That has a lot to do with my earliest encounters with Cuba's culinary delights: at a cozy neighborhood joint near my college dorm in Manhattan, at a time in my youth when I considered myself too tough to admit I was a bit homesick.
At that cheerful, family-owned restaurant, I could feast like a queen in spite of my crappy work-study paycheck, warm my bones after trudging in from the cold (how quickly I've forgotten that New York is chilly half the year), and always feel welcome, even when I'd show up alone for a quick Cuban sandwich and a café con leche.
I'm reminded of the good old days at seven-month-old Sabor Cubano, where the homey dishes are straight out of the family kitchen, so to speak. Owned by Nancy Socarras (who's usually in the back, cooking up a storm) and her husband, Eduardo Carralero, the humble West Camelback restaurant features a generous, affordable buffet of tasty Cuban comfort food. Adding to the friendly vibe is daughter Sandra Carralero, who waits on tables as her own cute little kids play near the front register.
That's right, this is an all-you-can-eat buffet, both at lunch and dinner. Normally, I might shy away from something like that, but come on — this is Cuban food, not overcooked Americanized Chinese with a side of dried-out California rolls. Unlike some restaurant buffets, where the eats don't get replenished often enough, this one seems to keep fresh dishes coming out at regular intervals, even when the place isn't packed.
Sabor Cubano doesn't try too hard in the atmosphere department — it's nondescript, with green carpeting and curtains, a wall of graffiti, and a modest display of family photos above the register. A Budweiser cutout of a lady in tight red clothing creates a funny vignette next to a fake banana tree in one corner, and there are calendar pics of Cuban scenery tacked above the windows. Incredibly, the place has six TVs, which would be a lot for any restaurant, but especially for one this small. Needless to say, the buffet is the main attraction here.
Actually, there is a small menu of items made to order, including Cuban sandwiches, Cuban tamales, camarón a la Criolla (shrimp in red sauce), lengua entomatada (beef tongue in tomato sauce), platanos maduros (sweet caramelized plantains), tostones (salty fried plantain patties), and French fries. Socarras mentions even more items that aren't on that menu, including bacalao (a Cuban cod casserole) and oxtail.
It can't hurt to ask about the possibilities, especially if you're into Cuban food. When I inquired about the drink options besides soda, I discovered that sweet, thirst-quenching watermelon juice and creamy café con leche (a given) are also available.
In addition, there are more than a dozen rotating items on the hot buffet, which includes soups, a few rice dishes, and several meats. The variety doesn't change for lunch and dinner, although weekends bring specialties you won't see during the week, such as roast pork, or lamb in sauce with broccoli and onions. Ropa vieja, the juicy shredded beef dish that's a staple at just about any Cuban restaurant, is available only on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
When I visited Sabor Cubano, sopa de pollo (homestyle chicken soup with a rich broth) and pati-panza (zesty but not-too-spicy Cuban-style menudo soup) were appealing in spite of the temperature outside. Along with a steaming pan of fluffy white rice, there were creamy black beans, fragrant congris (a mixture of rice and black beans), and arroz con pollo, with tender chunks of chicken and bits of red pepper.
Steamed mixed vegetables seemed straight out of a freezer bag, a bland jumble of cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots. I'm stifling a yawn at the thought of it. Simple stewed yuca (cassava) was more interesting, the thick slices of starchy root cooked until they were nearly creamy. Cocido de garbanzo, a stew of plump chickpeas, also contained chunks of yuca. And col guisada, flavorful stewed cabbage with red pepper, was so surprisingly good that I almost went back for seconds.
Not that I was actually still hungry after scarfing down my first round of luscious meat dishes. Fricasé de puerco was a highlight, with falling-off-the-bone pork and green beans in a tangy sauce. Fricasé de pollo was similarly tempting, with garlic and peppers to jazz up the chicken. Pollo frito was more a straight-up celebration of poultry — no crunchy coating, like with American fried chicken, just moist, golden pieces of bird with the slightest touch of crispiness to the skin.
Picadillo de res was a juicy ground beef concoction that was irresistible with bites of congris. And the lone seafood dish, aporreado de pescado, was also good with a heap of rice. Made with moist shredded whitefish, red and green peppers, and zucchini, it was as colorful as it was mouthwatering.
Off to either side of the hot buffet, two smaller counters featured cool, sweet counterpoints to the savory stuff. It was nothing fancy, to be sure: chunks of honeydew, orange, and watermelon, a platter of mini-muffins, some canned pineapple, vanilla and chocolate puddings, and homemade, cinnamon-flecked rice pudding. I'd take another big spoonful of that sweet, milky rice pudding anytime, and fresh fruit is always welcome. The canned fruit and those other puddings — eh.
Go for some flan instead. Sure, it'll cost you an extra three bucks, and maybe on principle it's indulgent to order it when there's a whole all-you-can-eat buffet in such close proximity. But that wasn't enough to stop me, and I don't regret it one bite, er, bit.
Unlike some kinds of flan that are lighter and more like Jell-O, this was denser and creamier and richer. It was just sweet enough but not overly sugary, smothered in caramel sauce that hinted of burntness, in a delicious, mysterious kind of way.
From start to finish, my meal at Sabor Cubano was full of scrumptious flavors. And once I saw the check, I was even happier. After all these years, it's nice to know I can still feast like a queen — for cheap.