Blue Ribbon Award: Florida Cafe Cuban Bar & Grill

Las Vegas, NV (KTNV) - Every Wednesday Contact 13 takes you inside some of the dirtiest restaurants in the Valley. This week we are introducing something new, the Blue Ribbon award. It will celebrate those places that are doing business right.

Florida Cafe Cuban Bar and Grill is on Las Vegas Boulevard just south of Charleston. It's been open since 1998 and is a restaurant with a good record. The latest visit by the Southern Nevada Health District was to inspect the new buffet now serving up Cuban dishes on the weekends. The results were zero demerits with food at the right temperatures and a clean set up, safe for waiters and customers enjoying the food.

Contact 13's Tricia Kean stopped by to congratulate the owner, Sergio Perez. The Florida Cafe Cuban Bar and Grill has consistently earned an A grade with the exception of one C grade in 2001.

The Florida Cafe wasn't the only recent restaurant to receive zero demerits. The Dive Bar on East Tropicana and the Michael Mina Restaurant at the Bellagio did as well.

Filling a Void: Florida Cafe dishes out Cuban food without the fanfare of other ethnic cuisines

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.

Florida Cafe offers a taste of Cuba on its menu

Not just anyone can cook Cuban food! Especially at the Florida Cafe, 1401 Las Vegas Blvd. South, inside Howard Johnson. That's because chef-owner Sergio Perez won't let anyone else prepare the dishes. After working in the travel industry in Cuba, Perez came to Las Vegas in 1992, where his mother and a good-sized Cuban community resided. He worked in a Cuban restaurant here before opening Florida Cafe in 1997. "Sergio is up at 4 a.m. every day and in the restaurant at 5," says his wife and cafe co-owner Andrea Perez, who translates for Sergio. "He's never missed a day. He won't let anyone else cook."

Sergio was taught to cook by his mother and grandmother in Cuba, and he brought that authenticity to the United States, Andrea Perez says.

Breakfast, served from 7 to 11 a.m., includes some American-style items, such as French toast, bacon and eggs, plus the Cubano breakfast, with two eggs, two stuffed potatoes and sweet plantains and toast; croquetta breakfast with two eggs, sweet plantains, toast and two croquettes; and two eggs with white rice, sweet plantains and toast ($6.20 each). Appetizers include corn tamales ($3.25); sliced fried sausage ($2.75); pork skin ($2); stuffed potatoes ($3.99); rolled-up ham and cheese ($4.95); and avocado salad ($2.75). Seafood dishes also are featured on the menu, such as jumbo shrimp in Spanish sauce ($10.95); breaded shrimp ($10.95); fried swordfish ($10.25); codfish in a red Spanish sauce ($10.25); and red salmon in a garlic sauce ($12). All are served with black beans and rice.

And there's an extensive list of beef and chicken dishes, served with white rice and black beans, a rice and beans mixture, or french fries: ground beef and olives ($7.99); rump roast stuffed with sausage ($8.25); shredded beef ($8.25); marinated leg of pork ($8.99); sliced chicken breast sautŽed in garlic, onion, green pepper and tomato ($8.99); and chicken with yellow rice ($8.99). Sergio also has put together a selection of pizzas, made with a choice of cheese ($5) and vegetable, shredded beef, codfish, cured beef, ground beef, pineapple, sliced fried sausage and ham ($6 each).

And, of course, a Cuban restaurant needs a Cuban sandwich: The Cubano has ham and pork pressed between slices of Cuban bread ($4.75). Other sandwich items to choose from are grilled ham and cheese ($4.99); steak, pork, croquettes, chicken, sliced sausage ($4.75 each); and vegetarian ($4.50). For the kids, there's a selection of American classics, including a bacon cheeseburger ($5.99); hamburger ($4.49); hamburger club, with a double beef patty and bacon ($6.19); and a chicken breast club ($6.19). Side orders include fried cassava ($2.25), cassava in garlic sauce ($1.95), fried plantains ($1.95) and sweet fried plantains ($1.95).

Florida Cafe's dessert menu includes caramel custard and ice cream ($3.85), guava shells in syrup ($3), shredded coconut ($3) and an ice cream sundae ($4).

In addition to soft drinks from Cuba, Brazil and Peru, the restaurant serves coffees and beer and wine.

Florida Cafe, which seats 64 people, is open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Reservations are requested for parties of six or more (385-3013).

Appetizers is a weekly informational column about new developments on the Las Vegas dining scene. Items should not be considered reviews or recommendations and none is a paid advertisement.

A taste of Cuba for a price that's right.

The Scene: Located on the seedier side of the Strip, amidst a motley assortment of ethnic restaurants and run down wedding chapels, this is a friendly standout. Cheerful yellow walls, a Moorish blue tiled fountain and wide French doors make this ethnic eatery an inviting place for a down-home Cuban meal.

The Food: Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served, but when it comes to authentic Cuban cooking, it's dinner that proves to be the star of the show. The menu is broad: a variety of main dishes including chicken, fish, pork and beef, usually laden with garlic, onion, peppers or sausage. Our favorite? The marinated pork leg--succulent chunks of lean pork nestled beside white rice and cumin-laced black beans. Don't forget a side of fried plantains. Crisp and sweet, they're oh-so good.

Editorial content is independent of paid advertisers. Visits are made anonymously, and expenses are paid for by Citysearch.

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