Judging from the mail and e-mail that come across my desk, it's clear that Mexican and Italian are the reigning ethnic cuisines in the Las Vegas Valley (although you'd think we could be a little more creative than the rest of the country). A close third would be Chinese -- it seems that everyone's always looking for a good Chinese restaurant, or lamenting one that has gone out of business -- and Indian and Thai are coming on strong. A Cuban, a rich and storied cuisine, is among those that remain lost in the shuffle. The fact that Las Vegas has a relatively large -- and, like everything else in the valley, growing -- Cuban community makes this a little surprising, until you remember that the popularity of a cuisine often is fueled by those outside its corresponding ethnic group.
One of the few Cuban restaurants in the valley is Florida Cafe, owned and operated by a Cuban native. There you'll find staples such as ropa vieja and bistec de Palomilla.
Remember what I said about the cuisine of Cuba being rich and storied? How much more storied can you get than a dish that translates literally to "old clothes"? That would be the ropa vieja ($8.99). The name has a lot to do with the fact that this dish tends to be comfort food, even if you didn't grow up with it. It also has to do with the texture of the dish, in which beef -- traditionally, flank steak -- is braised, shredded and cooked with seasonings including garlic, onion, green pepper, chiles and tomato paste. The deep, earthy flavor of the dish stems from long cooking and the natural affinity of tomato and sofrito (which has endless variations but generally involves at least olive oil, onion, garlic and bell pepper) for beef. Florida Cafe's ropa vieja was characterized by all of that and more, the more being the fact that it was on the greasy side.
Better was bistec de Palomilla ($8.99), a dish that always impresses me if it's done well. What's impressive about it is that it's essentially a round steak that somebody's pounded like heck until it was about 1/4-inch thick, then marinated in lime juice and garlic and fried. It doesn't sound like much and doesn't sound like it would be very tender, but it's wonderful if done well, and at Florida Cafe it is.
Both entrees were accompanied by a bowl of black beans and a mound of rice. The beans were both just soft enough and served with just enough liquid, but they would have profited from a bit more in the way of seasoning.
Cuban bread was served on the side, too -- sliced and buttered instead of in the traditional chunk from a long loaf. The wine was pretty prosaic and the beer was Mexican, that pesky trade embargo making it a little difficult to get authentic Cuban products, at least legally.
We also sampled a number of appetizers and side dishes to complete the meal. A traditional croqueta ($3.25), filled with cheese and served with a slice of cheese, a slice of ham and some saltines, was crisp-crusted on the outside, melted within, but it was on the bland side, as were the ham and cheese served with it. Better was the chorizo frito ($3.25), sausage sliced and sautéed with onions. Of the two types of plantains available at Florida Cafe -- the sweet ripe and the firmer green -- we tried the latter, platanos verdes ($1.99), and found them to have the crisp crust, firm texture and starchy flavor we were expecting. They were great, but one caveat: I think platanos verdes probably are an acquired taste.
Dessert? How could we not try the flan? We did, and found it ($3) rich and creamy, its carmelized sugar suitably light.
Service through was utilitarian, and that pretty much sums up the atmosphere, although it's brightened by such things as tropical art, palm-tree-shaped mirrors and the like. And while the floor needed a good sweeping early in the evening, our overall impression was one of cleanliness, which was reinforced when we noticed, on the way out, an employee scrubbing and disinfecting the legs of the tables.
Such dedication seems to characterize much about Florida Cafe.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are unannounced and done anonymously at Review-Journal expense.