At Son Cubano, a New York Transplant Revives Asian-Cuban Cooking

Sometime around 10 p.m., the fedora-wearing trumpet player inside the Coral Gables restaurant Son Cubano decides he's had enough of slow-paced melodies and jumps into some driving salsa. Soon a dozen guayabera- and pantsuit-clad diners are on their feet and shaking their hips. It doesn't take long before there's a conga line, led by one woman who's taken the musician's maraca as her own.

Meanwhile, a flurry of white-shirted-and-black-tied servers dodges through the crowd. Many of them carry Paleolithic-looking portions of lechón asado that resemble whole picnic hams, roasted until fork-tender with skin that has taken on an alluring bronze and has been pulled back to reveal a stub of bone. There are no beans, moros, plátanos, or yuca. Instead, the accompaniment is a tart tousle of pickled purple cabbage alongside a small dish of what tastes like traditional Cuban mojo marinade blended into apricot jam.

The condiments reveal their purpose as you eat your way through the towering cylinder of meat: to cut through all the rich pork fat and keep you coming back for more.

Asian-leaning riffs on Cuban classics appear throughout the two-page menu of this 220-seater. There are Wagyu picadillo-filled dumplings crisped on one side like gyoza, as well as meaty Prince Edward Island mussels in a savory black-bean broth akin to Chinese stir-fry.

This is what owners Kevin and Diana Gouchée and Claudia Caraballo hoped to accomplish when they decamped from New York after more than a decade. There, they started Son Cubano in Manhattan's Meatpacking District and then left for New Jersey, where the restaurant still operates. Up North, it was a Cuban oasis where even in the depths of winter you could procure a well-made mojito and a classic ropa vieja.

Lechón asado
Lechón asado
Photo by CandaceWest.com

In Miami, they needed something different. Inspired by meals at Asia de Cuba in New York City, they aimed to lace Cuban classics with ingredients and preparations mostly from Japan. It would be a way to stand out in a city where many are deeply loyal to a particular cafeteria.

It wasn't an entirely new idea. In 1989, Mango Gang member Douglas Rodriguez put global spins on Latin dishes at his now-shuttered Yuca in Coral Gables. Internationally lauded chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Nobu Matsuhisa have built empires on this same idea. More recently, however, fusing Asian and Cuban cuisine seems to have fallen by the wayside. South Beach's De Rodriguez closed in 2015, and none of the new crop of rising chefs has taken up the idea.

In some dishes, Son Cubano shows there is still a reason for this alchemy. Others make clear that all recipes do not produce gold.

The menu is divided into sections such as salads, small plates, ceviches, and entrées. Not all include an Asian element. A simple tomato and avocado salad is one standout among the small plates; paper-thin slices of crunchy, tart green tomato go well with a fragrant almond-oregano dressing. A black-bean hummus is just as satisfying. The nutty pop of sesame tahini along with garlic, plenty of olive oil, and malanga chips gives the inky mixture an unexpectedly deep flavor.

Croquetas de malanga
Croquetas de malanga
Photo by CandaceWest.com

A classic ceviche corvina is also impressive. Tender squid loops and supple sliced shrimp are doused in a peppy green aguachile sauce and then fluttered with torn mint leaves to brighten each bite. A slick of avocado cream on the plate adds a hint of richness.

In some places, however, the Cuban classics falter. An antojito de tamal arrives looking like a Peruvian causa, with shreds of fatty, butter-soft oxtail blended into a piquant creole sauce. However, the three slugs of steamed corn masa it rests atop are underseasoned. They could do with sazón or something like it.

The small-plates section appears to be the most cost-effective way to build a satisfying meal. Croquetas de malanga offer a spin on this sometimes bland standby via an infusion of black garlic that provides a hint of earthy spice. It's matched with a pungent curry aioli. Even the Cuban sandwich egg roll is serviceable thanks to a crackly crust encasing a heap of juicy, tender pork shoulder.

Larger, more expensive plates are hit-or-miss. For a whole fried yellowtail snapper, the kitchen debones the fish, slices the flesh into hunks, flash-fries it, and rearranges it on a plate with the skeleton propped up on a banana leaf. The move yields an attractive presentation. The pickled cabbage and a sweet-and-sour sauce made with crushed fermented soybeans tie the dish together.

Bruschetta tostones
Bruschetta tostones
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Son Cubano's version of the classic oxtail dish rabo encendido tops hunks of deliciously fatty meat, again in a piquant creole sauce, with a nest of house-made egg noodles lathered in a parsley sauce and a poached egg. Both the noodles and the egg are served room temperature and distract from the tender meat that rests underneath. This is one dish that should have been left in its classic form.

Miso-spiked flan is a welcome end to the meal. The savoriness and saltiness of the fermented soy turn it into something special. A trio of Cuban torrejas, similar to cinnamon-dappled French toast, comes atop a slick of mango compote with a dash of yogurt, which imparts an alluring bit of savoriness that adds some complexity to each bite.

Such is the promise this blend of cuisine offers. If Son Cubano can strip away the dishes that don't work and replace them with well-executed versions of classics, the restaurant could usher in a renewed enthusiasm for fusing the food of these regions. In the meantime, Son Cubano will always have late-night salsa, conga lines, and a stiff mojito to keep you going.

Son Cubano
2530 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 305-902-6220; soncubanomiami.com. Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. until late.

  • Tomato avocado salad $13
  • Cuban egg roll $11
  • Croquetas de malanga $9
  • Antojito de tamal $10
  • Lechón asado $34
  • Pargo frito $30
  • Rabo encendido $20
  • Miso flan $9

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