You can feel it as soon as you see the jaunty carrot-and-blue exterior; it feels local without being Sandals-resort contrived. Scents of cooking weave out onto the sidewalk, beckoning. Reggae, of course, plays.
The tables inside are colorful, but find a spot outside on the patio, shaded by grassy umbrellas and bordered by gaily painted oil drums like a Montego Bay roadside kitchen.
While pleasantly Jamaican in vibration, Cha Cha Chicken does not claim a single island as home, but pulls in influences from all over the sultry Caribbean.
The Jerk Veggie Enchiladas are coated in a mango jerk sauce that rings of habañero and pineapple; the effect is a spicy sweetness that permeates the carrots, cabbage, peas, potato and cheese inside, all rendered pliable under the fork. With this comes dirty rice done proper, purpled with juices, and a couple of darkly grainy plantains about which I will write in a moment.
I don't often order wraps, since they're usually lazily called a "caesar wrap" or a "jerk chicken wrap" and take the form of disappointment.
Ricky's Wrap, though, is a burrito-sized beast. Dirty rice, black beans, stubbornly hot potato, lettuce slowly losing its crunch, and carrot accompany the chicken. The chicken! It's shredded into a wondrous heap, tender and sodden, and from it you can probably wring out a shot glass of juice.
The chicken and its servants are wound in lavash instead of a tortilla, spotty-brown from the griddle and crisp around the edges. A cup of spicy jerk sauce is there, if you can manage to dunk the wrap into it without losing the contents to gravity.
The Fried Plantains are an attractive burnt gold, smile-inducingly sweet and soft. A spoonful of cool mayonnaise gives them an extra creamy angle.
There is also a reliable Black Bean soup, puréed into simplicity, with limp strips of tortilla and a dollop of sour cream. It's a worthy starter but not photogenic.
Oh, and hello, dear friend. Any place that carries this stuff knows what's up.
Cha Cha Chicken is open until ten daily, luring you in from your walk along the beach or when you're tired of the highbrow tourism and performance art of the 3rd Street Promenade.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Cuban, Jamaican, Santa Monica/Culver City )
Revisiting a local favorite
3508 W. Sunset Blvd. (@ Maltman)
Phone: 323-668-0737 | map
It's exactly what a hole in the wall should be, comfortably close with flax-colored walls, battered tile floor, framed photos of Cuban scenery, and incredible smells coming from the kitchen. El Cochinito has a real feeling of old Cuban people coming by to sit and eat.
I like to get the Café con Leche, vigorous without being the caffeinated cattle prod you can get at Porto's or Cafe Tropical. With that and my basket of toasty, scratchy warm bread, I agonize over the menu.
The likeliest candidate for a cochinito coma is the Lechon Asado. It doesn't look too large, but it's more roast pork than citizens should be allowed, an eyes-rolling-back-in-rapture array of textural contrast. Charred skin connects the firm and toothsome to the fatty and lush, and it should probably be considered a sin. This is pork, and it is Cuban, and you should cancel your appointments for the day.
An innocent mound of arozz is available to soak up the dark juices of the frijoles negros, soupy and dream-inducing. Behind it all is yuca, or cassava, jumbled like the local Roman ruins; consisting of dense and crusted tubers not unlike potatoes or yams, they're reedy like plantains, with drizzles of green chile sauce. Combining all of this makes one a little lightheaded, head whirling like the fans above.
A really good idea is to eat half of this--if you can--and take the rest home, shredding the pork to put atop some bread with some cheese and some music*, followed by a nice afternoon smoking a Montecristo #2 piramide. Sigh. I need a vacation, and badly.
Continuing with this porcine odyssey, the Pan con Lechón... ah. Hm. A roasted pork sandwich where each bit of pork is falling away from itself. I keep eating this far after I pass my comfortably-full plateau.
Their buttery-sweet plantains are sweet enough to eat at the end of the meal.
For more medicinal purposes, the Monday special is the Fricase de Pollo, cooked in a comforting wine and tomato sauce that can probably hold its own with the yellow goodness of chicken soup. The dark meat is so tender you almost don't need to chew, and you search like a starving cat around the bones for chicken you missed. A baked potato stained golden adds weight.
Like El Colmao on Pico, you are typically rendered senseless afterward. Also, the neighborhood feels more comfortable if you're concerned about that sort of thing. Let us know you're coming by and maybe we'll trot down Maltman and join you.
* My recommendation, once you've gotten past all your Tito Puente CDs: Mongo Santamaria, Machito & His Afro-Cuban Orchestra, Eliades Ochoa, Compay Segundo, Pérez Prado, Alberto Iznaga, and for some quiet soul, the Buena Vista Social Club.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Cuban, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park )
Baracoa is a lugar agradable I could inhabit all day, with its dark rustic tables, booths that look like woven leather, and its quartet of ceiling fans turning lazily.
A splendid mural of Baracoa itself* spans one wall. The sashay of Salsa and Afro-Cuban jazz can be heard, and there is a feel that old guys with hats and accents sit here and talk. I only wish for a checkerboard and a Montecristo #2 to complete my lunchtime escapade.
I'm still deciding on my preferred sandwich. The Pan con Bistec is a carbohydrate thug, pressing me with its gravity until I want to be on the floor dreamily watching the ceiling, limp as the grilled onions on top of the thinly sliced top sirloin. I am not usually effective at work after this.
The Media Noche, on the other hand and pictured here, is moist ham and roasted pork, relaxed and tender, layered with mustard, mayo and pickles in a pressed semi-sweet bread that leaves one with glistening fingertips. Either sandwich could be put through a wringer and lose half its weight in muscle-numbing moisture. I like to get some black beans on the side; they're sultry and superb, served over a mound of white rice.
The cafe con leche is served in a massive cup, less charged than the jiggers-of-jitters one may be used to in other Cuban cafes; still, it demands time and a slowing of your day.
There's metered parking along the boulevard, or free parking along the quiet neighborhood streets.
* Baracoa being the oldest Spanish settlement in Cuba, nicknamed Ciudad Primada, or "First City." It was Columbus's first stop in Cuba before the pillaging and kidnapping sprees. There is your Caribbean trivia for today.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Cuban, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock )
Not that Porto's isn't already covered by every food-related website within catapult range, but since I work nearby it's on my list for lunches.
It's large, to start with: a hectic cafeteria on the left and a hectic bakery on the right. You wait in the (perpetual) line, order at the counter, and if you're lucky and quick enough to nab a table being vacated, you sit waiting with your number and hoping they find you (they always do).
They'll bring your drink with your meal, but you can also pick it up early from the cheerfully distracted young men working in the tiny circular bar area. You sip your perilously buzzy cafe con leche. You listen to the hubbub. You agonize over the goodies available in the bakery adjacent.
I still have a lot of menu to try out, because I usually get a few favorite things here. The Cuban sandwiches and medianoches are (nearly) as good as Cafe Tropical, but I think Porto's pan con lechon (oven-roasted pork sandwich served with mojo, a Spanish garlic dressing) wins that bout. The torta de pollo (grilled chicken) is really savory with a black bean spread, red onion, lettuce and tomatoes, but I recommend you ask for easy on the goat cheese lest the roof of your mouth gets coated like spackle.
Order some croquetas, filled with ground meat and deep-fried. Or the plantain chips with garlic dipping sauce. Or the pork-filled chorizo pie, or the chorizo empanada, crispy but not flaky. There. Now you may eat.
Parking is on Brand or in the lot in back, which requires some patience. There's another location on Magnolia in Burbank that I haven't been to; it's meant to be a little less harried.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Cuban, Bakery/Patisserie, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock, Coffee/Tea/Desserts )
This space, hidden away in a mall off Brand, has cycled through several identities, including a pleasant little Italian joint, an uninspired sports bar, and now a dignified Cuban restaurant.
Salsa music winds between square white tablecloths, upon which are frosted angular vases with a single pink and white bloom. The paneled walls are white and severe, interrupted only by framed paintings of tropical abandon.
A basket of flattened Italian loaf, halved and buttered, is placed before you, which will jeopardize your ability to finish your meal. Do try the frioles negros (black bean soup), comfort food extraordinaire; the soup is done to perfection, the beans soaked with themselves, with flecks of green chile and white onion.
I always try first the Cuban sandwiches at a Cuban place, and the media noche is fairly irresistible: ham, roast pork and swiss on buttered, lightly grilled semi-sweet bread, the pickles light and unobtrusive, and the sandwich is half again as large as the ones at Cafe Tropical. It's made optimal with dashes of Faraon green habañero sauce.
Next time: lechon asado, roast pork with moro (white rice cooked with the black beans) and cassava fries. And, uh, flan de panetela (custard over yellow cake). Can't be bad.
The crisply luxurious interior gives the impression of great cost, but La Cubana is really affordable. Yes, getting the Shrimp in Spicy Tomato sauce is going to run up to seventeen bucks or so, but my huge sandwich, black bean soup and iced tea totaled under twelve. La Cubana is closed on Mondays, which smacked me a good one when I was nicely dressed and in the mood to try them out.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Cuban, Glendale/Atwater/Eagle Rock )
Where people who love Cuban food go
2328 West Pico Blvd. (west of Convention Center)
Phone: 213-386-6131 | map
El Colmao is one of those places where you walk out with a food buzz, full and useless for the rest of the day. You do not plan on a hurried lunch here.
They make the best fried rice I've ever had, and their ropa vieja is as savory as the white rice, black beans and chimichurri that come with it. The steaks are thin and juicy and worth it. Try one of the huge Cuban sandwiches and listen to the conversations in Spanish all around you.
The decor is very thin and aged (think faux-wood paneling and plastic figurines) and feels correct. It's tucked away in a ragged strip mall along a stretch of Pico Blvd. that doesn't exactly stimulate casual tourism but, really, the neighborhood could be worse.
I'm still deciding whether this place or El Cochinito on Sunset wins.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), East Side/Downtown, Cuban, Mid-City/Koreatown )