There are just 50,000 Cuban-American in the LA area, but there are an unusually high number of Cuban restaurants between LA and Orange County, and many of them are very good. However, it’s likely that many places tone down traditional flavors in an attempt to reach a wider audience. Great Cuban cuisine features strong seasoning, with varying proportions of salt, olive oil, garlic, and lime. After that there’s tomato, cumin, onion and bell peppers.
Cuban food isn’t spicy, but if it’s prepared well, then each of those flavors should come through. Too often, one or more of these elements seem to be missing from dishes. Here now, seven essential Cuban restaurants in Los Angeles (and one in Downey).
The name means “little pig” and that’s a clue as to what to order at this Silver Lake fixture. The lechon asado (roast pork) come with congrí, black beans, and white rice cooked together, as they’re sometimes called “moros y cristianos” (Moors and Christians). Tostones, the unripe plantains that are fried-smashed-fried again, come out golden and crispy, making them some of the better ones in town. This year, El Cochinito won the prize for “World’s Best Cuban Sandwich.” Just make sure they toast it long enough.
3508 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90026
This might be the longest-running Cuban restaurant in LA. Old photos of Latin ballplayers line the walls, speaking to the back-home chord the food hits here. It’s where Cuban families have gathered since 1969 and feasted on delicious saffron rice dishes with seafood or chicken in a creole sauce. The best bet is pierna con mojo, roasted pork leg bathed in a garlic-citrus sauce, then crisped with onions on a grill. Occasionally, the dish can come out dry, but just ask for more mojo to compensate.
2328 Pico Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90006
Downey has the largest number of Cuban residents in California. That’s a challenge for Yolanda Florean, who makes sure the dishes reflect “authentic” flavors. The chicken here is the way to go, but also try the bistec empanizado, the Cuban version of chicken-fried steak. Squeeze lots of lime and put raw onions on it. The beans are among the best around. Both the arroz con pollo (chicken with yellow rice) and ropa vieja (shredded beef stew) are exemplary here.
10025 Lakewood Blvd, Downey, CA 90240.
Though the decor can seem austere, La Cubana sports a rather impressive espresso machine and some nicely framed photos on the wall. Rabo encendido, or oxtail stew, is among the special dishes at this Glendale institution. Yuca con mojo (cassava with garlic sauce) is a perfect side dish, and there’s toasted Cuban bread to help sop up the meat and sauce.
A plate of vaca frita (literally translated as “fried cow”) will redefine caramelized beef with a sweetish garlic glaze and onions, but be sure to apply lime juice. Desserts here show why Cuba is famous for sugarcane. The candied, syrupy guava shells and even more syrupy shredded coconut come with a small slab of cream cheese to cut the extreme sweetness. Also try the natilla catalana, a Spanish version of crème brulee.
801 S Glendale Ave. #3. Glendale, CA 91205
Luis Montes de Oca’s family hails from Santa Clara, Cuba, right in the middle of the island. Luis’s father opened and later sold the first Versailles restaurant in Los Angeles. His son carries on the tradition of that great kitchen in the South Bay with lechon asado that is as tender and juicy as it gets, with mojo and onions lavished on top. It’s hard to decide between that and the rabo encendido.
The Arroz Frito Chino Cubano (Cuban-Chinese fried rice) comes chock full of the usual veggies, but diners can add on ham, pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, more vegetables, and even maduros (sweet plantains). Order the mariquitas (fried plantain chips) as an appetizer and try not to eat the whole plate before the entrees arrive. Montes de Oca will tell stories of visiting Miami every year and eating “things I can’t get here.” His kitchen might be as close to Little Havana’s Calle Ocho as one can get in LA.
3615 Inglewood Ave. Redondo Beach, CA 90278
Black-and-white tiles on the floor and brightly painted walls in this former garage create a nice vibe. Maybe it sounds odd, but Mambo’s makes tostones filled with shrimp and pico de gallo. The dish makes for a delightful fusion treat. They press tostones into small cups and fry them to a crisp. Ordering the delicious pork tamale is risky because it’s so filling. Instead, opt for the picadillo, a beef hash in tomato with onions and olives. The lechon asado comes roasted then lightly crisped on the flat-top grill before they sauce on thick, heavy garlic mojo.
1701 Victory Blvd. Glendale, CA 91201
Porto’s Bakery & Café
Rosa Porto grew up in Cuba surrounded by the aroma of sweet baked goods her mother made based on recipes from her native Spain. After deciding to leave Cuba after it fell to the Castro revolution, Rosa lost her job and started selling pastries from her home to neighbors and friends, building a strong reputation. After receiving permission to emigrate, Rosa and husband Raul settled in California and opened their first store in Echo Park in 1976. Fast forward and Porto’s has built a veritable empire with five locations across Southern California, with her children helping to manage the business. They eventually added savory dishes to complement the pastry and cake menus.
It’s hard to beat the mariquitas here, cut long and thin and served with a small cup of garlic sauce. The true stars are the pastelitos, small Cuban pastries made of many layers and filled with picadillo or guava or cream cheese, or cream cheese and guava. The Cuban sandwich and the ropa vieja sandwich are two of the best belly-filling bargains in town. The lines — and there are always lines — move quickly.
614 W Magnolia Blvd. Burbank, CA 91505 and other various locations.
Born in Cuba, Alejandro Benes is a chef and restaurateur in Southern California, and is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado.