Athens' Cuban connection 

Despite a name change, Salsa Rock Cafe is still caliente

Athens is known for many things: football, booze, indie rock and barefoot hippies are among the most obvious. Though all of these facets of Athenian life help to make up its enchanting fabric, sometimes these characteristics overshadow lesser-known qualities that the small college town possesses. Case in point, Athens' booming Latino community.

Anybody seen my baby?: Caliente Cab has always been one of my favorite Athens' haunts, so I was startled when I learned that its name had been changed. I worried that its magic had changed, too. Thankfully, it hasn't. Despite a recent name change to Salsa Rock Cafe and modifications to the restaurant's layout, nothing was done to dilute the spirit of the eatery. Its pseudo-beachfront atmosphere and rich Cuban offerings continue to court the affections of both Latinos and gringos alike.

Qué Rico!: On the night that I went to Salsa Rock Cafe, the place was not as busy as usual. The fullness of the tip jar, though, indicated that I had just missed the dinner rush. The menu at Salsa Rock is user friendly -- thus eliminating the guesswork for its American clientele -- and ranges from Cuban sandwiches to chicken-stuffed tacos dorados and bistec palomilla (grilled steak with rice).

Deviating from my usual maduros ($2.25), Salsa Rock's sweet, slightly salty fried plantains, I got the deep-fried yucca ($2.75) as a starter. The fried yucca was golden brown, and within the first bite its crisp exterior gave way to a starchy yet creamy interior. No question that these yucca fries could strong-arm any french fry, any day.

El Rico Tamal ($5.95) with pork is one of my favorite dishes: Luscious, supple pork and wilted green bell peppers are engulfed in a moist cornmeal skin. The tamale is served with a salsa verde whose initial smoky flavor is soon followed by a rich, spicy aftertaste. It makes a perfect match for the steamed pork and the somewhat bland cornmeal casing.

The vegetarian offerings at Salsa Rock present their own appeal, though the cooks are better with meat. The Veggie Cuban ($5.95) is stuffed with sauteed onions and mushrooms smothered in melted mozzarella. The grilled sandwich is worth a try, though it would be even better without the withered, slightly chewy cooked lettuce that mars its texture.

Cuba 101: The hamburger ($5.95) is one of the few items on the menu that deviates from the strictly Cuban inspired lineup. Despite its American essence, Salsa Rock's version is one of the best I've ever had. When the grilled, juicy patty is paired with the addictive maduros, it feels just as Cuban as the rest of the menu. And that's just what Salsa Rock Cafe does best: It takes the heart of Cuban cuisine and immerses it in American culture. The mix tastes delicious.


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