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"Cuban food," I'd answer.
Each potential guest immediately came up with an excuse why he or she couldn't make it. One had to take the cat to the vet. Another remembered a hair appointment. A third didn't even bother to lie. "Not Cuban," he said. "Anything but Cuban."
Perhaps this antipathy toward Cuban cuisine is the result of a pronounced mediocrity that afflicts the hundreds of practically identical Cuban restaurants here; in truth, few are better than average. Eating Cuban staples such as ropa vieja and moros, one friend insisted, is about as exciting as watching reruns of the MTV awards. (While the recipes for dishes such as fried pork, grilled chicken, and stewed beef have survived the 90-mile journey pretty much intact, making it one of the few nonbastardized cuisines in the United States, Cuban fare here can often be bland.)
Good thing I don't always listen to my friends. Otherwise I might have missed out on a meal at Las Nuevas Culebrinas, a truly superior Spanish-Cuban cafe. Named for the small cannons that once guarded the walls of Spanish castles, the decades-old Las Culebrinas closed down in early 1995, only to be revived in September of that year by new chef-proprietor Carlos Rodriguez (hence the "Nuevas" addendum). It didn't take long for locals to rediscover this cramped, 64-seat cornerstone of the city's Latin dining scene. More than two years after its reopening, the subtly lighted restaurant, filled with plants and flowers that look so healthy we actually pinched them to see if they were real (they were), is one of those places that are always busy. Lunch or dinner, you can expect to stand in line for a table.
Once seated you aren't likely to leave soon: Combined, the three expertly prepared courses are hefty enough to keep a determined diner plugging away for hours. Tapas were especially huge. Traditionally Spanish, tapas are customarily small plates of appetizers -- just a bite or two for each person at the table. Here the tapas are more akin to platters, with multiple servings for each member of the party. We nevertheless demolished the salpicon de mariscos, a pleasant assortment of cold seafood marinated in a vinaigrette dressing. The mussels, shrimp, scallops, and squid were all mild and tender, cured like escabeche (pickled fish) with garlickly olive oil, vinegar, thin-sliced raw white onions, and red and green bell peppers.
Another starter, garbanzos fritos, was also enormous. Whole chickpeas were sauteed in a heavy olive oil with ham and pungent chorizo. Onions and pimientos garnished the dish, which was piquant but not overwhelmingly spicy. By the time the tortilla espanola, a third appetizer, arrived, we realized we'd underestimated the amount of food about to ambush us. Still, it was impossible to resist this fluffy omelet, constructed like a souffle over a plethora of sauteed white onions and potatoes and sprinkled with garden peas and pimientos. We were fortunate that the waiter suggested we not order a fourth tapa, warning us that we wouldn't be able to eat our entrees if we did.
In keeping with the restaurant's size-matters philosophy, those main courses were prodigious. We'd been tipped off by a friend to order meat, so we indulged in steak. The vaca frita, shredded and pan-fried skirt steak, was excellent, although the beef was flecked with bits of charcoal, as if the griddle hadn't been cleaned sufficiently before the dish was prepared. Well-seasoned moros -- rice mixed with black beans and redolent with bay leaves -- accompanied the vaca frita, as did wonderfully caramelized plantains and a frilly field-greens salad with an overly sweet dressing.
The moros, plantains, and salad also came with a terrific palomilla a la balsera. Grilled, a succulent top sirloin was stuffed with nuggets of pork and hunks of steaming yuca; the steak was blanketed with slices of raw white onions and a powerful mojo (garlic sauce replete with clove chunks). The same mojo drenched a side order of yuca, which had none of the soapy flavor sometimes associated with that root vegetable.
Equally flavorful, the pechuga de pollo, a flattened, boneless chicken breast, had been grilled and topped with sauteed shrimp, scallops, and mushrooms, all of which exuded a garlic-butter taste. The textures here were incredibly complementary, ranging from the juicy mushrooms to the firmer shrimp and scallops to the supple poultry. By comparison, the dish's accompaniments of mixed-lettuce salad and sliced, boiled white potatoes were somewhat bland.
For less predictable main courses, read the supplementary menu, which changes daily. During our visit it yielded fried beef brains, sauteed frog legs, alligator franaise, and goat stewed in Coca-Cola. That last-named item was easily the best overall entree we tried -- large chunks of goat meat (some attached to the shank bone) free of fat and easily shredded with a fork. The dark, sweet sauce really is made with soda, but the result, rest assured, is neither sugary nor fizzy. Served with buttery white rice and plump plantains, the goat was masterfully prepared, topped with green peas and red peppers for color.
Dessert might seem like an overindulgence here, but the house specialty is just as much fun to watch topped off as it is to eat. Homemade crema catalana (vanilla custard) is scooped into ice-cream sundae dishes in the kitchen and then blow-torched at the table to produce that burnt-sugar crust. Less dramatically presented sweets include seven different kinds of flan; the chocolate version, smooth and sweet, was doused with a caramel sauce and garnished with sugar-wafer straws.
A few months ago I reviewed a Spanish restaurant -- a place influenced by Cuban cuisine -- where I had received rotten treatment and worse food. A reader wrote to tell me why I wasn't welcome there: You're a gringa, he noted. These restaurants don't want me and my kind around. When was I going to get it?
I'm not naive. I understand the prejudices -- reverse or otherwise -- that drive the citizens of this city. But I refuse to buy into them and, I'm glad to report, so does Las Nuevas Culebrinas. We were probably the only gringos in the room the night we dined, and we still received respectful, competent service.
Las Nuevas Culebrinas
4700 W Flagler St, Miami; 445-2337. Lunch and dinner Sunday-Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 11:30 a.m. until midnight.
Seafood in vinaigrette