I was befuddled by the only word emblazoned beneath the restaurant's name, right on the menu's front page: tapas. Having always assumed the first Las Culebrinas, on West Flager, was a Cuban restaurant, I naturally projected likewise for this second venture, which emerged in the Grove seven months ago. I took another look around the ground floor of the two-level dining room, at the fountain by the front door, the large mirrors in back, at the stone columns and preponderance of dark woods; suddenly it all seemed more Spanish than before. "Looks like our Cuban meal will have to wait," I said to my companion, who, quite frankly, didn't seem all that disappointed. I had spoken too soon, though, as a subsequent reading of the extensive menu showed that while there was paella valenciana, and rabbit in garlic sauce, and the Catalan seafood specialty zarzuela de mariscos, most of the food was indeed Cuban: ropa vieja, vaca frita, chicharrones de pollo, moros, maduros, tostones, and plenty more. (If you're not familiar with these dishes, don't fret -- the words are adeptly translated into English.
The two cuisines match up naturally, a result of the customary culinary commingling that occurs when one country colonizes another (as Spain did Cuba in the Sixteenth Century), but I suspect Las Culebrinas simply likes the idea of serving tapas with Spanish wines and carafes of sangría. A few of our favorites among the appetizing little snacks: briskly fried garbanzo fritters, grilled garlic shrimp, and a sprightly sauté of scallops, mussels, and mushrooms. Too bad we didn't try the pulpo a la gallega tapas, instead ordering it as a main course; the large serving of charred and chewy octopus chunks in a bland paprika and olive oil coating was the low point of our visits.
Some entrées are neither Spanish nor Cuban, like "crocodile" medallions a la francesca (egg-battered), chicken breast "breaded in Kellogg's" (corn flakes) with a honey-mustard sauce, and churrasco Uraguayo con salsa chimichurri. The steak seemed the surest bet of the three, but the only sure things about it turned out to be the steamy white rice and plump plantains on the side; the meat itself was overcooked and decidedly lacking in the thrill of grilled flavor. Better off with U.S. choice meats like a fourteen-ounce filet mignon or sixteen-ounce New York strip, the latter imbued with a thick smoky succulence and accompanied by a small salad of field greens and a wedge of roasted potato pie for just $15.95. Las Culebrinas is one of those rare places that combines fine-dining ambiance with family-friendly prices; the most expensive item is a filet-and-lobster surf and turf at $24.95, with many main courses between $6.95 and $12.95. A children's menu offers a junior top sirloin steak and French fries for $4.75.
The Spanish dessert crema catalana was a bargain too, its raw-sugar topping torched tableside -- it's not often you get that sort of service for $3.95. The universal appeal of soft, sweet vanilla custard contrasted with brittle, bitter caramelized crust serves to remind that great food is great food no matter where it comes from.
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