If the friendly little Cuban lunchroom in the Piquet Market is good enough for Rocket Carl Herrera -- who arrives in his Mercedes, accompanied by his gorgeous wife -- it is certainly good enough for the rest of us poor, non-slam-dunking mortals. At La Cocina de Ninita, the $5.95 blue plates are honest, straightforward, stick-to-your-ribs stuff of the meat-and-exotic-starch Cuban school. The cafe con leche is powerful brew. The guava-and-cream-cheese puff pastries are possessed of a rich, tropical tang. And the scene, presided over by the personable Neno Piquet (son of mama Ninita, now retired, for whom the place is named), feels like a family reunion set to the music of rapidly spoken Spanish.
The mere sight of Piquet's chipper oilcloth table coverings -- some splashed with gaudy poinsettias, others with decorous fruits inside a windowpane grid -- invariably fortifies my spirits. So do the candy-like fried plantains, and the gentle chicken fricassee on Wednesdays, and the black beans that acquire a certain elan with the addition of a little green Trappey's jalapeno sauce. This is one place where even an inexpensive piece of beef like the palomillo steak (a cut as chewy as the economical minute steaks of my parents' struggling youth) can make me happy, thanks to its lime-and-garlic marinade.
On Tuesdays the steam table yields an ingratiating, no-nonsense pile of chewy shredded beef, peppers and onions called ropa vieja (old clothes); it ain't filet, but it works, especially in concert with plantains and black beans. Among the Caribbean starches on parade each week are yuca with garlic sauce and rice souped up with bacon, smoked ham and green pigeon peas. And there are always Cuban snacks as well: sturdy tamales of sweet corn dough seasoned with smoked ham and bell peppers; and nursery-food puffs of mashed potato croquette hiding a cache of ground-meat picadillo. Pleasant stuff, although I cannot recommend Wednesday's asbestos-like fried pork chunks -- surely an acquired taste.
What I do recommend is lingering over a strong black cafe doble or milky con leche (if you want it without sugar, you'll have to ask), soaking up the otherness of the place. Grandparents treating the grandkids, dressed-up young matrons with toddlers and doting husbands in tow, a couple clad in head-to-toe-white, expansive businessmen, retired guys with the afternoon to kill: it's a miniature trip to the Caribbean, Chimney Rock style. Afterwards you can prowl the aisles of the adjoining market tended by Piquet the Elder, who got his family out of Cuba in l962 and ran his first Houston grocery business out of his garage. Now, amid faded photographs of Havana and festive dried gourds, he and his family operate something very like a salon -- one to which outsiders, happily, are more than welcome.
-- Alison Cook
La Cocina de Ninita, 6617 Chimney Rock, 664-1031.
La Cocina de Ninita: daily special, $5.95; cafe con leche, 75 cents; guava and cream cheese pastry, $1.50.