Cuban Classic

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.

That mojo sauce can be found across the menu, on, for example, the baked chicken, which is admirably moist and fall-off-the-bone tender. One of the few places it doesn't lend aid is with the fried snapper, which doesn't need it; the accompanying lemon wedges are all that's required. Actually, "fried" is an odd word to use here, as it is with the fried chunks of pork listed as the mainstay of one dish. The only evidence of any frying is a thin, crinkly crust on both fish and pork; no breading, no heavy taste of oil, just a crisp exterior that embraces interior meat of astonishing delicacy. One daily special deserving particular mention is the Filete de Pescado Jardinera -- a sauteed white fish filet, normally ocean perch, prepared with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes in a white wine sauce. This preparation turns an otherwise bland white fish into an exotic, very tasty dish.

All entrees are served with a heaping helping of glistening white rice where every grain is as it should be, totally separate, as well as a communal bowl of wonderfully seasoned, soupy black beans known as moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians) to ladle over the rice. All dishes are also served with either sweet plantains (platanos maduros) or green plantains (tostones). The sweet variety, sauteed to a dark golden brown, taste like the soft, ripe bananas that they are, while the green version is first sliced, then pressed together and fried to a much lighter golden hue.

For those whose sweet tooths demand dessert, there's not much solace. The flan, while acceptable, isn't particularly memorable, and a run-of-the-mill, cinnamon-topped rice pudding is too sweet and gelatinous. A better topper to a meal is cafe con leche or cafe cubano, both made with sweetened, jet-black espresso that's certain to increase your heart rate at least a couple of beats.

In its ramshackle building, Cafe Latina seems an odd companion to the $200,000 plus townhomes that have been popping up around it in larger and larger numbers. But then again, it could be that one of the things that makes these new structures so valuable is that they have a restaurant such as Cafe Latina as a neighbor.

Cafe Latina, 1972 Fairview, 522-3394.

Cafe Latina:
paella a la Valenciana, $10.95 per person (four person minimum);
Filete de Pescado Jardinera, $6.95;
Pierna de Puerco Asada, $6.95;
garbanzo bean soup, $1.75 (small), $2.25 (large);
flan, $1.50;
cafe cubano, 75 cents.

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