Restaurant Reviews

Let the Food of El Sazon de Cuba Put You in a Miami State of Mind

Miami, baby. Miami.

Whenever he said the name of the city, he got a wistful look in his eyes, as if he were actually picturing walking along the beach in the hot Florida sun or eating a Cubano under the shade of a palm tree. He moved here from Miami, and even though he likes Houston, he still has Miami on the mind. That's part of the reason he loves being in the restaurant. It may be Cuban cuisine, but the vibe is all Miami, "Gateway to the Americas," the Cuban sandwich capital of the country.

It's only fitting then that Julio Iglesias, co-owner of El Sazon de Cuba (not the singer), makes a perfect Cubano.

He starts with Cuban bread, like white French bread only with more fat, often lard, mixed into the dough. He butters the bread, then smears a generous helping of mayonnaise on one side. On top of that goes a layer of ham, then roasted pork. On the other slice of bread, a squirt of mustard, a few pickles and several slices of Swiss cheese. He places the halves together, squishing them a little in his hands before laying the sandwich on a hot panini grill. He grabs the handle of the lid and presses it down, searing brown burn marks into the top of the bread.

As the sandwich warms and starts to sizzle, Iglesias sways to the rhythm of the Buena Vista Social Club playing over the speakers. You can see he's thinking of Miami, of the street-corner stands with hot griddles where vendors serve up Cubanos on the go. Somehow, as if by magic, he infuses a bit of that culture into every sandwich.

That's what makes it the best Cubano in Houston, and well worth the drive out to Highway 6, to a small shopping center where the unassuming Cuban restaurant is tucked into a corner next to a church. From inside the res­taurant, you can often hear percussion, loud thumping bass notes coming from the church. I don't know what's going on next door, but when I closed my eyes and bit into my Cubano sandwich with the staccato drum beat reverberating in my ears, I felt as if I, too, could be in Miami.

Iglesias's family moved to Miami from Cuba years ago, bringing with them their recipes for traditional dishes that made the homesickness a little more bearable. When Iglesias decided to attend college in Houston, the family came with him, settling into the Addicks area of town, which Iglesias says is home to a large Cuban population.

Now he works two jobs to support his family. During the day, he has an office job. He wears pressed, button-down shirts — though always in bright, tropical hues — and a tie with slacks and shiny shoes. In the evening, he comes to the restaurant, where he unbuttons his shirt, rolls up his sleeves and plays host to whoever might wander in for dinner. More often than not, it's fellow Cuban immigrants, families like his who come by for food that reminds them of the island.

He guarantees the cuisine is authentic, not just because the recipes are his family's, but also because his uncle recently moved here from Cuba to work in the kitchen. He makes traditional dishes like ropa vieja (shredded marinated beef) and congris (black beans and white rice), but he also likes to experiment.

One of the best dishes I had at El Sazon de Cuba is the enchilado, which is nothing like a Tex-Mex enchilada. It's a spicy garlic, onion, tomato and olive oil sauce with cumin and paprika that's generally served over shrimp on a bed of rice. Iglesias's wife encouraged me to try it with chunks of fresh fish — her uncle's specialty — and I was blown away by the flavorful sauce and the way I could still taste the delicate white fish through the earthy chile powder and oil. I asked her to make it extra-spicy, and the kitchen delivered. The bright red sauce had chunks of jalapeño and slices of green olives swimming in it among the diced garlic and wilted cilantro. No enchilado recipe I've seen before had all these different elements in one dish. It's an Iglesias original.

The filete relleno isn't unique to the Iglesias family, but it is unique to Cuba. In Mexico, a stuffed fish is usually filled with more seafood or peppers and onions, but in Cuba, it's essentially a Cuban sandwich with fish as the bread. A whole white fish (whatever the restaurant gets in from the market) is stuffed with spiced cheese and slices of ham, then covered in a cornmeal batter and fried. It's not like most fried fish with a thin, flaky batter, though. The crust on this fish is like an eggshell, and the delicate flesh and cheese inside like the buttery yolk.

Many dishes are fried in Cuba, but unlike deep-fried seafood with a crunchy batter, pork gets a milanesa batter, which lends itself better to the meat. A bone-in pork chop is coated in egg, flour and pepper before pan-frying, so the meat inside stays juicy while the exterior gets crisp and brown.

This dish and many others are served with a side of unripe plantains that have been sliced and flattened before they, too, are fried. Plantains are very starchy, and the thick slices need a lot of salt to enhance the flavor, but once you shake some on, they taste like rich potato chips with a hint of sweetness.

The ripened plantains are even sweeter than the unripe ones because the starch changes to sugar as the fruit matures. These are sliced lengthwise and fried even longer, until they're dark brown and practically dripping with sticky syrup. Though sweet, they're served as sides with savory dishes, but the pairing works. Seafood and plantains are as natural in Cuba as a burger with fries is here.

A dish that Houstonians might be more familiar with is the empanada. One empanada is on the appetizer menu for $1.75, and it's a mighty large pre-meal snack. The pastry is flaky and crisp, and little bubbles form on the outside while it's frying, making the shell even lighter and more fragile. Break it open and you'll find spiced ground beef and potatoes enveloped in a pocket of hot air. If you're dining with a friend, be sure to order two, in spite of the size. You'll be fighting over them.

And then there's the pizza, a familiar dish for sure, but something that seems out of place in a Cuban restaurant. Not so, Iglesias will tell you. It's a popular street food in Cuba and some parts of Miami, but it's also, as he says, a labor of love. It takes about an hour to prepare because it's all made from scratch. The dough is pressed by hand into a cast-iron pan, then it's topped with a special tomato sauce that's heavy on the onions. It gets a hearty sprinkling of cheese and, if you wish, slices of ham that brown a little in the oven. The crust is thick and chewy, and the cheese and ham topping reminiscent of a Cubano, only in pizza form. It's indicative of the blend of cultures in Cuba — the mingling of classic Cuban flavors with a dish that's popular around the world.

"We basically live at the restaurant," Iglesias explains by way of apology. El Sazon is full, but I'm the only customer. Everyone else is there for his daughter's fifth birthday party. The theme is Frozen, the Disney movie, and the little girl has just changed into a dress like the one worn by the main character in the film. The Buena Vista Social Club has been turned off, and the Frozen sound track is playing instead.

"We're always here," he says. "So we had to have the party here. I hope that's okay."

It's wonderful. I sit there by myself drinking an Iron Beer (like a fruity Dr Pepper) and eating a Cubano and witnessing this big family come together for each other.

"Go back to the party," I keep telling Iglesias. "I'm good. Go spend time with your family."

"I am," he says. "But I have to work, too. You gotta work for the dream."

This restaurant is his dream — bringing the food he remembers from family trips to Cuba and a childhood in Miami here, to his small corner of Houston. This is why he works two jobs and why his mother gets up every morning and makes velvety flan and why his uncle moved from an island paradise to the urban jungle.

It's clear from the way Iglesias talks about Miami that he'd rather be there. He jingles the gold chains around his neck and rubs his goatee while he tells me that he's still a Miami boy. The move to Houston was better for his career, though, and ultimately better for his family.

So for now, until he can get back to the Magic City with its palm-lined beaches and the smell of roasting pork wafting down the streets of little Havana, he's here, making food that reminds him of that makes even this native Texan dream of Miami, too.

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Kaitlin Steinberg