I’ve always liked Brookland and its Main Street vibe, which helps humanize the stony, well-scrubbed facade that Washington loves to show the world. The Northeast neighborhood has been pushing for development to update its aging small-town image, and yet its 12th Street drag still looks like a commercial strip that gentrification regularly teases but rarely kisses on the lips.
Which, in part, explains why Little Ricky’s feels so fresh: The Cuban restaurant is so decidedly modern in concept that you realize how bereft of art and vision much of the 12th Street corridor is, save for an occasional splash of color and soul, like the Brookland Cafe.
Little Ricky’s calls itself “an American paladar,” a reference to the family-owned eateries, often in homes, that provide an antidote to Cuban state-run restaurants. Fortunately, Little Ricky’s interior isn’t as shtick-y as its name, a nod to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s son on the “I Love Lucy” sitcom. The decor combines large Cuban paintings (sort of a cross between World War II pin-up girls and Soviet propaganda art) and reclaimed materials.
In this case, Little Ricky’s isn’t operated by a family, unless you consider all residents of Brookland a kind of clan. Friends, business partners and longtime Brooklanders Chase Moore and Lola Pol launched their first restaurant in November, each bringing something unique to the project: Moore handled most of the interior design, while Pol and her mom (who fled Cuba in the early 1960s) contributed their knowledge of the cuisine. They hired Havana native Victor Navarro as chef and angled to keep their prices low, understanding that Brookland has no interest in $14 designer cocktails.
Much of Little Ricky’s charm hits you the moment you walk in: The eye candy on the wall. The pulsating salsa music. The general manager who treats you like a returning war hero, sometimes unilaterally upgrading your appetizer if he thinks it might improve your experience. Little Ricky’s, the physical space, is one big anti-depressant.
The food itself, however, has never consistently elevated my mood. After one visit, I’m singing Navarro’s praises for brightening his tostones and chicharrones appetizer with a garnish of subtly piquant onions. The next visit, I’m wondering if the chef has broken off his relationship with salt and spice. A number of plates, while savory to the eye, fall flat on the tongue.
But then I have to remind myself that Cuban cooking is not French cooking. Chefs from the island develop dishes differently, often preferring slow cooking, in which the ingredients reveal their identities over time and rarely in the big, spicy flavors of other cuisines. Perhaps more important, Cuban chefs don’t seem to have this control-freak desire to present you with a dish that cannot, under any circumstance, be tampered with tableside. Their plates are meant to be slathered with hot sauce or a Cuban mojo sauce. It’s best to keep this in mind when the word “bland” pops into your head at Little Ricky’s, which it likely will.
The GM/waiter described the Cuban fried chicken in such succulent terms that I had to order it. Once my teeth sunk past the fried skin with a satisfying crackle, I encountered moist leg and thigh meat of good quality, but little else. No garlic or herb flavors could be detected. I promptly asked for an extra helping of the house-made, onion-heavy mojo sauce and moved along without incident. The alma de Cuba, a roasted, bone-in pork leg, boasted a fattier (and more flavorful) profile, but it also benefitted from mojo sauce and/or a blast of acidic sriracha. Even my pan con lechon was a fairly arid bite without an extra application of mojo to the pork sandwich.
Among the entrees, the main exception to this conservative seasoning approach was the Tio Pio’s chicken, grilled breast meat glazed with a honey-and-reduced-orange-juice sauce. The dish would have been perfect had the bird had been a few degrees warmer. Both the juicy beef empanadas and the fried ham croquettes were likewise fine on their own, although the latter came with a neon guava-vinegar sauce, as if the appetizer were the Cuban version of an eggroll.
Yes, I think you can navigate through Little Ricky’s Cuba and not feel as if you were rolled for $20 (although this may be harder during the more traditional brunch, when no amount of mojo can save the shrimp and grits). You just need to be proactive about improving your gastronomic conditions, sort of like a pair of budding restaurateurs who decided to open a cool little eatery in the heart of their own neighborhood.
3522 12th St. NE.
Hours: Open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro station: Brookland-CUA, a 0.3-mile walk from the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $8.25-$18.95.