When my posse and I walked into Tazablanca, we spotted a familiar sight: On the wall behind the bandstand was a colorful oil painting that we'd last seen hanging at Mambo, the huge, short-lived Cuban restaurant on the site of today's South Park Grille. Mambo opened hot but flopped when the chef walked out. The cooking and the crowds spiraled downhill, while the big Cuban band played on...Tazablanca's owner, Mike Hueso, was in fact a partner in that ill-fated restaurant, and he got custody of the painting.
Tazablanca proves to be a more appropriate and intimate venue for the cuisine, a modest-sized building with walls painted in earth tones, wooden floors, a handsome little bar, and faux-Tiffany hanging lamps. The live band is also smaller and mucho mejor, a trio of violin, keyboard, and bass adeptly playing Latin jazz. A unisex bathroom sports a tropical mural, and an eclectic local crowd runs mostly from their mid-20s to early 40s.
Cuban cuisine itself is neither familiar nor exotic but homey in a tropical way. Closer to Spanish than to Mexican food, with African influences, it's generous with garlic and onions and sparing with hot peppers. It shares with the rest of the Spanish Caribbean a reliance on tropical foodstuffs -- starchy yuca root, plantains at every stage of maturity, sweet peppers, sour citruses (Seville oranges, lemons, and limes), and ground annatto seed to lend dishes a golden color. A key condiment is mojo -- a blend of citrus, garlic, and onions -- used as both a marinade and a sauce in numerous dishes, especially roasts and grills. Another common flavoring mixture is sofrito, a Caribbean version of the Cajun "holy trinity" -- onions, garlic, and mild green peppers sautéed in olive oil at the start of the cooking process for stews and braises.
Tazablanca's appetizer list consists of an array of Cubanized pan-Latin dishes. Empanadas, for instance, are more characteristic of Chile and Argentina, but here they're made with a choice of two Cuban fillings, ropa vieja or picadillo. The ropa vieja ("old clothes") is made of stewed shredded beef with tomato, onion, and Ortega peppers. (It's also available separately as an entrée, minus the shell.) The flour envelope was large, light, and puffed with air. Its scanty filling tasted authentic but a little dry, possibly from the baking. Papas rellenas, originally from Peru, are mashed potato balls, lightly breaded and deep-fried, concealing a vivacious stuffing of picadillo, Cuban ground-beef hash, redolent of garlic and parsley. Croquetas are common to most Iberian-based cuisines, but here the rendition is atypical: The chicken "croquette" is apparently just a hunk of breaded breast meat, rather than the more usual (and luxurious) mixture of chicken and white sauce.
Our favorite starter was calamares fritos, fried calamari in a light batter (almost a "frizzle"), cooked soft and served with the zesty dip that South Americans call salsa americano, made of mayo, ketchup, and a touch of hot sauce. (The menu identifies it by the Provençale name rouille, which is similar but minus the ketchup.)
Our companions at this dinner were our good neighbors, Laurie and Francisco. The latter, Ecuadoran-born, is a fan of tostones, fried green plantain slices. "In Ecuador, they make these moister," he said sadly as he tasted Tazablanca's rendition. "But then, they're the same at every Cuban restaurant. It seems to be a national difference."
When we started to order our five appetizers à la carte, our accommodating waiter warned us that the portions would be too large. Instead, he offered to combine smaller portions of each on a sampler platter -- which we accepted gratefully. Because of this maneuver, it was sized just right. We only missed two starters: a "quesadilla" of breaded steak, ham, and Swiss cheese, and mini fritas, Cuban-style sliders of dwarf burgers with fries stuffed in the bun.
Fricasé de pollo (chicken fricassee) was everybody's favorite entrée. It's a boneless leg-thigh piece stewed with tomato, capers, green olives, and potatoes, a moist mixture that tastes like home-cooking at its most savory, the sharp garnishes contrasting with the soothing potato. Pollo con ajo offers the same cut marinated in citrus juices and garlic, but the flesh emerged a bit dry.
Lechón is another excellent dish, although it violates every truth-in-labeling law. The word means "suckling pig," but not even pig farmers can afford to serve that delicacy very often -- if ever. In Cuban cuisine, and on Tazablanca's menu, it's come to mean marinated roast hind leg of pork. Instead, the restaurant actually uses a more luscious if less traditional cut, the shoulder butt, roasted bone-in and sliced into steaks before serving. It was delicious, with its crisped bits of fat along the edges and deep flavors from the citrusy mojo marinade and the sautéed diced-and-canned Anaheim peppers heaped on top. (No complaints about canned peppers: They're more digestible than green bells and taste closer to Latin America's mild chile varieties.)
Every night there's a "catch of the day" done "Santiago de Cuba" style, marinated in garlic -- lots of garlic -- plus orange and lime juices and parsley. That night, the fish was white bass from Baja, firm but mild and gently cooked, a neutral canvas to show off the vibrant seasonings.
Each entrée is preceded by a large salad of fresh young greens, cucumber, and tomato slices, with your choice of four dressings served on the side. Our favorite was a tequila-lime mixture with a touch of garlic. The smooth balsamic dressing was a close runner-up. Most entrées come with black beans and white rice, served in separate piles, but the fish were served with an African-influenced combination of both, congrio, along with sweet, seductive fried ripe plantains (plátanos maduros). The latter are also available as an appetizer or, topped with caramel and ice cream, as a dessert.
Next night, my partner and I split a "Cuban sandwich." These are lifesavers on those endless flights to the Caribbean: Miami International's lounge is full of sandwich shops selling the drippy wonders to substitute for the dread polystyrene boxes on the next leg of the trip. They consist of an inch-high array of garlicky Cuban roast pork, sliced deli ham, melted cheese, pickles, and a splash of dressing -- the pork's natural jus and its marinade -- on a wide baguette seared and compacted on a panini grill. The ones at the airport are deliciously messy, oozing right through their wrappings and into your purse. (Don't fly south without one!) Tazablanca's rendition was acceptable but disappointingly drip-free. (The owner later told me that some of the customers objected to the dressing, fearing that it was fatty, so his chef stopped serving it that way. In the future, he plans to give the customers a choice: drip or no-drip versions.) The sandwich came with terrific yuca fries. Yuca is a bland, starchy root, similar to taro, and Cubans usually serve it boiled and dressed with a touch of garlic oil. Here (in a commercial version made by Goya Foods), the roots are precooked, ground, and shaped into tubes rolled in cracker crumbs. These emerge from the deep fryer with delectably crisp exteriors and moist, gooey centers. They really take the "yuck" out of yuca.