For the many years I've spent in Montrose -- as a visitor and, later, as a resident -- I'd never stopped to eat at the little clapboard Latina Cafe on Fairview, no matter how many times I passed it. I decided to rectify this oversight last night, and stopped into the cheerful cafe on a gloomy, soggy Monday evening.
A kid that couldn't have been more than 15 or 16 years old sprung up from his position in front of a telenovela when I walked in. I was the only one in the restaurant -- which I'm told is absolutely packed at lunchtime -- and he seemed excited to have a table to wait on. I settled in to a little table by a window with a good view of the telenovela and ordered a Negra Modelo.
"What's that?" the kid asked me.
"It's a beer," I laughed as I pointed to the menu.
"Oh, we don't sell that anymore. We lost our license," he frowned. Duly noted for future reference.
I asked him to bring me a "Cuban soda," as it was listed on the menu.
"Are you sure?" he asked with a slightly sour face. "It tastes like pineapple and bubble gum..."
I felt like my little brother was waiting on me. I already loved this place.
Coming back to the table a few minutes later with a can of Jupina, the kid watched as I cracked it open and tried a sip. "Not bad!" I smiled. He looked relieved. (I was a little relieved, myself, as I was worried this would be another Cooler Coke disaster, a la Postobon or Colombiana La Nuestra.)
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SHOW ME HOW
Perusing the menu, I was tempted to order the classic Cuban ropa vieja, but something else caught my eye: vaca frita, which is closely related to ropa vieja but cooked slightly differently. I ordered it purely because phrase "fried cow" amused me. Simple pleasures...
Like most criollo dishes, vaca frita is served with rice, black beans and plantains. I could have eaten an entire plate of just Latina Cafe's wonderful black beans and sweet plantains, cooked up by a woman that appeared to be my waiter's mother. The vaca frita itself is simply flank steak that's been marinated in lime and orange juices and cooked up in a skillet with some oil until it's slightly crispy. Think Cuban fajitas, but with shredded beef and not served on a comal. It's a wonderful marriage: crunchy edges mingle with softer, more tender bites of beef, the fattiness totally offset by the citrusy tang.
Because I filled up on the plantains, rice and beans and because the serving of vaca frita was easily enough for two people, I ended up taking most of the meat home. I can attest to the fact that the vaca frita is even better the next day, warmed up in a cast-iron skillet and served with a fried egg on top for breakfast.
I've been told that Latina Cafe's Cuban sandwiches are even better than the dish I tried last night. Good to know, as it looks like I've finally fallen in love with a place that most of the city has known about for years.