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Restaurant Reviews

Roadside Attraction

Ah, the dreaded flat tire. Since ours is a wheeled society, flats are inevitable. You can only hope one doesn't occur in a truly dangerous situation, like on a freeway in Los Angeles after dropping a friend off at the airport. That happened to me years ago, when I was living in California. Talk about tense moments: I was tapping my toes on the shoulder of the highway, waiting for AAA as cars whizzed by at 90 miles per hour.

On the other hand, there are less stressful places to cope with a flat, as my party and I discovered recently in Weston. We had almost reached our destination, a Latin-American restaurant called Mambo Jambo, when we hit a ditch, which blew out one of our tires and bent the wheel rim. So we decided to limp into the restaurant's parking lot and call AAA rather than head to the nearest gas station. As it turned out, we made the right decision. If you're going to wait on a tow truck, you might as well do it over black bean soup and vaca frita.

For one thing, we're talking Weston here. You can bet it's going to take AAA a while to find the Indian Trace Center, where Mambo Jambo is located, amid the morass of identical shopping plazas and gated communities. It'll take you at least that long to finish a meal at this pleasant café. And slow service is not the reason; the portions are so big that it takes time to finish them. When your tow truck does arrive, you can also bet the staff will immediately let you know. The reason? Most of the servers at Mambo Jambo are refreshingly concerned about their customers' well-being.

The family-oriented restaurant embraces little children, not even batting an eye as they wander over the black-and-white tile floor in front of the kitchen doors or rattle the venetian blinds. The L-shape, high-ceilinged dining room is ideal for this suburban enclave; a bustling diner ambiance is countered by soft lighting, elegant ceiling-fan fixtures, and booths that resemble church pews.

Occasionally, though, the casual nature of Mambo Jambo is a drawback. We spied an insect in our entrée of bandeja paisa colombiana, a skirt steak flanked by a number of side dishes: red beans, chorizo, avocado, sweet plantains, and two fried eggs atop white rice. A fly was caught in the egg white. After we'd requested that the dish be taken back to the kitchen, the waiter reappeared almost immediately, holding the same plate of food, including the eggs. "The cook said it wasn't a bug," he said, and placed the dish in front of my husband. We were incredulous, but we eventually got the kitchen to replace the eggs. We were then able to enjoy the dish's many textural counterpoints: rich yolk juxtaposed by buttered white rice, creamy avocado next to tender flank steak, and piquant chorizo pepping up the red beans.

The extensive menu yields a number of Hispanic specialties, including five types of ceviche, a Peruvian dish for which raw fish or shellfish is cured in a marinade of lime juice, sliced red onions, and chile peppers. In our ceviche mixto -- a blend of shrimp, squid, scallops, mussels, and octopus -- the shellfish was fresh and succulent, and the plate was attractively garnished with roasted sweet potatoes. But again, there was a proverbial fly in the soup: One of the octopuses was served whole, with head attached. I've eaten termites in the Peruvian rain forest, but even I was a little put off by the prospect of beheading the baby octopus.

Set aside these presentation mishaps, and you can be assured of having a tasty, home-cooked meal, prepared by chef-proprietor George Quesada, who redeemed himself (and his kitchen staff) with the ronda cubana, a sampler of fried Cuban delights. Only the mariquitas, plantain chips doused with garlicky oil, and yuca frita, fried cassava fingers, were disappointingly greasy. The rest of the fare was delightful, especially the papa rellena, or potato dumpling stuffed with ground beef Creole. The empanadas were crisp turnovers yielding a filling of chopped chicken and egg; the tamal, polenta wrapped in a corn husk, was blanketed with chunks of glistening pork and pan-fried onions; and the ham croquetas were intensely flavored without being too salty. Tostones rellenos con camarones -- a basket of fried plantains, brimming with shrimp Creole laced with sweet-and-tangy pineapple -- was the crown jewel.

Although he's proficient at cooking traditional Latin-American main courses, Quesada is terrific when it comes to putting together Latin-inspired specialties. The centerpiece of the pato a la frambuesa entrée was a roasted half duck that had been marinated in citrus juices, then glazed with a raspberry-sesame Thai sauce. The duck meat was supple and moist, the skin candied and crisp. Just as winning was the honey-glazed salmon main course served on a bed of sautéed leaf spinach and accompanied by a not-too-tangy mango sauce. Both main courses, like all Latin fare, were accompanied by buttered white rice and flavorful black beans.

When you first walk into Mambo Jambo, it's tough to saunter by the deli case at the front of the restaurant without making a mental note of the sweet you'll probably eat at the end of your meal. That's how tempting the pans of tres leches and platters of "black beast cake" (a veritable feast of chocolate) are. By the time we made our choice, a light guava cheesecake, our tow truck had arrived. We finished up the last sweet bites of the dish just as the baby-faced mechanic was turning the lug nuts on our tire. We would have offered him a cortadito (Cuban coffee with milk) for the road, but I think he had to get up early the next day -- probably for auto shop class at the local high school.

As it turns out, I could have used the mechanic's services the next day. That morning, as I prepared to run off the Mambo Jambo meal and give my daughter a nap at the same time, I noticed that the baby-jogger had -- you got it -- a flat tire.

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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

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