The small mound of white rice assumes its proper place on the plate at Mi Cuba Cafe: It sits, elegant and unobtrusive, next to the star, the picadillo, a juicy pile of coarsely ground beef seeded with raisins and dimpled with green olives. The rice is the side, the sideshow, the second banana, the straight man. Choose your preferred descriptor for anything that lives in the shadow of the main act.
At least that’s the American perspective on the hierarchy of the plate.
But one taste of the rice, all salty and glistening with oil, and you grasp its importance in the Cuban diet. No, wait, that’s not quite right. You get a fleeting glimpse of the caloric duty that rice must perform among Cuba’s monthly rations, and you begin to understand why cooks work so hard to transform these polished grains into something that residents want to consume by the pound — month in and month out, for survival, if not always for pleasure.
Don’t get me wrong. The picadillo at Mi Cuba goes down like the best sloppy joe meat I’ve ever tasted, its bursts of concentrated raisin sweetness occasionally poking through the garlicky sofrito base. But it’s the rice that I shovel down by the forkful. Prepared with nothing more the olive oil, water and salt, the jasmine rice tastes buttery on the tongue, like the Cuban equivalent of movie popcorn. I could eat it by the tub while watching a Hollywood blockbuster.
As good as Mi Cuba’s white rice is, it may be the second-best side dish on the menu, behind the congri, modestly described as “rice with black beans.” I’d call it the gateway drug: Each grain tinted the color of cloves, congri rice absorbs the dark water left over after par-cooking the accompanying black beans. You sense the presence of cumin, green pepper, nutmeg and the ingenuity of countless island cooks. It’s the dish that, when done right, will awaken your senses to the frugal, brutal brilliance of Cuban cooking.
I don’t mean to obsess over the rice at Mi Cuba, a colorful storefront run by Havana natives Jacqueline Castro-Lopez and Ariel Valladares. But the attention afforded to these grain-based sides proves to me just how much the owners sweat the small stuff. It also hints at how much care they put into every dish at this engrossing, often crowded Columbia Heights cafe. The couple may do more for improving Cuban-American relations than the Obama administration.
Start with the sandwich menu, where, of course, you’ll find a Cubano. If you’ve ever searched for a decent one in Miami, you know that inferior Cubanos are more common than drunk bros on the beach. The version at Mi Cuba starts where it should: the Cuban bread, crusty and sturdy, which is custom made for the restaurant by a Maryland bakery. Pressed, grilled and cut into long triangles, the Cubano gives you a double-barrel blast of pork with just enough acidity to keep that pig squealing, bright and loud.
The pan con lechon comes on the same good-and-chewy Cuban bread, which can barely contain the bulging mass of roasted pork stuffed between its slices. Translucent slivers of onion, embedded within the sandwich, give the sometimes underseasoned meat a nicely charred edge; I’d suggest ordering a side of mojo sauce, a bitter-orange-and-garlic condiment that can elevate any bite that proves too plodding. Frankly, I’d also mojo the bejesus out of the pan con bistec empanizado, a breaded and fried eye-round steak pressed between buttery slices of Cuban bread, a sandwich that almost defines carb overload.
If you want Cuban-style pork without the carbs, move straight to the lechon asado, a mojo- marinated shoulder that’s roasted, chopped and topped with a tangled layer of grilled onions. This is pig roast supreme, a succulent mass of pork rich with rendered fat and studded with crispy grilled bits.
All other entrees fade to black by comparison, even those that would stand out at other Cuban eateries. The aporreado de pollo, or shredded chicken, finds its voice mostly when a hunk of thigh meat clings tightly to its sofrito base of tomatoes, bell peppers and onions. The enchilado de camarones, or shrimp stew, is more like a plate of clean, well-cooked crustaceans curled up in a loose sofrito sauce, the nutty and the tangy forming a Latin alliance.
All entrees come with your choice of two sides, and there’s nary a dog in the bunch. Rice, obviously, tops my list, but my mouth waters at the mere thought of the cassava, boiled to a silken consistency and animated with an application of that garlicky mojo. The fried sweet plantains don’t rattle your teeth, but allow their natural sugars to caramelize into a char that balances the fruit beautifully. The red beans with Spanish sausage is like Cuban chili, with an emphasis on the pork, not chili pepper spice.
Castro-Lopez and Valladares have created such a convivial space that you’ll want to linger as long as possible to let its gentle, humming rhythms relax your worried mind. The artwork on the walls, courtesy of Castro-Lopez’s mother, mixes the sincere (abstracted tropical fruits) with the semi-sinister (a leather-looking apron with tarnished utensils affixed to it), as if the owners don’t want to completely lull you to sleep before lunch.
Perhaps the best way to settle into Mi Cuba is with a tall glass of blended mango juice, its tropical sweet-tart perfume alerting your senses for what’s to come. Move then to the decadent little appetizers, like the thin, sweet and delicately fried guava-and-cream-cheese empanadas, or the cigar-length chicken croquettes, whose filling is as rich as rillettes.
Or perhaps start with the sweet house sangria and the chicken soup, a bowl so packed with submerged pleasures you’ll feel as if your spoon is on a deep-sea hunt. One of the surprises is a twisted mass of noodles, which might sound like a gastronomic malaprop. Until you realize that, like rice, those monthly rations in Cuba sometimes include a package of spaghetti.
1424 Park Rd. NW. 202-813-3489. www.micubacafe.com.
Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights, with a 0.2-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $9.25-$15.95.