The latest trend in Latin cuisine is really beginning to bug me. Some folks out there are actually trying to make the stuff healthy. The idea is for Cuban, Caribbean, and South American chefs to ease up on the use of lard as shortening, to cut out the deep-frying, to stop stocking stews with fatty cuts of meat. In short, avoid ingredients that might actually jibe with traditional recipes and add some flavor.
Allow me to be blunt: yuck. I'm not a purist by any means -- I'm infatuated with fusion fare -- nor do I disdain healthier food as a rule. In fact, when I'm not reviewing, I'm nearly always dieting. But I firmly believe that, while we shouldn't indulge in fattening fare on a daily basis, we also shouldn't alter the artery-hardening stuff that gives us pleasure. Plain and simple, fatty foods taste good. And we need some fat in our bodies, or we'd operate about as efficiently as the federal government -- in futile fits and starts. Haven't we suffered enough with fat-free ice cream, sugar-free chocolate, baked potato chips, and light cream cheese? We don't need our Cuban food dumbed down as well.
The Aguilera brothers -- Rene, Ariel, and Nelson -- apparently agree. Last fall they took over the restaurant in Lighthouse Point known as Las Vegas and renamed it Casa Grande. They repainted the exterior but basically left the interior, a 185-seat, elegant banquet room with a large, tiled dance floor and stained-glass light fixtures, untouched. The brothers, who emigrated from Cuba in 1984, grew up in West Palm Beach and trained with their uncle, who owns a chain of Cuban eateries called Don Ramon's. They learned how to serve Cuban food properly: drenched in animal fats, laden with calories, altogether bad for you if you don't minimize your intake. And damn good.
OK, so maybe chef Carlos Gories, a Dominican, could skim the chicken soup a little. The cup of golden broth was greasy with chicken fat, which interfered with our delight in the supple, slippery hunks of chicken, the sliced carrots, and the big soft noodles floating in the dish. He could also spend less time frying the chicharron de pollo, a starter comprising crisp chunks of unbreaded chicken, so that they don't dry out. Otherwise he has a good touch. Cubes of fried cassava, for example, were crunchy and greaseless, and long, curly plantain chips were a perfect golden brown.
The combination platter, a generously proportioned appetizer, is the best way to sample all of Gories' fattening treats. Large, shredded chunks of pork glimmered with juice and vied with the savory ham croquettes for attention. The tamal con lechón, a moist corn cake roasted in a green corn husk, was dotted with fried bits of pork. We were surprised by an empanada (the menu didn't list it as part of the starter), which made our separate order of the meat pies (three of them for $2.95) superfluous. Or so we thought. After breaking off part of the flaky, ground-beef turnover, we decided not to complain about the surplus.
Indeed, the only complaint about the Cuban cuisine at Casa Grande concerns portion sizes; they're too big. Each main course is accompanied by not one but two side dishes chosen from the following: veritable mountains of buttered white or mild yellow rice; plump black beans; tender yuca topped with garlicky, tangy mojo; candied ripe plantains; and crisp disks of tostones, pounded green plantains.
The side dishes were uniformly terrific and filling, which was fortunate, because I thought a fillet of grouper entree too fishy. The fish had been broiled with garlic and was moist, but I couldn't overlook the tugboat aroma. Contrasting the grouper, tightly curled shrimp and nuggets of white-meat chicken, sauteed in garlic and oil, were fresh and delicious. The seafood and poultry casserole also included pan-fried green and red bell peppers and onions, providing additional perfumes.
When it comes to classic Cuban food, you can't get much more traditional than ropa vieja, which means "old clothes" in English. And, indeed, the beef stew featuring shredded flank steak soaking in tomato sauce has a ragged appearance. Given the chance, health-food proponents would turn this dish into something resembling the emperor's new clothes -- skimpy in appearance, devoid of tasty fat. Fortunately this beefy stew was succulent, bright with onions and peppers, and enough for two meals the following day.
Palomilla, pounded flank steak broiled and topped with raw chopped onions, offered another enormous portion. While undeniably tasty, the beef was unevenly cooked -- dry in some places, juicy in others. The lunch-size portion, called baby palomilla, is more approachable. If you decide to indulge in a Cuban lunch, do so on Monday or Wednesday, when a buffet is served, or on Thursday, when you can also get a lamb Creole daily special, a stew that in Cuba is frequently made with slightly tougher goat.
As big as the servings are, it's nearly impossible to resist soothing the garlic-laden palate afterward with a sweet. I'm hardly a fan of desserts that quiver, but the flan was superior, thanks to an achingly sweet caramel sauce. Key lime pie was a little too grainy with sugar, but the tartness of the dish was a great finale to the meal.
The fare at Casa Grande may not be sophisticated, but the service is both formal and thoughtful. The waiter replenished our glasses and was pleased to give his recommendations. I was happy he didn't suggest the Mexican food on the menu. (Rene Aguilera has included nachos and fajitas "because everybody likes them.") Mexican fare is a whole different animal, and, come to think of it, even harder to make healthy. Unless, of course, you're substituting fat-free cheese and sour cream for the real thing -- a concept, like healthy Cuban cuisine, I can't even begin to consider.
Casa Grande. 4000 N. Federal Hwy., Lighthouse Point, 954-783-5338. Lunch and dinner Monday to Thursday from 11:30 a.m. till 10 p.m.; Friday until 11 p.m. Dinner Saturday from 4:30 till 11 p.m; Sunday till 10 p.m.
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