Cheap Eats - Little Cuba

Relief for Cuban-starved Atlanta

Tuesday August 25, 2009 09:00 am EDT

Cuban food in Atlanta has its limitations. Yes, we are blessed with spots such as the exceedingly warm Las Palmeras. But Atlanta’s Cuban cuisine scene has taken a big hit in the past year. Havana caught on fire, and the sweet owner of Kool Korners closed his restaurant to everyone’s dismay. Both have since opened in other less convenient locations — Canton and Alabama, respectively. But that doesn’t help the rest of us folks pining for a little taste of Cuba closer to home.

Little Cuba (3350 Chamblee Tucker Road, Suite D, Chamblee. 770-451-0025) is not a new restaurant, but it deserves a little love for its massive menu of classic Cuban dishes. The restaurant has managed to receive very little press in the 10 years it's been open. But the seats have been filled every time I've dined here, and a wait at lunchtime is not uncommon.

In the spirit of Cuban joints that specialize in coffee, fresh-pressed juices and small bites, Little Cuba serves a nice selection of fried goods that are all made in house. The croquets are crisp and stuffed with an abundance of chopped ham. The crust of the empanadas is flaky without the excess oil, and the picadillo stuffing is a pitch-perfect balance of salt, beefiness and slow-cooked vegetables. The restaurant also serves an assortment of sides such as tostones, maduros and sticky fried yucca.

If you are looking for the next great Cuban sandwich spot, this sadly isn’t the place. While the fillings in both the Cuban sandwich and Medianoche (a Cuban made with sweet bread) are typical of any real Cuban-owned sandwich spot — including the delicious home-cooked pork — the kitchen misses the most important step: pressing the sandwich until all of the fillings are compacted. Without this, the cheese is unmelted and the bread too soft for any of the hallmark crackling you come to expect from a great Cuban.

There's normally some sort of lunch special listed on the blackboard outside. One special, the arroz con pollo, fell flat and was woefully underseasoned. But the vaca frita (fried cow/beef) — shreds of flank steak marinated in sherry, garlic and onion — have that trademark crispness and sweetness from the slivers caramelized onions that lay entangled with the beef. Each special comes with a large mound of golden yellow rice and a bowl of tender black beans swimming in a smoky broth. It’s a huge amount of food for $6.25.

Sweet things and coffee are a major part of the Cuban dining experience. And Little Cuba has quite the assortment of cakes and other treats. The dense flan's caramel topping has that hint of singed sugar and an interesting floral finish. A few bites intermingled with sips of a strong cortadito (aka Cuban crack — strong espresso sweetened with cane sugar) with an impressive crema is a lovely way to end the meal.

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