Restaurant Reviews

Get Ready to Rumba

Perhaps it's the Miamian in me, as I reviewed restaurants for Miami New Times for five-plus years before taking on Broward and Palm Beach. Or maybe it's the purist in me, or the nitpicker in me, or even the snob in me. But when I walk into a Latin-American restaurant and bar such as Rumba's Latin Grill and order a mojito, the last thing I expect is for the bartender to look at me blankly and then say, "Tell me how it's made, and I'll make it." The second-to-last thing I expect, once I relate the recipe, is for her to tell me she can't do it because she doesn't have the right ingredients. And the third-to-last thing I expect is that the bartender is so cheerfully unconcerned that she's never come across this quintessential Cuban cocktail that she snaps her gum and tosses her blond hair on the way back to the bar to pour me a Bacardi citron on the rocks instead. I suppose I should count myself lucky she's heard of rum.

OK, so the restaurant is in Davie. But being located in the heart of hoss country is no longer an excuse, because the municipalities in west Broward have some of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the tricounty area. Indeed Pembroke Pines, Sunrise, Plantation, and Davie are now home to dozens of Latin-American eateries, including El Batey, La Esquina de Tejas, and Las Totoritas.

Not that Rumba's inspired much confidence on the way in. The place is located at the far end of a strip mall, which itself is not a deterrent in South Florida. But it stands adjacent to the one portion of the parking lot that has never been paved; if you want to park near the restaurant, you do so on matted grass. (That's fine if you're looking to tie up a horse.) Plus Rumba's is trying to complete a name change from Parrilla's Latin Grill; proprietor Carlos Ochoa recently split from the partner with whom he opened up two Parrilla's (the other is in Weston), and each owner kept one restaurant as part of the settlement. Unfortunately Rumba's has been in the process for at least two months now, and the result is utter confusion. The neon sign attached to the strip mall, the staff, the business cards, and the menu all call the place Parrilla's, while the billboard sign in the parking lot and the credit card machine note it as Rumba's.

Perhaps the biggest deterrent to dining at Rumba's is the lack of company. Both times I've visited the spacious place, which has a couple of different tiers for dining plus a separate bar, it was nearly devoid of other customers. The first time, coupled with the other little jolts, the solitude seemed warning enough that my husband and I sat at the bar and split an entrée.

Our strategy turned out to be both good and bad, and not just because it was ladies' night and I drank the house white wine for free. Good because the vaca frita we ordered was an enormous flank of steak, accompanied by pressed Cuban bread spread with garlic butter, robust black beans, buttered white rice, and caramelized plantains. Any more food would have been wasted. And bad because the shredded beef, pan-fried to a melting crispness and topped with sweet white onions and a hearty squeeze of lime, was so accomplished I immediately absolved Rumba's of all its earlier sins. Indeed we regretted we weren't hungry enough to sample some other dishes.

When we returned almost a month later for the full-blown experience, all of the previous red flags were still flying high: underwhelming location, vying appellations, few customers, and an extensive, beef-heavy menu that trawls various Latin-American countries for recipes. The only thing different this time? The food was even better.

Though the kitchen draws its inspirations from Spain to Mexico, much of the fare tastes Cuban in origin, including those dishes that cater to untutored American tastes. For instance the potato skins appetizer was the usual collection of hollowed-out, deep-fried spud shells. But these papas were stuffed with ropa vieja, stewed beef that translates literally as "old clothes" because of its falling-apart appearance. The stew meat was heartily flavored and wonderfully succulent; these little treats set the tone for a superb carnivorous meal.

The last page of the menu lists the grilled steaks that are available for consumption, and these range from filet mignon to skirt steak. But if you're expecting the expected, don't. The New York sirloin we ordered was magnificent -- and I don't use that word lightly, given that a strip steak isn't my favorite cut of beef. The steak at Rumba's was the thickest I've seen, obviously top-quality and juicy as well as tightly textured. Moreover it had been seared quickly on a clean grill and served still sizzling. (I can count on one hand the number of times in my life that this has happened.)

If you prefer pounded meat, look to the Cuban specialties on the previous page. There you'll find the aforementioned vaca frita as well as a breaded cutlet that overran the plate the way a good hot dog does a bun. The pounded steak had been quickly fried, then dressed with a little tomato sauce and blanketed with melted cheese. As with all the main courses, the excellent black beans and rice partnered the steak, but these had to be brought on the side because, well, there was no room on the china.

Beef eaters may be gloating at this point, but there's room -- and need -- to note that Rumba's carries some pretty terrific alternatives. You can get the cutlet, for instance, done with poultry instead of meat. And listen for specials. We scored a sterling piece of salmon, sautéed with a little garlic sauce and topped with jumbo Gulf shrimp drizzled with butter and garlic. You can order the same garlic shrimp as an appetizer, served in the traditional terra cotta crockery as if you were in Spain instead of South Florida, or try the crustaceans sautéed in Creole sauce for a main course. If you're unsure what you're ordering, pray for a Hispanic server and ask for recommendations. Our waitress pointed out the pork dish she thought we'd enjoy best, roasted with caramelized onions, and we ultimately agreed with her that the tender, poke-apart-with-a-fork pork should be considered one of the house signatures.

She also steered us away from ordering too much food, advising we save room for dessert. Again she was correct. Though I generally despise all sweets that jiggle, even I had to concede that the tres leches was a perfect consistency and that the guava cheesecake was a smooth, tart triumph. In fact triumph would be a good word to describe Rumba's if it can overcome some deficiencies: lack of a good mojito, lack of business, and lack of an established name.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick