Restaurant is that it offers a pretext to visit the Embry Hills part of the metro area. Not far from Spaghetti Junction and Mercer University, it features plenty of pleasant neighborhoods and some sleepy-looking shops, but lacks such conventional attractions as shopping malls, cinemas or historic sites.
Embry Hills has one draw in Little Cuba Restaurant, and another with the Indian restaurant Shingaar, found at the opposite end of the North Hills strip mall. Driving past the closed-down Kroger, you might find North Hills completely unpromising, and assume from the nondescript sign that Little Cuba is one of those forgettable half-hearted hole-in-the-mall kinds of eateries.
But venture inside and you'll find it surprisingly well-appointed, with a handsome wine and espresso bar, Tiffany-style ceiling lamps, and prominent use of copper and blue marble colors. Near the entrance, a pair of conga drums hangs from the ceiling, while the purple-painted walls sport framed reproductions of Cuban currency and publicity photos of the cast of "I Love Lucy" (which, of course, starred Cuba's Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo).
The "I Love Lucy" motif extends to the menu, with the $5.95 lunch specials named after the sitcom's cast of characters. The "Ricky," for instance, is half a Cuban sandwich with black beans and choice of white or yellow rice. On a recent lunchtime visit, I had an "Ethel 2," a special consisting of two pork chops, an especially soupy side of black beans and yellow rice piled in a cake-like shape. More than Ethel Mertz, the pork chops brought to mind Homer Simpson, having a drool-worthy succulence and topped with a simple relish of chopped onions and parsley. The plate also came with a handful of red-veined malanga chips, the crispness of which contains a nearly imperceptible sweetness.
Be aware, Little Cuba has no compunctions about using butter and olive oil as ingredients, as with the bistec encebollado, steak in onions ($10.95 at dinner), a thin but ample cut of ribeye also cooked in lemon and topped with marinated, slightly seared, chopped onions. The sweetness of the onions gives a subtle boost to many of Little Cuba's dishes. I was tempted by the menu's description of the breaded steak bistec empanizado ("The homemade taste is there! The size unbelievable!"), but ended up quite satisfied with the bistec encebollado's size and taste.
I sampled a few bites of my wife's steak sandwich ($5.95 at lunch), and though the meat in Cuban steak sandwiches, like Philly cheesesteaks, can be tough and flavorless, this had a distinct and welcome beefy flavor. The sandwich was a little dry and chewy, but we'd ordered it without the Swiss cheese, so that's probably our own fault.
The camaron al ajilo ($10.95), or garlic grilled shrimp, featured medium-sized shrimp and garlic cloves chopped into bigger-than-usual pieces. Decadently aromatic, the dish leaves you feeling fortified merely by leaning over it and breathing in.
Among the numerous appetizers are the empanadas ($1.75 each) -- fried picadillo (hash) turnovers that are crunchy on the outside and have meaty, potentially high-temp filling within. They also tend toward oiliness, so you needn't order more than one per person. If you want to make a gesture toward more healthy eating, try the rainbow salad ($2.95 as a side, $3.95 alone), a colorful mixture of shredded Romaine lettuce, hearts of palm, Mandarin orange segments, radishes, red cabbage and carrots that's not quite as exciting to the palate as it is to the eye.
The espresso bar's bakery display case features a retinue of bright pies and cakes. We tried the butternut squash flan ($2.50), a serviceable take on the traditional smooth Spanish custard. The butterscotch sauce dominated, though the squash flavor was still detectable.
Know that Little Cuba can have a high noise level. The ceiling is covered with wood paneling instead of sound-muffling acoustic tile. During one dinner visit, the servers seemed short-handed and a bit overwhelmed, but we got our food in a timely fashion once our orders were placed. The 2-year-old restaurant's dishes are yummy without being knockouts, and it doesn't have the festive flash in cooking and decor of Mambo or Coco Loco. But Little Cuba is a cozy, satisfying spot where you wouldn't expect to find one.
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