Havana good time 

Latin vibe, authentic food vitalize Cuban mainstay Mambo

Restaurants take themselves awfully seriously these days, don't they? I don't blame them -- the competition is ferocious. But it's a pleasure every once in a while to come across a place that's serious about its food, but lighthearted about everything else. Mambo seems to have found that balance. The place just embodies friendliness: I suppose it's the Latin sensibility. From the flamboyant South Beach decor to the affable staff, you just feel welcome from the moment you walk in the door.

Inside, a mural of flamenco dancers covers one pastel-hued wall. A giant fake palm tree sprouts from the center of the room, surrounded by closely spaced tables. On a busy Saturday night, with servers bustling to and fro and the air turning almost steamy from all the laughter and conversation, it makes for a festive scene. Order a mojito or a glass of sangria and watch your bad mood from a long week melt away.

If you're looking for authentic Cuban cuisine, you won't do much better than the menu at Mambo. One of my favorite dishes is masitas de puerco, hunks of juicy roast pork served with yucca fries, marinated onions and moros (black beans and rice cooked together). The contrast of bold and mild flavors -- creamy moros, garlicky chicken, tangy onions -- creates a delicious harmony.

I also love the vaca frita. For one thing, the name means "fried cow." How can you dislike a dish with such a brazen name? Vaca frita is a variation on the classic Cuban dish ropa vieja, in which beef that's been stewed for hours is sauteed at the last minute with onions, green pepper, garlic and spices. The result -- tender shreds of beef that are crispy around the edges -- is fantastic. Croquetas, deep-fried dumplings filled with minced chicken, were just plain fun to eat.

Though I found the fried calamari almost unbearably chewy, I couldn't get enough of the mysterious green dipping sauce that accompanied them. It was familiar-tasting, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it -- cool, creamy, just a hint of cilantro. I finally asked the waiter what was in it, and he coyly replied, "Oh, lots of good stuff." I'll say.

In fact, those words pretty well sum up the experience at Mambo. The mellow-but-festive Latin vibe, the friendly service, the satisfying food: They all conspire to rid you of your troubles. Good stuff indeed.

florence.byrd@creativeloafing.com

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