After writing about my trip to Miami Cafe and love for Cubanos and the ilk in general, Nab, Joanie and I decided to organize a little crawl amongst a few chowhound.com JP noted establishments.
First, the three of us met up at El Oriental de Cuba at 7:15 sharp. The EOdC has seating for maybe 26 people. Most of the open tables were 2 tops so we waited for about 5 minutes to be seated at one of the 4 tops and we were handed menus almost immediately. About 10 minutes later (we were unsure whether it was counter service or waitress by that point), a waitress took our order. She was a bit perplexed by our request to split one Cubano especial and one order of fried plantains 3 ways but we had 4 more restaurants on the tour so we stood firm. Shortly thereafter we were delivered a pitcher of water w/o our asking, a nice touch when we had not ordered any other drinks. I think our food finally arrived around 7:45 or 7:50, which seemed forever when we were all starving. The sandwich comes with roasted pork, ham, "special marinade" & cheese, pressed on a "Cuban" roll (since I have never journeyed to Miami for Cubans or Cuba in general, I take their word for it - seems the same bread as most other Cuban sandwich places). Even though some consider it a sacrilege, we added lettuce, tomato, onions & pickles. The marinade was for the roasted pork, assuming the pork had been marinaded before roasting. It was subtle most of the time. The sandwich was very good, not quite on par with Chez Henri's IMHO, but better than Miami Cafe's. The roast pork was plentiful and moist, with the other ingredients adding a more subtle flavor than the predominant (and rightly so) swine. Mmmmmm swine. Plantains were the typical sweet, cinnamony fried variety. I meant to order the chip variety, but I'll learn. Overall, this would be the best Cubano of the night (out of two). Total tab was $6.80 before tip.
Next up, La Papusa & Guanaca. Joanie ordered an empanada which I did not taste. Nab ordered a black bean and cheese papusa, which I also did not taste. Hopefully they'll chime in. I ordered a "chorizo" and cheese papusa. First, these items are cheap - $1.25 for the papusas, $1 for the empanada. Second, they are all made by hand while you wait. Personally I wouldn't go with a business model where something takes them 10 minutes to make when the items only cost a $1, but hey, I'm happy someone else does. The papusa are served with your choice of a mild or spicy shredded carrot, cabbage, red onion and jalapeno topping/side which was flavored with vinegar and maybe red pepper. I opted for the spicy, which had a mild zing, but nothing outlandish in the slightest. Also served with a side of homemade red sauce, which was absolutely delicious w/o being very spicy. I basically slathered everything onto my papusa, wrapped it up and started eating. The dough is more distinct than the ingredients, the cheese coming next, the "chorizo" being fairly indistinguishable. I like chorizo for it's somewhat spicy & greasy taste - this was masked by the side/topping. Excellent appetizer, not a meal. But hey it was only a $1.31 with tax.
Next up, Miami Restaurant, where we split another Cubano especial. This one was served with roast pork, ham, cheese, the bread and I think she said mortadella (odd for Cuban cuisine? this was the difference b/w the regular Cubano and the especial). We added lettuce, tomato, pickles and YIKES, mayo on the side. And a couple Coronas for Nab and I and pineapple juice for Joanie. Hounds were getting a bit thirsty by that point. Limited beer choices being Corona, Heineken and one other which I forget. Cubano was like $5, beers $3.50, juice $1. The sandwich was split 3 ways again (this time, actually by the amazingly nice and accommodating server/cashier) and was devoured fairly quickly. I liked this sandwich, but the addition of the mortadella perhaps resulted in less roast pork. Too bad. Tasty, but not as good as EOdC's. However, the service, decor and booze *almost* made me prefer the Miami Restaurant experience over EOdC's where service is not king (or even queen or jack).
Starting to burst, we ambled slowly over to Alex's Chimis, a Dominican restaurant apparently frequented by some of the Boston's best baseball players. We slowly walked inside just before closing time (9 PM) and were admittedly a bit flummoxed about what to order as there were no menus around, English or otherwise. The tiny storefront has a steam table/heat lamp set-up with roasted chicken, some variety of fried pork (I think) and some creature that was somewhat indistinguishable, as well as an assortment of fried bananas, rice, beans, etc. We gathered that most peopled either ordered a sandwich with one of the above meats, or a plate with lots of fixins. Frankly, I never saw the "chimichurry" (Dominican grilled sausage) but we had a bit of a language barrier happening (although the one woman working there did speak English). We opted to split the 3rd sandwich of the night, chicken if you will. Amazing sandwich, the roasted chicken was diced really small, spiced with a bit of a red sauce, and served on a large hoagie type roll with lettuce, tomato and maybe mayo. Great sandwich and huge portion for $5. Homemade sauce in bottles on the tables was somewhat non-descript.
Sweet Jesus, I can't believe we had one more place to go. We dutifully headed out to Tacos El Charro, which for some ungodly reason is open until 11 PM even on Tuesdays. We entered around 9:15ish. Joanie could only order a fruit shake, I forgot the variety. Chips appear to be made there, they are thicker than average and the salsa is homemade if a bit more bland than I remember. Nab and I ordered a Negra Modelo each, had to clean the palate mind you. We added a couple tacos each to the order, plus split a side of refried beans and a side of typical Latin American rice. We both wanted the goat meat stew tacos, but after ordering, we were told they were out. So I ordered a steak and a roasted "pineapple-flavored" pork (mmmm swine) taco, with Nab grabbing same pork as well as a chicken. When they arrived ("One more Modelo please!"), everything looked great. I am a generally a huge fan of the variety of tacos that are prepared with the two small steamed corn tortillas, with the meat, cilantro, onions, and that's about it inside. $1.50 each I think, sides about the same per side. Served with your choice of red or verde sauce and per my request, limes, I thought I was in for an amazing treat. While I was disappointed, they did not live up to my expectations. The pork had no pineapple taste (which can be fine) but wasn't distinctly swiney either. Steak was dry. Nab felt the same. Beans were too dry, perhaps from overly long on the steam table w/o water added and rice was just plain. The Modelos were delicious. All in all, not what I remembered from the last time I was there a year ago, but I had enchiladas with mole last time and I enjoyed that meal. Thankfully, the mariachi band remained downstairs. They can be fun or annoying, depending on the mood. My stomach was satiated, full, whatever by that point, but may have been cranky at the prospect of mariachi.
All in all a great time out. Too much food, but fun times. With that said, over Miami Restaurant, Miami Cafe, and El Oriental de Cuba, Chez Henri still makes the best "Cubano" - is it completely authentic? Perhaps not, but IMHO, it remains the best sandwich out of the bunch. Most accommodating and nicest service award goes to Miami Restaurant.