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Cuban Classic

Cafe Latina's staff may cross cultures, but the food is pure island

It probably should have been preceded by a drum roll, but instead, the faux-wood bowl slid through a curtained opening between Cafe Latina's kitchen and dining area with no fanfare whatsoever. Picked up and placed on a counter, it looked like the subject of some great unknown painter of Caribbean still lifes: the dark brown of the faux wood played off against the deep orange-yellow of the rice that threatened to overflow its container. Dots of whole green olives and red pimento slices added accents, as did the light pink of shrimp and the dark blue-black of what appeared to be mussels in their shells. All that was missing was a placard to identify the piece of art, say, something on the order of Paella Perfecto.

Not that anyone in the tiny restaurant just east of Shepherd on Fairview was particularly interested in visuals; taste was what mattered. And after the dish, identified on the menu as paella a la Valenciana, was taken to a table of eight boisterous diners, tasting was all that was done. One especially seemed enchanted by the plateful of food before him. As he lifted a glass of wine, some words emblazoned on the front of his T-shirt became visible, and helped explain some of his pleasure. "Not only am I perfect," the words said, "I'm also Cuban!"

If so, he was in the right place. The mix-and-match decor, which is more Mexican meets Chinese than Cuban, may not shout it, but Cafe Latina is one of the best sources of solid, down-to-earth Cuban cuisine in the city. There's little here -- from the day-in-advance-order, four-person-minimum paella to the fork-tender pork to the ethereally fried fish to the basic sides of rice and black beans -- that's not done well. And what isn't prepared at the high level of everything else -- the desserts and salads, in particular -- doesn't really matter. Why? Because by the time you've finished eating an entree, you probably won't have room for dessert. And as for the salads ... well, anyone who comes to Cafe Latina to dine on a salad is in the wrong restaurant to begin with.

Not that I'm a completely unbiased observer. I confess. I'm a sucker for hole-in-the-wall cafes, especially ones where none of the silverware or plates match. Cafe Latina lends further credence to my conviction that fine appearances aren't needed for fine dining; it is not a fancy place. Tables are placed so close to each other that you end up being a party to a stranger's dinner conversation. And if you're looking for the nonsmoking section, forget it.

Decor is not a strong point. There's a curious 3-D, backlit moving picture of Niagara Falls propped on the counter, a lone poinsettia branch is tacked to one wall and two sofa-sized pictures of Cuba adorn another. A pay phone hangs by the door. And the bathrooms are so tiny that, as one very pregnant woman announced indelicately to everyone within earshot of her table, "I had to sit sideways."

Perusing the eclectic surroundings, listening to the frenetic Spanish, one could easily be transported to Havana. During the day, the ten or so tables are filled with a mix of American and Hispanic businessmen, while at night, singles blend in with Cuban families.

The restaurant was originally named Cardet's, after Hector Cardet, the man who opened it and introduced Houston to Cuban food in the late '60s. Years ago, when I first discovered this place, I didn't think twice about the waitstaff being Asian, since a blend of Chinese and Cuban has been common since the 18th century, when Chinese laborers were imported to help work the sugar plantations. But as I discovered, there was more to the story than that: Cafe Latina is actually owned by a Korean family.

Myongki Lee, a Korean businessman, bought the place from Cardet in 1983. Actually, he didn't exactly buy the restaurant -- he bought the small food market next door. Cafe Latina simply came along as part of the deal. Though Lee knew groceries, not cafes, he decided to give the restaurant a try anyway. He hired a new cook, who trained for a month under the wings of Cardet's wife. The new cook, like the new owner, was Korean, and apparently couldn't quite get the hang of the unfamiliar food she was expected to prepare. Customers noticed and business suffered. Fortunately for Lee, who still runs the small attached grocery, Miriam Hernandez, a Cuban cook who had worked for Cardet for many years, was fed up with early retirement and wanted to return to familiar surroundings. She was welcomed with open arms.

Smart on Lee's part, and lucky for us. That was more than a decade ago, and Hernandez is still there, faithfully preserving her culinary heritage. At Cafe Latina, each meal starts with a small, nondescript salad of shredded iceberg lettuce topped with a thin slice of tomato. Olive oil and vinegar, which sit in containers on every table, combine for the only dressing available. The bread basket includes a few strips of a soft, spongy Cuban bread and some Cuban crackers that aren't unlike large oyster crackers in taste and texture. These bland starters give no indication of the pleasures to follow. There are, for example, the daily soups, which would be better listed as daily stews. Of particular note are the garbanzo bean and green pea soups, thick with their namesake vegetables, potatoes and flavorings of meat. There's also the mariquitas appetizer, a flurry of razor-thin, lightly fried plantain chips that surround a small bowl of mojo sauce. For garlic lovers, mojo is nirvana; sauteed in olive oil and bitter orange, then mixed with scallions into a thin paste, the garlic gives mojo its traditional bite. It's addictive on the crisp chips, and equally addictive when spooned atop Pierna de Puerco Asada, a roast loin of pork not only topped by but flavored throughout by the mojo sauce in which it is cooked. Thin slices of pork cascade onto the plate, topped off with slices of raw onion and some chopped scallions.

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