-- 4307 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 524-3611. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Friday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday 1 to 9 p.m. MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizers $4.25, entrees $2.95 to $6.95; dinner appetizers $4.75, entrees $6.50 to $11.85. Full dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $15 to $20 per person.
AS THE MIRRORED FACADES AND postmodern towers take over Northern Virginia, La Cantinita stands increasingly alone, a nearly extinct breed of family restaurant. Cuban immigrants dine on Sunday afternoons amid the aromas of home, reading the Spanish-language newspapers stacked at the door. Families gather for feasting almost as inexpensively as if mama were cooking. Urban adventurers come to sample new tastes that allow their minds to travel more cheaply than their bodies could. Romancing couples and ready-for-romance young groups take the opportunity to flirt in their own language. And nearby office workers, who have learned there is ethnic food no more costly than fast food, make it a frequent lunch stop.
La Cantinita is one of those precious bubbles of culture that save America from being a 3,000-mile-long repetition of burgerpizzachicken predictability.
But La Cantinita won't be here long, I'm sure, because one of these days it is going to become one more lane of Wilson Boulevard or a stack of building blocks in a skyscraper. "Remember My An?" we'll say. "And Casita, and the little restaurant hidden on the second floor of the Pacific department store? And whatever happened to La Cantinita?"
Perhaps the answer will be that it has moved down Columbia Pike or out to Reston. Or maybe we will have seen the end of the Frita Burger and the Ropa Vieja Sub.
For the moment, though, there is still time to sample La Cantinita's marinated roast pork, red snapper with vinegar sauce, shrimp nearly buried beneath browned bits of garlic and bowls-full of black beans to smother mounds of white rice. Little Havana is still, if temporarily, alive and well in Arlington.
La Cantinita has an island look, with its stuffed cloth birds in tropical colors and its bamboo paneling under suggestions of thatched roofs. It's far from fancy; if it were on the beach, you'd probably not bother to put on your shoes or shirt. The laminated-bamboo tables are covered with plasticized woven place mats. Latin pop music plays softly, and Cuban scenes are framed on the walls.
The waiters all speak English, but not always. They seem to change between Spanish and English from course to course, or maybe depending on what you order. But whether or not they answer in English, they listen in it, and the service is efficient and matter-of-fact. The kitchen works at a slow pace, though; this is not fast food yet.
The specialty is puerco asado, roast pork with holes poked in it so it can be veined with ground garlic, bitter orange juice, oregano, cumin and lemon. That's left to marinate, then it is roasted so the edges are crusty, and served as a main dish ladled with a mild, translucent garlic/lemon/bitter-orange sauce with bits of onion, or sliced cold to garnish a mixed appetizer plate or tamales.
But once you start with appetizers you might be tempted to stop right there. They are large and so winning that you wouldn't expect main dishes to outshine them. Chorizo con queso is a plateful of oozy, stretchy white melted cheese that hides a layer of chorizo slices -- gloriously piquant and peppery chorizo red with pungent Spanish paprika. The tamale is a soft, bland pillow of moist cornmeal with very little filling, but its zest comes from a rich and head-clearing tomato-vinegar sauce with chunks of green peppers and onions. The sauce, another house specialty, tastes like a cross between marinara and escabeche, a wonderful idea. With the tamale come slices of roast pork and ham. It's enough for a meal. So are the empanadas, three big ones to the order, prettily crimped turnovers filled with cumin-flavored ground meat. They aren't the most interesting or complicated empanadas around, but they are lighter and less greasy than most. The most delicate of the appetizers is gambas al ajillo, five pink curled shrimp, juicy ones, in a bowl of garlic butter. It seems to have more garlic than shrimp but is nevertheless mild because the finely minced garlic is browned to dissipate its bite.
The main dishes are not setbacks, though; some are even better than the appetizers. There's the pork, of course, and a seafood combination with moistly fresh red snapper, clams and mussels in the shell, scallops and shrimp, in that powerful tomato-vinegar sauce. Chicken fricassee, cooked with tomato and a little wine, is homey, rich and plentiful. Even plain fried red snapper is special, the juicy fillets in a faint haze of grease-free batter. There are several rice-based dishes -- paella, arroz con pollo, rice with chorizo -- but they are made for a minimum of two people. And there are steaks stuffed with ham and cheese or topped with fried eggs. The two disappointments I've found are the ropa vieja -- the long-cooked shreds of beef are fine, but the sauce is watery and salty -- and carne salteado, the beef strips cooked too long and too slowly so that they are chewy and dry. Even then, though, the meal can hardly miss. The accompanying black beans are so flavorful that a platterful of beans and rice is happiness enough. It's also worth managing to find room for fried ripe plantains too, or yucca with the same haunting, translucent garlic sauce that dresses the pork.
Lunch offers specialties found nowhere else, including that Ropa Vieja Sub and the Frita Burger, which is a family recipe handed down from grandfather's vendor cart in Havana. The burger is breaded and marinated, a rather salty and soft sort of meat patty, served on a roll and then smothered in a plateful of irresistibly delicious shredded fried potatoes. At lunch there are also tortillas -- omelets -- including one studded with sweetly caramelized fried plantains.
Dessert also offers a family specialty, a smooth and rich, highly caramelized flan. For a greater jolt of sweetness, there is a pool of syrupy coconut cream served with a chunk of cream cheese, or supersweet guava, or papaya also with cream cheese. Then there is the inevitable half-a-demitasse of viscous, strong black Cuban coffee.
Even with a large pitcher of sweet red sangria or a steady stream of beers, you'd be hard pressed to spend more than $20 per person for dinner at La Cantinita. And you could dine well on half that. It's a small price to pay for being able to say, some day, "I remember when that strip of highway . . ."