Your Mother Should Know

The best appetizer we tried was an order of six thick, meaty pork ribs coated with a sweet guava glaze. The worst: tortitas de yuca, five hefty fritters topped with a dried, salty spread that the menu calls "stewed fish." They tasted like potato pancakes made with Japanese fish chips.

Main courses feature authentic island foods such as pasteles (similar to a tamale, with ground chicken or pork wrapped with yautia and yuca paste instead of corn masa, then steamed in a plantain leaf), asopaos (somewhere between a soup and a stew), and mofongos (green plantain wrapped around various fillings). You also can order Latin-accented American fare, including a grilled tuna filet in molasses and Don Q 151 Rum sauce, and a veal chop with a recao wine sauce (recao is another term for culantro, which has a similar flavor to its sister herb, cilantro).

Presentations are straightforward, with little in the way of garnishes other than the shiny plantain leaves that serve as the base for many dishes. These green leaves contrasted nicely with the bright-red interior of the Angus beef filet, two tenderloin discs cooked in a Dutch oven (a heavy cast-iron pot) and served with a delicious rum-based mushroom sauce. Also delectable was asopaos de mariscos, a spicy lobster bisque made into a seafood stew with the addition of shrimp, lobster, octopus, conch, and white rice.

Hard to believe that the same kitchen that turned out the just-mentioned splendid entrees also produced an awful roast leg of pork. I detected hints of garlic and oregano (a popular Puerto Rican herb) in its flavor, but the overall taste was bland. Usually roast pork comes moistened with some of its own cooking juices, but these chunks of meat were naked and dry. A whole red snapper, fried crisp and topped with a mojo sauce of stewed tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, and recao, was considerably wetter and better.

Dinners are served a la carte, but there are plenty of side dishes from which to choose (each costs $4). By now you know I'm an unabashed member of the white-yam fan club, so it should come as no surprise that my favorite side was the yautia puree. Crunchy cassava (yuca) French fries were also terrific, but we were disappointed by arroz mamposteado (yellow rice with red beans) and arroz con gandules (white rice with pigeon peas): lukewarm, greasy, and not quite fresh.

Of the seven desserts listed on the menu, just two flans, guava and vanilla, were available on our initial trip to Casa Salsa. We passed, having had our hearts set on some of the other offerings, particularly the bread pudding with rum sauce. On a return visit the bread pudding was still missing in action, but sweet rice pudding and coconut cream pie were now available. I wish they hadn't been. Our waiter warned us that coconut cream pie was a poor translation of tembleque de coco, which is actually a coconut flan thickened with cornmeal. The jelled texture of the timbale-shape serving makes me think they must substitute cornstarch or gelatin for cornmeal here. What our waiter neglected to tell us was that the sweet rice pudding contained enough sugar to start a Pepsi plant, as well as sufficient cinnamon to give it the color of cola. It was not, my wife noted, her mother's rice pudding.

Casa Salsa is a fun place to dine: The crowd is lively, the music energetic, and the atmosphere friendly and inviting. Service is solid, especially for Ocean Drive. The waitstaff managed to get our orders right even when the restaurant was humming, all the more impressive when you consider that Casa Salsa opened less than two months ago. The wine list is predominantly Californian, but also includes interesting selections from France, Italy, Australia, Spain, and South America. And the food -- often an overlooked aspect of "fun," "theme," and Ocean Drive restaurants -- is pretty good. That said, the overall quality could be turned up a notch or two. After all, when you get the bill, you'll see that the money they charge for this cuisine ain't chopped liver.

Casa Salsa
524 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach; 305-604-5959. Lunch daily from noon till 4:00 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday from 6:00 till midnight, Friday through Sunday till 2:00 a.m.

Pork ribs in guava sauce $8.95
White yam soup $4.50
Asopaos de mariscos $23.95
Beef filet $24.95
Sweet rice pudding $6.


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