$13 at La Viña Cuban Cuisine on Richmond

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: La Viña Cuban Cuisine, 9419 Richmond, 713-526-9700

What $13 gets you: Carbs, tons of them. You’d think these Cubans are carbo-loading for a marathon the way they pack them on.

To my undeveloped palate, Cuban cuisine has always seemed like a poor country cousin to Mexican cuisine. Although they share many of the same ingredients—rice, beans, pork—Cuban food often comes off as bland and uninspired. Some blame Castro and the Soviets for dumbing down the menus of Cuban chefs. With local Cubans raving about La Viña, I decided it was time to reassess the state of affairs in Cuban kitchens.

I started things off with a Malta Hatuey ($2), a Guinness-like soda that’s reputed to fortify the weak and sickly. It tasted like watered-down molasses and yeast, cut with a bit of corn syrup. All the traditional Cuban favorites are here, including ropa vieja ($9) and a Cuban sandwich that looked like a bargain for under $4. I settled on a grilled chicken breast with plantains, black beans and rice for $6.95. There was not a hint of spice and the flavors were subtle, yet the meal was extremely satisfying. The chicken breast was tender and juicy, while the plantains had a candied texture that wasn’t too sweet.

I kicked myself for ordering the Malta. I could’ve skipped the beverage and had enough to for a traditional cortado ($2), an espresso with a dash of milk, like everyone else at La Viña.

Recommended? Claro que sí.

La Viña is a window onto Houston’s burgeoning Cuban population. I heard a couple of old guys next to me joking about killing Castro. There are worn-out Cuban tourism posters on the walls. The food, while not awe-inspiring in taste, is down-home and nourishing—especially if you plan to burn some calories the next day...

Bonus point: There’s an appetizer called mariquitas, which, in some Spanish-speaking countries would be translated as “little gay guys.” At La Viña, mariquitas are an appetizer of crispy plantain chips. ¡Qué rico! -- Russell Cobb

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