Restaurant Reviews

Real Cuban, Chinese Style

It was only 10:00 a.m., but at the Cuban eatery El Crucero on a recent Saturday, it seemed more like 10:00 p.m. That's to say that it seemed more like dinner time than breakfast time, judging from the brimming plates of arroz frito con costillas (fried rice with spareribs) in front of several patrons. And judging from the brimming glasses of wine in front of many patrons, it seemed, most of all, like party time.

"I love New York, I love New York, I LOVE NEW YORK!" bellowed chef/owner Magdalena Wong as she waltzed around the cozy ten-table room, making sure to stop for a heartfelt personal declaration of geographical love to each person in the place, including the five folks at the lunch counter: my party of four, plus a sixtysomething fellow who appeared, from his familiar baiting banter with Wong, to be a regular. He also appeared, from a tendency to periodically slide halfway off his stool, to have been drinking sangria for quite a while before we arrived. We'd never been in the place before. But after sharing offers of wine, life stories, many tears about the current state of Cuba, and some darned good Cuban home cooking, we, too, felt like regulars by the time we left.

Wong's outpouring of love for New York (which had been elicited by nothing more than a passing comment that two of my friends and I had put in time there) came from her own thirtysomething years in Manhattan running Cuban restaurants, including one well-known Cuban/Chinese place on upper Broadway. The latter experience also accounts for her must-not-miss mega-meaty Chinese-style ribs and rice. The rule for New York-style Cuban/Chinese food is to stick with the south-of-the-border side of the menu and ignore the generally cornstarch-filled faux Chinese/American-style dishes, but Wong's fried rice was a generous heap of just-greasy-enough-to-be-good grain packed with big bits of pork, small shrimp, bean sprouts, onions, and egg. Available only on Saturday or Sunday from a list of ten to thirteen specials that change daily, the meal also included, as do all specials, crusty Cuban bread soaked with melted butter, plus platanos, maduros, or viandas. A hard call, since the plantains here are particularly lush, but the veggies were equally terrific: once some very nonfibrous garlicky yuca, once naturally smoky-sweet sautéed boniato pieces. Nonrice-based specials also include white rice or moros, the latter a side dish that's bland and dry in many eateries but here was fine, flavorful stuff.

To be honest, one thing made me regret my decision to have the arroz frito con costillas for breakfast: El Crucero's pancakes. More cloud-light and egg-rich than any hotcakes I'd had in years, each stack came with chorizo, perfectly fried (not too hard, not too runny) sunny-side up eggs, and what looked like half a loaf of toasted Cuban bread with melted butter.

A copious dinner with the same group -- except for Wong, who comes in at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. every day to prepare all specials by the time Crucero opens at 6:00 a.m., so finishes her workday by lunchtime -- proved that breakfast's tastiness was no fluke. The meal began with a big bowl of complimentary chicharrónes, the real thing, not from a bag but homemade and bursting with crisp, fatty succulence. For the semivegetarian in the group came kindly, for free, a huge normally $2 bowl of also-homemade mariquitas with a tangy mojo that made the still-warm-from-the-fryer banana chips even better. Actually, this mojo would have made shoe leather edible.

Lechon asado, listed as a special every day except Wednesday, was one of the best versions of Cuban roast pork I've found in town, including several fancy-schmancy nuevo Latino joints where the roast was five times the price yet half as tender and juicy. Also outstanding was El Crucero's sopa de platano, an opinion backed up by the noncarnivore who eats a whole lot of plantain soup in Cuban places, since it's one of the few dishes that can be counted on to not be full of secret pork products. "I do realize there's likely meat in the stock," she added. Yup, likely. The stock was wonderfully complex, though, and the soup's texture seemed to have attained its silky smoothness naturally rather than the usual thickening through cornstarch.

Tamal en cazuela was not the cornmeal packet one might expect but soothing cornmeal comfort food, a porridgelike substance similar to Chinese jook or Italian polenta but Cuban -- meaning with lots of pork mixed in. Maduros on the side provided sweet-sharp contrast to the rich pork and mild mash.

Camarones enchilado (shrimp in supposedly spicy creole tomato sauce that, typically Cuban but unlike much Latin food, was only slightly hot) proved to be serious seafood -- jumbo shellfish that, for a change, were not overcooked. Another fish dish, filete de pargo, was even better: a huge fresh fillet, lightly egg-battered and sautéed till done but still moist.

Feeling the need for a green vegetable, we ordered fufu de platano -- which is not a green vegetable at all. It is an originally West African equivalent of mashed potatoes -- mashed yams, sometimes with plantains added, or cassava, and here served with lots of pork cracklings on top. It also came, though, with a little salad on the side. This was just romaine with a slice of tomato and a little onion, but the tomato was beautifully ripe and the crunch was welcome.

A brief stroll around the small spot to make room for dessert revealed a cute, casual outdoor patio we'd missed, with tables mere feet from El Crucero's namesake rail crossing. I did not ask if the tracks still host trains. Live dangerously, diners, and please do let me know how it turns out.

Opined my ex-Miamian Cuban-American buddy, who hits all her old faves every visit back home: "This place is the best Cuban food we've had here this whole trip." She leaned toward her beaming 83-year-old mother, who burst forth with a declaration in Spanish. "Mama says she hasn't had Cuban food like this for 45 years." In other words, since Cuba.

Desserts were simple and deliriously sweet, but very good: ultra creamy arroz con leche rice pudding, flan that was formidable but eggy rather than overly starchy, and, best, a rich yet light-textured natilla pudding redolent with vanilla, cinnamon, and some mystery ingredient that certainly tasted like a healthy dollop from the bottle of sambuca sitting by the open kitchen, from which a couple of counter diners were casually enriching their cafés throughout the meal.

To finish, café con leche was a big cup of Cuban comfort. But it's the black café Cubano that rules here. One little, lethal cup of the super-strong brew packed a powerful enough caffeine/sugar rush to send me out the door at meal's end reeling as dramatically as the sambuca drinkers.

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Pamela Robin Brandt