My first taste of Cuban food occurred many years ago when I took a bite of a sandwich at a restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood. I loved the slight sweetness in the bread and the use of pickles and mustard layered between slices of roast pork, turkey and ham. The sandwich was pressed like a panini.
During the late 1990s, Cuban fare made inroads here when Cuba Libre opened in Old City and several restaurants added Cuban dishes to their menus. The trend then fizzled out.
Chef Jose Garces decided to bring Cuban food to the forefront when he opened Rosa Blanca on Chestnut Street several months ago. It is a casual place with booths and a counter in the front room and a dining room in the rear. One can order anything from pork to plantains, with the former probably the protein of choice in Cuban dishes.
We settled into a roomy booth, sipped a cocktail ($14) and decided to build a meal around a few small plates, a Cuban sandwich and a meal of the day to share.
Croquetas de jamon ($6) are ham croquettes that are simply fried and served with a dipping sauce. The ham had a slightly salty creamy consistency that I enjoyed, and, because they were nicely seasoned, they did not need a sauce.
Salt cod appeared in the frituritas de bacalao ($9). These fried fish cakes are found in island cuisine, not just in Cuba. The cod has to be soaked in water for a few days to rid it of excess salt. They were tasty and set the stage for our Cuban sandwich.
Calle Ocho ($9) is prepared with roast pork, chorizo, caramelized onions, pickles and Swiss cheese. Thinly-sliced roast pork married well with the spicy chorizo, the sweetness of the onions, the tang of pickles and mild cheese. The ingredients were layered on slightly sweet Cuban style bread and pressed flat. The contrast of flavors and textures was tasty, but I think the ingredients used here were on the skimpy side. A small mound of plantain chips came with the sandwich.
There was a bit of a mix up before our sandwich arrived. Our server, who was knowledgeable and knew the menu well, brought us a Cubano ($8). She insisted we keep it in spite of the mix-up. It was layered with roast pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard. I thought the flavors melded better in this sandwich because the yellow mustard added a little kick. I also liked the smoky flavor of the ham with the mild cheese.
Roast pork is often prepared for Sunday dinner in Cuba. I noticed the dinner of the day for two was cochinillo asado ($34). The pork is slow-roasted on the bone for hours in a sauce of sour oranges, herbs and onions. It is then pulled from the bone, shredded and served in a large bowl. The pork was melt-in-your-mouth tender but needed a little salt. I thought it was a bit pricey for the portion served to us. Since rice often accompanies this dish, we ordered a side of arroz moro ($6), a mix of black beans and rice that was cooked just right but also needed a dash of salt.
Rosa Blanca was busy during dinner, and I noticed a gentleman making his way through the restaurant. He went from table to table and helped to serve as well. He came over to us and helped us make a decision about dessert, insisting we sample three sweets to end our meal.
Tres leches ($5) was a chocolate cake that was not a bit cloyingly sweet. Pastel de pina ($4) was an island version of pineapple upside down cake, baked with fresh sweet pineapple. Flan is probably the dessert of choice in a number of Spanish-speaking countries and restaurants. The pastry chef bakes a light flan de vanilla ($4) and adds a little fresh orange juice to the custard.
Rosa Blanca is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It does a brisk take-out business as well. Service was excellent. We did not have to wait very long between courses.
Garces took a chance opening a Cuban restaurant long after the trend calmed down. He may have filled a niche in his group of restaurants.
Three tips of the toque to Rosa Blanca.
707 Chestnut St.
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