Atmosphere: Small, simple, but pleasant.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday; noon to 4 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday; closed Sunday.
Price range: $4 to $6.95.
Reservations: A good idea on Friday and Saturday nights.
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard.
Special facilities: Accessible to handicapped; no highchairs or booster seats.
Miami has nothing on Northern Virginia -- in the food department, anyway -- now that Northern Virginia has La Cantinita.
This unassuming Cuban restaurant, located on Wilson Boulevard across from the tip of the Parkington Shopping Center triangle, has been pleasing local patrons for close to a year. The place is appropriately named; its space might best be described as "hole in the wall," and there are seats for only 50 customers. It is simply but pleasantly decorated with a bamboo motif and travel posters, oilcloth and paper placemats. On a busy night, it might seem too crowded, and service is not slick.
Simple it is, but this establishment affords the rich and satisfying experience that only a small ethnic restaurant can offer. The co-owners are the chef and host at Cantinita, who take pride in offering quality, and who obviously want their patrons to enjoy.
The chef turns out simple but wonderful dishes you will want to return for, and the genial host spreads good cheer among his customers, singing along with the popular Cuban music playing in the background, and trading jokes with the regulars. Prices are modest.
Our three daughters were nevertheless dubious. "Cantinita" sounded Mexican to them, and they had come prepared for tacos and burritos. When we looked at the menu and there wasn't a tostado in sight, the girls prepared to be glum.
But Cantinita has another asset in a young blue-jean-clad waitress whose enthusiasm for the restaurant's cooking is contagious. She explained first of all that Cuban cooking, unlike Tex-Mex food, is not highly seasoned, then described several of the most popular dishes to us. She seemed to know that children generally are not enthusiastic about trying new foods, and she paid special attention to our daughters, suggesting dishes they might like and assuring them they would enjoy the fried sweet plaintains. (They did.)
She was so convincing that our 10-year-old daughters began by ordering Cuban soft drinks, Materva and Ironbar, instead of their usual choices. One tasted like cream soda; both were refreshing but different, and the girls loved them.
From the selection of meats, poultry, seafood and omelettes, they chose two simple dishes which turned out to be just right for them: Bistec a la Criolla ($5.50), which was a slice of steak sauteed, Cuban-style, with mounds of onions, and Camerones Rebozados, a platter of simply breaded shrimp ($5.85).
Our eldest daughter chose from the list of daily specials, as we did. She ordered Tamales con Picadillo ($4.50). My husband, who loves seafood, decided to try Pargo ($6.50), a breaded red snapper, and I asked for Bistec Cantinita ($6), a specialty of the kitchen.
We had wanted to try Lascas de Pierna de Puerco asada, Cantinita's much-touted roast pork, but it was not available that night. As it turned out, we were hardly disappointed.
When all the food arrived -- accompanied by bowls of rice and black beans which our waitress promised to replenish and side orders of yucca and fried plantains -- we found ourselves faced with a feast. Each dish was better than the last, and our now-happy girls traded samples of their dinners so we could all share the wealth. Servings are large and could easily be split between two children.
The plain steak was tasty and well-prepared, as were the shrimp, a full dozen of them, lightly breaded, sweet and tender. The snapper, also breaded and fried, was good if a bit dry. Best of all were the last two dishes. Tamales were deliciously moist, with their picadillo filling -- a flavorful concoction of ground meat, tomatoes, raisins and seasonings -- served on top of the tamales to prevent their getting soggy.
My steak cantinita was delicious. Two slices of steak were sandwiched around ham and melted cheese, and the whole breaded and fried. It was a hearty, unusual dish worthy of the kudos it receives.
Cantinita offers guava and coconut cream with cream cheese for dessert, but when regular customers come through the door asking for flan, that is the thing to try. We found Cantinita's a rich, creamy version of the traditional caramel-topped custard dessert.
Altogether, Cantinita's hospitality, good food, and reasonable prices seem an unbeatable combination. And we're certainly going back for the roast pork.
Our bill for five, including tax and tip, was $49.48.