Restaurant Reviews

Finger-Food Good

It's one of those days that feels, from the amount of work you've done, at least 40 hours long -- but you need a few more hours to finish up the work that still needs doing. No time for food, for sure, unless it's a bite between phone calls/appointments/important meetings. And something that, unlike fast-food burgers, won't mess up the good suit or litter the desk/car/good suit with shredded lettuce. So good thing there'll be all those sensational snacks at the afterwork cocktail party at ... Oh nooo! Your house!

There is a one-word solution (fortunately, since you don't have time to read more) to lunch on the run, unexpected party preparations, and similar situations: croqueticas. Sorry, one more word is necessary: Rosa. And actually, for non-Spanish speakers, still another word: Mercedes.

Croquetas are, of course, a Cuban party staple, and available at just about any take-out café cubano window or Hispanic grocery store, from those glass-fronted warming cases that keep the croquettes warm all day. But classic croquetas basically are three-bite specimens, about the dimensions of an extremely fat finger. And while croquetas ideally are supposed to be crisp outside and creamy inside (anyone lived in Miami long enough to remember the almost flanlike fillings Douglas Rodriguez did at Yuca?), more commonly the deep-fried morsels' exteriors are either overbreaded or so soggy they collapse midbite, while interiors tend toward heavy knishlike mashed-potato mushiness.

At La Rosa Bakery, which has been around since 1968, the croquetas are croqueticas, tiny enough to pop into your mouth while, if absolutely necessary, keeping that cell phone conversation going without sounding incoherent. And the texture is terrific: lightly breaded outside, light inside, and above all, fresh with a capital F. When I showed up recently, long after lunch but a bit before evening commuter hour, my very cordial, in-charge server Mercedes (La Rosa's only apparent speaker of any English whatsoever) looked doubtfully at the small heap of between-time croqueticas and handed me a free sample. "I do not know if you will like," she warned ominously. "It has been maybe two hours since they are baked."

"They're better than any croquetas in town!" I declared.

"All right, but I charge you only ten cents apiece," she conceded. It seemed like bank robbery on my part, as croqueticas here are supposed to cost 25 cents each. Since there was no other way to get Mercedes to release the tasty tidbits, however, I had to agree, with the proviso I'd return the next morning for fresh-out-of-the-fryer fingerlings.

Okay. While there is a slightly livelier exterior crunch and more custardy interior creaminess, the main difference in La Rosa's early hours croqueticas is that there is chicken as well as the usual ham -- which is welcome to someone like me who finds ham's strong, meaty smokiness an overstatement in as delicate an item as a croqueta at its best. But what early birds also are more likely to find are fritturas de bacalao. Spicy, packed with peppers and diced fish, and as addictively spongy as churros, these cod fritters are what one always hopes conch fritters will be. They are not as elegantly small as croqueticas, but you wouldn't want them to be.