Rich Culinary Heritage In an Adopted Land
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, as the saying goes. Joaquin Cabrejas, who fled the Castro regime as a child in the early '60s, and his wife, Christina, have made not only Cuban lemonade -- and good lemonade at that -- they've created a sort of Cuban restaurant in exile, a combination home-style kitchen, island fantasyland and patriotic soapbox. Rockville may have the littlest Little Havana in the country, but per square foot, it's the loudest.
A decade ago, Cuban Corner was a breakfast/lunch carryout, gaining a reputation for its cubano subs and catering mostly to neighborhood laborers and Montgomery College kids, hence the array of milkshakes, malts and fresh smoothies on the menu. But in the past few years in particular, the Cabrejases have expanded the sandwich list into a full-service menu and, more recently, have acquired a beer and wine license. Despite the gradual increase, and the addition of Sunday hours, the restaurant has managed to keep its balance. Some of the cooking is surprisingly good -- especially considering that the tiny kitchen space hasn't expanded beyond what one person can comfortably inhabit. Even the service, which is equally minimal in terms of manpower, manages to keep pace pretty well.
Meanwhile, the interior of the restaurant has expanded much further beyond its narrow walls, in that it's filled with not simply murals but near trompe d'oeil skies filled with brilliantly colored birds, including soaring bald eagles and tocororos, the Cuban national symbol, and walls painted with palm trees and fronds, almost as if you were eating in an elevated veranda. Around the edges of the room are tiny borders of red, white and blue gravel, like a patriotic beach. Portraits of Latino heroes, including revolutionary Jose Marti singer Celia Cruz, are lined up and down the counter's columns like family photos. The paintings are by area artist Abraham Garcia.
But where there are not free skies, there is free enterprise. One entire wall and parts of others are lined with the names of Cuban Americans who have contributed to the culture and prosperity of the United States, from tennis player Mary Jo Fernandez to slugger Rafael Palmeiro, from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and actor Andy Garcia, star of the newly released "The Lost City," to Cuban big-band hero Desi Arnaz and musician-entrepreneur Gloria Estefan, and dozens of doctors, politicians, other entertainers and educators. One panel, resembling an old-fashioned grade-school doodle, depicts two evil Cuban MiGs shooting down good Cuban pilots trying to rescue drowning boat people (deported boat child Elian Gonzalez is seen in a poster-size, almost shrine-like blow-up).
Reprints of articles touting the Cuban-American connection are laminated or slipped under the glass tabletops. Back-to-back, looking oddly like an old Austrian martial emblem, an eagle and a tocororo each clutch the two countries' flags in their beaks. It should come as no surprise that the only cocktails offered are all made with Bacardi rum or that the papas fritas are translated not as french fries but as "freedom fries," with a little American flag flying by the ($2.75) menu price.
This gives you plenty of conversational material while you wait, but so will the menu -- "menus," actually, four or five pages with a sixth page of newer specials and a mini-carousel on the table. Among the best dishes are some of the newer ones listed as specials but regularly available. A prime pick is described as pork spare ribs but is actually more like a pair of small, lean and meaty porcine shanks, marinated in a tangy citrus sauce and served with the kitchen's always generous and well-cooked rice and black beans. If any dish doesn't come with a couple of fried sweet plantains (though most do), ask for them.
Red snapper fillets topped with sweet peppers and tomatoes is just crisped on the surface. What's described as Cuban creole stew is rather like a light yellow curry, tender beef and root veggies (mostly yuca) in a thick, flavorful sauce.
The appetizers are good, especially the non-greasy fried ones, and on the filling side. Beef empanadas have a fine stiff pastry dough; the fried yuca-mash fritters, stuffed with picadillo, are like the Cuban equivalent of a Cornish pasty, though you can also order a potato version, which has a little blander texture. The stuffed tostones look rather like old-fashioned muffins, wide-collared cups of fried mashed green plantains filled with ropa vieja (braised, shredded flank steak), the best choice; the picadillo (ground beef with olives and raisins); or shrimp creole. Each filling is available as an entree as well, and the creole in particular -- whole shrimp in a thick but tasty tomato puree, not easily divided -- is best served with the rice.
Meat is cooked through, as it traditionally is in all Spanish-based cuisines, and although this makes for tender beef and roast pork, chicken can be a little drier than Americans are used to, especially the breasts, pounded thin and marinated before grilling or breaded Milanese-style. The stewed chicken, in yellow rice (available for one, happily) or in tomato sauce with potatoes, are more in the comfort-food range.
Although Cuban fare is not inherently spicy, Cuban Corner places a bottle of habanero sauce on each table, and it's a good choice. More fruity than salty, it gives a much-needed boost to the shrimp and stuffed plantains.
Cuban Corner still turns out hot cubanos on crusty baguettes, layered with roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles, plus a "special" cubano with sliced chorizo; one with pork, turkey, ham and American cheese; and versions with ropa vieja, steak and onions, chicken, etc., all but the $8.99 special for $7.69.
Note: The walk from the Metro is a little long but easy.