I've never been wont to seek out Cuban food, often finding it the boring, mild-mannered cousin to the much more dynamic and infinitely interesting dishes of nearby Mexico. The level of ignorance this sentiment betrays is alarming and is one I recently determined to remedy. All of which is how I found myself at Paladar in Logan Square for an entry level taste of Cuban cooking.
The Bread & Butter (on the house) that begins each meal here is a simple affair: the Bread itself is airy and chewy like the rather one-note "Italian loafs" on offer at red sauce joints thoughout middle America. Though the Garlic Butter is certainly as advertised, the sweet Cinnamon Sugar version stole my attention, its typical flavors imbuing a level of familiarity into a meal full of firsts.
Anyone like myself that assumed Cuban food would be all muted flavors and comfort should be required to begin their education with the Spicy Avocado Salad ($4.95), a simple plate of mixed greens, sliced avocado, and a fiery blended avocado dressing. Consider my interest past piqued, Cuba.
I must admit that my first taste of Ropa Vieja ($14.95) was improved greatly by its environs; no such help was needed here. The shredded beef has enough pull to recall its primal muscle origins without succumbing to the dry, wet stringiness of mom's pot roast. Burnished and sweet, I'll humor the teeth clinging side of Plantains any day. And though the menu extolls the praises of the house Congri (read: rice and beans), I should've heeded my waiter's hesitance at my request for an upgrade. More akin to Tex-Mex Spanish rice in flavor and texture, I'll stick with the as-offered white rice next time.
Unlike most barely set Jello jigglers, the meal-capping Vanilla Flan ($5.95) here is exemplary. The warmth of the just cooked bits of pineapple contrasts nicely with the cool, creamy round, and I had nary a care that I was missing out on the waiter's preferred bread pudding which was not on offer on my visit.
If a common thread of critique exists amongst ex-pat native diners, it's that no restaurant stacks up to mom's/grandma's/insert-matronly-relative-here's cooking. How fitting a response, then is Paladar, named for the commonplace home restaurants found throughout Havana. And though they certainly don't harken to the familiar dishes of my home, I'll hardly count that a slight as I gain elective credits eating my way through the rest of the menu.