Unsolved Mysteries of the (Foodie) Universe
Mystery Number One: With more than half a million Cubans living in South Florida, why is it almost impossible to find a cheap, decent dish of ropa vieja?
Or, for that matter, a plateful of Cuban-style pulled roast pork for under a tenner? I'm talking about the kind of joint where you turn up at any old hour, slide onto a stool at the counter, plant elbows firmly, and after a few minutes find yourself gazing, with something approaching unconditional love, at a plastic plate piled with shredded meat and black beans and emitting sweet and sour vapors of cumin and tomatoes, of sautéed green peppers and deeply caramelized onions. A place where there's a wedge of lime and a bottle of hot sauce within reach. Some yellow rice flecked with peas and a sweet plantain or three. And yesssssir, a cold beer.
Cuban restaurants in Palm Beach and Broward fall into two categories: yummy and sort of ritzy (my favorite of these is Mario's Catalina, in Lauderdale) or cheap and crummy (most obviously, Havana and Don Ramon in West Palm). During a couple of decades of poverty the long years I spent pawing through every pants and jacket pocket in my closet for spare change I ate a lot of yellow rice and beans and plantains from Havana's 24-hour window, and I swallowed a good number of guava-cheese pastries and café con leches at Tulipan a couple of miles north. None of the dives I frequented turned out a really fine empanada which, when fresh and flaky, is one of my top ten reasons for living. Nor anything else I could afford beyond greasy, fried pork chunks and watery chicken. A good Cuban ropa vieja is the kind of belly-warming, deeply satisfying peoples' food that should be the inalienable right of every starving student and penniless hack in South Florida.
Ironic, then, that I've finally stumbled upon the place I've been mooning after all these years, only it's run by Italians. The Crazy Cuban II opened a couple of months ago on East Boynton Beach Boulevard. Sam Mancuso and Bill Brogna also own Crazy Cuban I, a hole in the wall in Juno Beach. The new venture is a little bigger, with about a dozen tables and a bar perfect for elbows that faces the kitchen window so you can study Mancuso plating up your picadillo or whatever. It's bare-bones, brightly lit, and staffed in the evening by an adorable Peruvian waitress who can barely contain her enthusiasm for the combination of lime juice, hot sauce, and pulled pork. Mancuso told me he and his partner learned to cook from a Cuban guy who owned a local restaurant; then they took his recipes and played with them until they did him one better. I've had both the pulled pork dinner ($9.95, or $6.95 for lunch) and the ropa vieja ($11.95, or $7.95 for lunch), and I think they've just about perfected their individual versions of these classics. The pork is chewy and gently sour from being marinated, emanating whiffs of cumin. The black beans have a nice puckery note of vinegar and a great, silky mouth-feel; the yellow rice is pretty; the plantains are melting and sweetly caramelized. The ropa vieja isn't shredded, as some are, but the steak is cut into toothsome strips, then simmered gently in a spiced tomato sauce with bittersweetly mellow green peppers and onions. Both these dinners come with a full basket of warm, grilled, gently oiled pan Cubano.
Other specials include ground meat picadillo ($9.95), fricasseed roast chicken ($8.95), and marinated deep-fried pork chunks ($9.95). Then there are a whole bunch of foot-long cold subs, stuffed with chicken salad or tuna or classic Italian cold cuts (all $5.95), or hot sandwiches like the Cuban ($5), media noche (on egg bread, $4.75), grilled steak ($6.25), pulled pork ($5.95), or meatball sub ($5.95). The classic deep-fried Cuban stuffed potato balls, another staple from my days of poverty, are $1.50 each.
Mystery Number Two: Is Palm Beach County the final frontier? Murmurings round these parts are that PBC is just about a "saturated market" for restaurants. But you'd never know it the way they're mushrooming up whole colonies of eateries where once stood vacant marsh visited only by wading birds and skeeters. "Restaurant brokers" and their ilk won't quit until there's a mediocre, overpriced nosh-pit for every man, woman, and child in this blasted county. While I was marveling over my pork at Crazy Cuban, I fell into conversation with a guy who plans to open two new restaurants in Palm Beach Gardens, a Brazilian rodizio and a seafood place, based on successful models he's tested in Aruba. Apparently, he's unfazed by the competition he'll be getting from Rosa Mexicano, Sushi Jo, Strip House, Spoto's, the Cheesecake Factory, ad nauseam at Downtown at the Gardens. Meanwhile, Taverna Opa the rowdy Grecian hot spot in Hollywood known as much for tabletop dancing and plate-smashing as for its moussaka and dolmades is threatening to open an outpost this fall at the limping, wheezing, shadow-of-its-former-self known as CityPlace, in an upper-story space long since vacated in a panicked stampede of My Little Ponies by FAO Schwartz. There's an entrepreneurial sucker born every minute: At the tippy toe of the 100 block of Clematis Street a strip where not a single restaurant has eked out even a meager break-even subsistence since that ill-starred building went up, from Tommy Bahama's through Rodney Mayo's America to Samba Room Fire Rock Grill will be purveying (yet more) pizza within spitting distance of the well-established Pizza Girls. And around the corner, the Underground on Narcissus Avenue, a much loved, long-running, lesbian-owned, shabby-chic coffeehouse that shut down years ago, is opening under new ownership with promises of get this a caviar bar. Have you heard? The streets in downtown West Palm Beach, they're paved with gold. And the fountain in our central square gushes pure Roederer Cristal.
Mystery Number Three: For your "Only in Lake Worth" file. In my e-mail inbox: an invitation to a party featuring every kind of charming, New Age, feel-good wacko you'll ever want to meet: fire dancers, drum circlers, tantra practitioners, bellydance historiographers people after my own heart. The message comes courtesy of Gayle Coursal, an avenging angel who by a magnificent stroke of luck happened to drop from the sky into a breathtaking (if somewhat overgrown and neglected) one-acre garden on the corner of Lake Avenue and B Street, just as a cabal of developers was plotting to buy the paradisal parcel and pave it over for a parking lot (quite literally). This piece of heaven, one you've probably passed hundreds of times unawares, just a short trot from the former feminist/anarchist hive known as the Villa de Vulva, contains thousands of ancient and beautiful tropical plants and trees growing in rank and splendiferous profusion: nodding water lilies, giant tree ferns, and a rare, very tall coral tree a jungle of oversized butterflies and migrating birds to rival anything the mad painter Rousseau could have dreamed up. In our li'l ol' Lake Worth! Coursal wants to purchase the private land (the owner is most amenable), which she calls "The Grateful Garden," and turn it and two of its three buildings into a healthful-organic café/whole foods market/wellness & spirituality retreat for the world-weary, with spas and massages and zucchini sprout sandwiches on whole wheat toast and lots of belly-dancing classes; she's currently negotiating with backers from the Esalen and Omega Institutes toward that end. The café she hopes to have open by October. Shalt good triumph over evil? Stay tuned. There's a complex and extremely interesting back story to all this, spanning 30 years, which I'll fill in for you as plans progress. In the meantime, she's invited a descendant of Crazy Horse's medicine man, a Lakota Sundance Chief named Charles Chips, to visit and conduct workshops and healing ceremonies on September 16. Call Coursal at 561-968-0632, or visit www.The GratefulGarden.com.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.