lid. “Beef,” he says, easing a metal ladle through rich stew. He looks up at me. I nod. He moves to the next lid, progressing through the foods keeping warm in a cafeteria-style steam table. He lifts. Steam rises. “Pork,” he says.

I nod again. Inside, I’m quietly buzzing for what the rest of the tins contain here at Fe La Cubana Cafeteria in Glendale. Last decade, I ate widely in my six-year home of Hudson County, New Jersey, also known as Havana on the Hudson. Hudson County was home to the most Cubans in America until Miami-Dade County’s leap to the top following Castro’s rise in the mid-20th century. My time in Jersey, weirdly, gave me a taste for Cuban food.

I am nodding because me and the gloved, gold-chained, soft-smiling cook and proprietor of Fe La Cubana — now patiently visually walking me through his offerings — can’t understand one another. Well we can, but just a little. Only at the brief point where my virtually nonexistent Spanish overlaps with his, and where his small but useful reserves of English meet mine. Luckily, the language of food is more universal.

“Beef,” he says, lifting another metal lid.

Ropa vieja?” I reply.

He nods, a pleased glint in his eyes. “Ropa vieja,” he confirms.

click to enlarge A plate of oxtail, ropa vieja, and white rice at Fe La Cubana. - CHRIS MALLOY
A plate of oxtail, ropa vieja, and white rice at Fe La Cubana.
Chris Malloy
Ropa vieja, a dish of beef simmered until it slightly rends apart, is common in Latin American countries and a core staple of Cuban cuisine. Often the beef is cooked in leftover soup. Herbs and spices like cumin, allspice, and oregano find their way in. Tomatoes, too. Ropa vieja is one of those foods, like pasta or paella, with a wide gap between average and the tier of great that freshly reminds you of life’s richness. And the version in this narrow metal tin — long tight strings of beef clumped in braids, swimming in tomato-rich juices that swirl with the cook’s ladle — looks dynamite.

At my pointing and bumbling, the proprietor, who answers that he comes from Havana when I later ask, scoops me a heaping plate.

A flat mountain of white rice. Two stewed oxtails, their rich juice spooned over the white. A scarlet puddle of ropa vieja. A guava-pregnant pastele, which is a pastry with the flake but not nearly the butter of a croissant. And two sides: red bean soup and yuca.

click to enlarge A small but mighty side of yuca. - CHRIS MALLOY
A small but mighty side of yuca.
Chris Malloy
In the modest storefront dining room, where TV Spanish filters and designs like a Cuban flag and plain white Christmas lights furnish bare walls, that dripping ropa vieja lives up to its first impression. It is pleasantly, unexpectedly tender, the beef shreds each no thicker than a violin string and just falling apart together. They are soulful with garlic and rich, but not overly rich — nothing that will make you feel sleepy afterward.

But the oxtails, as expected, are rich-rich, and in the best way possible. Knifing meat that melts like ice cream from knobby tail vertebrae demands Rubik’s Cube concentration. That’s part of the fun. Green olives and red pepper lend tiny flavor. The burnished beef quickly gives way to pure softness, pink interior showing a touch of wine-purple.

The red bean soup is just as nice as the billboard meats. Plump beans pack smoke from flecks of pork. And that yuca? One of the most memorable in town. Its white flesh is tender but not overly soft, the plant’s natural fibrous bite coaxed into a pleasant slide, garlic radiating to its core. Couldn’t be simpler. Couldn’t be better.

click to enlarge Heading right for Fe La Cubana. - CHRIS MALLOY
Heading right for Fe La Cubana.
Chris Malloy
And that’s how I feel about Fe La Cubana on the whole.

In a metro area with scarce options, this is a legit place to eat Cuban food, even if your bar is high. As I paid at the register, the proprietor-and-cook asked in our oblique way how I liked my meal, and I gave him as much praise as I could in a few shabby gestures and words.

Little Cay — Latin Caribbean Kitchen
4912 East Shea Boulevard, #108, Scottsdale
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily

Empanadas $5.50
Pork lechon “tostonadas” $6
Pasteles de pescado $7.25
Ropa vieja dip $9.75

Fe La Cubana
5821 North 67th Avenue, #110, Glendale
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Ropa vieja $8.50 to $12
Rabo encidido (oxtail) $13.50
Red beans $4.20
Fried yuca $3
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy