By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
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Like many curious New Yorkers whose acquaintance with Cuban food was largely limited to the tasty but pretty basic mom-and-pop Cuban/Chinese joints that once sprouted on every block of Manhattan's Upper West Side, I devoured the New York Times piece that came out shortly after Douglas Rodriguez's Yuca first opened in Coral Gables, in 1989. Everything, from the name -- a clever take on yuppie, standing instead for Young Urban Cuban American, as well as a reference to the Latin root vegetable yuca (different, by the way, from the spikey Southwestern landscaping plant yucca) -- to the descriptions of light, quickly cooked dishes, seemed to suggest at least as much kinship with Alice Waters's new California as with old Cuba. It even seemed possible that nonmeat eaters could eat well at Yuca.
By the time I'd moved to Miami, though, Rodriguez had moved to New York. On my first visit to Yuca, which then was in the Gables, the food looked fashionable (everything was piled in those stupid stacks that collapse at first touch of a fork) but tasted of almost nothing -- except unexpected meat. Menu descriptions, which otherwise traced every ingredient's ancestry back to the time of Ponce de Leon, neglected to mention details like minced ham in the mashed boniato. For carnivorous me, no problemo. For vegetarians, very disrespectful.
Two subsequent visits awhile after Yuca's move to Lincoln Road were worse, featuring increasingly puny portions of healthful but flavorless food for hugely healthy prices. But it was hard to place the blame; there were different chefs on each visit. What was the same on both visits was management, Amancio Suarez and Ephrain Vega. (Vega moved on to open the originally marvelous Mayya a year ago.) Is it fair to blame bad management decisions for bad food? Well, since onetime owner/manager Vega is the guy who recently severed relations with Miami Beach's best chefs ever (Guillermo Tellez from Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and his pastry whiz Leslie Swagger), basically suggesting that SoBe was too stupid and stingy for Trotter-type sophistication, let's do blame them. Today Yuca, while nowhere near the pioneering force it was under Rodriguez, is once again on a recent foray there: good food and good value. Remaining manager Suarez and current chef Ramon Medrano (from the Dominican Republic, not Cuba) seem to have settled on a solid and stable menu.
On our friendly waiter's advice that lobster and yuca croquettes with Brie ($13.95) were one of Yuca's most popular starters, my table tried them, despite skepticism about the Brie. Porkless croquettes are not, after all, easy to find, and the table's nonmeat eater loved them. I was a bit disappointed because the croquettes were considerably less light and custardy than Versailles's traditional ham croquettes; the substantial cornmealy texture seemed more tamalelike. But an accompaniment of sautéed spinach was delightfully crisp and flavorful, as were accents of walnuts and a tart apple salsa.
An only slightly gentrified traditional corn tamale (with smoked turkey subbing for pork) was available, but we opted for the vegetarian "hallarcas Caracas" ($11.95), steamed in a plantain leaf instead of the standard Tex-Mex corn husk. Portobello mushrooms gave the tamale plenty enough meaty body without meat, especially since the tamale itself was softer than the usual lard-bound Mexican sort. A Venezuelan-flavor sofrito, somewhat spicier than its Cuban counterpart, enlivened as well as enriched the nutty masa dumpling.
Among entrées "tuna rosada" ($29.95) seemed a sure-shot test of Yuca's nuevo-ness, since I'd never had fish underdone to modern tastes in any Cuban venue before, except in the homes of young Cuban friends. Yuca's tuna was wonderfully rare, though not quite as sushi-raw as my instructions had specified ("please allow the tuna to scoot swiftly over the fire and swim its poor scorched self directly to our table"). An accompanying plantain flan was appealingly silky-smooth rather than starchy, close to the texture I'd expected from the croquettes.
"Puerco Rico" [$24.95], Yuca's take on roast pork, was good but surprising. Nouvelle or not, what I expected was something similar to traditional Cuban lechón asado -- sauced more innovatively, for sure (the menu mentions a green apple-mango chimichurri; the norm is garlic-sour orange), but with the same sinfully slow-cooked fatty succulence. Yuca's roast came flash-grilled medium rare, mint-glazed, and so lean it was almost like health food. Whether it's an improvement on tradition really is a personal preference judgment call: Hipsters, like those who have made fatless filet mignons de porc so popular in NYC faique French bistros over the past few years, will favor Yuca's perfectly greaseless fork-tender tenderloin; greasers like me will continue to clog our arteries at Palacio de los Jugos. But Yuca's accompanying skyscraper of crisp, shoestring-thin yuca fries is a universal crowd pleaser.
A $5.95 side order of congri (black beans and white rice, more commonly called moros y cristianos in Cuban restaurants, a historical reference to the medieval Moorish conquest of Spain) was tastier than usual owing to firmer than usual rice. Unfortunately lobster mashed potato ($7.95) didn't fare as well. The lobster's texture was as flaccid as Cuban rice typically is, and tasted a bit off besides.
With some trepidation we ordered the "Babylon tower," a salad. Green salads as North Americans know them (leaf lettuce, light vinaigrette) were virtually unknown in Cuba pre-1960, and in most traditional Miami Cuban restaurants, iceberg lettuce and unripe supermarket-quality tomatoes with sweet, orange, creamy "French" dressing is still as good as it gets. "Please no mesclun! My mama will be there!" a Yuca friend shrieked in mock horror, as we planned a Cuban potluck dinner my first Thanksgiving in Miami. "When I was growing up, a salad was mayonnaise-coated cooked vegetables. A 'green salad' meant one of the vegetables was canned asparagus."
Actually one of the tower's key veggie ingredients was indeed cooked, but fabulous: fresh hearts of palm. Steamed for just a few minutes to render the hard sabal palmetto core tender but still delightfully crunchy, these chilled fresh hearts bore about as much resemblance to the familiar canned kind as fresh asparagus do to their mushy canned counterparts. A coconut-date vinaigrette was surprisingly subtle, neither too sweet nor too heavy; even the sugar-hater and the coconutphobe at the table found the taste balanced. And while the $11.95 price seemed high for a dish that included no fish, meat, or similar high-end raw ingredients, the mountain of baby lettuce, watercress, endive, and avocado accompanying the palm hearts was ample for two or three.
So was the one dessert my table managed, a key lime napoleon ($8.50), much lighter than standard key lime pie but nevertheless a formidable arrangement. Drizzled and garnished with tropical fruit emulsions, chocolate, and most every other dessert substance known to humankind, the napoleon was richer and not quite as refreshingly tart as, say, Susan Ferry's similar key lime natilla at the Marquesa in Key West, but was still a festive end to the meal.
Although many patrons seemed to be drinking various exotic cocktails, Yuca's wine list is worth mentioning; it's limited, but with a few great selections at great prices. Our Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc, only $25, was plenty complex enough to stand up to Latin spicing, as well as the heat from the Latin band upstairs that began playing as we finished dining and started dancing.