Cubanitas – Milwaukee

August 27, 2007

Short Take – Cuban cuisine done well. Colorful, fun setting. Very affordable.

Long Take – Some weeks ago, Higgins and Willamina met two friends, Ludmilla and Pavel, for dinner in downtown Milwaukee. They were looking for somewhere new, somewhere fun, somewhere all of our food preferences would be well served. (Pavel doesn’t eat red meat. Ludmilla is a vegetarian. And Higgins and Willamina? Well, they are rather “particular.”) After looking over a few options, Cubanitas was chosen.

Cubanitas doesn’t accept reservations, but when Higgins called and spoke to the hostess, he was told that seating wouldn’t be difficult if they arrived before 6:30 pm. Higgins and Willamina arrived at the restaurant around 6 and had their choice of tables in or out. Not a fan of dininng on sidewalks, they chose a table inside, near the back (not under one of the many speakers hanging from the ceiling.) Pavel and Ludmilla arrived a little before 6:30. At the time of their arrival, there was only a couple of tables left open.

Cuban cuisine is spicy without being hot, flavorful with fruity marinades and sauces. It also commonly uses cumin, something Higgins isn’t very fond of. It is not normally known for its vegetarian options– though Cubanitas addresses this directly in their menu, suggesting that vegetarians combine appetizers to make a full meal. Ludmilla did just that.

We started with some Apertivos.
Empanadas – Higgins and Willamina tried the Picadillo con Queso (ground beef and cheese) and the Pollo (chicken with olives and raisins). Each order came with two medium (3 bites) empandas. We were a little leery of the chicken/olives/raisins combo, but it was very good. Ludmilla and Pavel tried the Espinaca con Queso (spinach and cheese). All of the empanadas were well filled, deep fried without being greasy, crispy and flaky on the outside, and extremely tasty altogether.

Croquettas de Jamon – Higgins and Willamina also ordered the ham croquettes. They were not as we expected. The were tubular in shape, served three to the plate. Inside, the texture was that of a creamy ham salad. It was amazingly good.

While deep frying isn’t a part of traditional cuban cusine, these empanadas and croquettes were wonderful. We almost ordered more of them. We decided to save room for the main menu.

Sandwich Cubano – The classic cuban sandwhich with roasted pork, ham, swiss cheese, a dill pickle, and a mustard spread all pressed between Cuban bread. The menu states “Change it and it’s not a Cuban sandwich!” Admonition not withstanding, Higgins ordered it with mayonaise rather than the mustard spread. The waitress was very gracious about the change and the cooks didn’t come out to express their disgust with his culinary infraction. Cuban Bread is absolutely necessary for this sandwich and makes the whole thing. The bread Cubanitas uses is as authentic as anything in Ybor City. It was, simply put, a delicious sandwich. It went even better with the Black Bean Soup, Higgins ordered as a side dish.
Higgins also ordered a root beer. They didn’t carry the Virgils listed on the menu, but offered a root beer he was unfamiliar with. It was a very good root beer with a very distinctive taste. There was a fruitness to it which normally would have been offputting but worked amazingly well in this brew. Higgins ordered a second one to finish off his meal. (Higgins doesn’t recall the name of this Cuban root beer, but intends to call and find out. When he does, we’ll be sure to let you know, dear readers.)

Pollo Tropical – Pavel ordered the tropical chicken. A chicken breast marinated in tropical juices. As Pavel said, “Chicken and fruit, what isn’t to like?” The chicken was well flavored and cooked properly. It was an enjoyable dish. Pavel was disappointed in his decision to have the Frijoles Colorados (red beans) as his side dish. The red beans were somewhat bland– not nearly as flavorful as the black beans.

Lechon Asado – Willamina ordered the roast pork. Willamina had high hopes for this marinated, slice pork dish–and she was not disppointed. Higgins was looking forward to trying the side of Mojo the meal came with– but once it arrived he changes his mind. (Pieces of boiled Cassava floating in a watery garlic and onion oil. It didn’t look very appetizing.) Willamina assuaged his disappointment by allowing him to have some of the delicious roast pork.

Ludmilla, as mentioned previously, created a vegetarian meal by combining several Ordenes Indviduales (side orders): Platanitos Maduros (sweet plantains), Frijoles Negro (black beans), and Ensalada de la Tia (Aunt’s salad – roasted peppers, tomatoes, and onions in a balsamic vinaigrette.) Ludmilla and Pavel had never had the sweet plantains and ordered them at Higgins’ and Willamina’s strong urging. (They ordered a plate for themselves as well.) The sweet plantains were very tasty. The black beans were also very good. While Ludmilla enjoyed the salad and the dressing, she wasn’t as fond of the overabundance of and oversized nature of the onions it contained. To round out the vegetables, Ludmilla ordered a side of yellow rice, which was mellow, flavorful, and well prepared. Ludmilla also ordered her first Mojito– the national drink of Cuba. She described the drink as “strong, interesting, and very minty.” She didn’t finish it (Ludmilla reminds everyone that her lady-like constitution and good manners preclude her from finishing strong cocktails.)

For Dessert
Flan – Higgins ordered the flan. Higgins is a fan of flan- though his standards are rather high. This flan was not up to his standards. It wasn’t very creamy and the burnt caramel sauce leaned way too much towards the burnt side of the equation.

Brownie con Helado de Coco – Pavel and Ludmilla split this Brownie sunday with coconut ice ceme and rasberry sauce. The brownies and the ice cream were enjoyable– and the portion served was almost more than the two of them could finish.

By the time the four left the restaurant, the tables and the bar were full– and there were people waiting to be seated. The volume level (remember those speakers) is rather high, so low conversation isn’t possible. But, the atmosphere and food isn’t really intended for such a meal. Cubanitas is a place you go to eat, drink, and and be merry with friends and family. It is a place for fun.