By Kristine Hoang
By Ryan Ritchie
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Cleo Tobbi
By Dominique Boubion
Felix Continental Cafe got a face-lift: They removed the light bulbs that bordered the old street marquee for something a little more tasteful. But other than that, it’s business as usual. The decades-old Cuban restaurant looks like it always has—a little frayed around the edges, and it will probably remain that way even as cars start to fly.
Plastic plants flank the doorway and fake dew still dots the artificial roses decorating tables protected by sheets of well-worn Plexiglas. A few faded LA Times write-ups and crookedly hung frames of indeterminate scenery cover the walls that aren’t claimed by mirrors—a design relic restaurants born in the ’70s employ to make a room seem larger.
Felix’s sidewalk tables, on the perimeter of the Orange Circle’s roundabout, are still the preferred places to sit. Come after dusk, and it’s the reverse, as seats inside fill up quickly. Either way, the restaurant is always bristling with Miami transplants daydreaming of Calle Ocho, as well as itinerant Chapman University students and other local townsfolk out for a cheap supper they’ll never hope to finish in one sitting. Yes, the quantities are still so ridiculous that no one goes home without a Styrofoam container in hand.
36 Plaza Square
Orange, CA 92866
Insurmountable mountains of rice, black beans, plantains and yuca are standard starches on the lunch combos, stomach-stuffers in and of themselves. But the odds are stacked against you further at dinner, for which every meal includes either a soup or an unremarkable salad and a choice of dessert that, more often than not, will get boxed up along with the rest, sight unseen.
Seldom will you see any newbies not escorted by a regular. You need some know-how to navigate a menu as complicated as U.S.-Cuban relations. For instance, the roasted-pork dish you want is the pierna de puerco from the Cuban side of the menu, not the one called “roasted pork” listed under Caribbean Specialties.
They’re intrinsically the same, flavored with orange juice, but the latter seems to be made from the rejected scraps of the former, suspended in a gelatinous goo of a gravy and slopped onto the plate looking too much like a dorm-bathroom sink after rush week.
The better way to have your pork, in my opinion, is still the masas de puerco fritas, cubes of deep-fried pig crisped to dark-mahogany chunks. Only the Filipinos with their lechon kawale—oil-blanched pieces of crunchy-gooey pork belly—can claim a more ingenious fried-pork dish. Also, since Felix’s rendition is undersalted and composed of leaner meat, eating it calls for a prerequisite dip in the garlic-cream sauce provided. Or if you ordered a few appetizers, spoon the remaining supply of the mojo verde, a tomatillo-based salsa, to pep up the pig pieces.
And while we’re on the subject of appetizers, I must add that Felix’s roster can be hit or miss. Freed of their husks, the tamales Cubanos are denser than some fruitcakes, and the croquettas de pollo y jamon are nicely breaded but pasty.
The empanaditas criollas—thick-crusted, fork-crimped half-moons that are actually bigger than most empanadas I’ve seen elsewhere—taste carefully handmade and endearing in a grandmotherly kind of way.
But the papas rellenas . . . oh, the papas rellenas! Get one or two, even if it means ruining any chances you have of finishing a whole meal. (Trust me: You won’t anyway.) This deep-fried mashed-potato ball, as massive as a shotput, spills out ground beef tasting strongly of cumin—possibly the greatest you’ll taste in the area until Porto’s Bakery opens in Downey.
Those not into red meat or pork can just skip to the main entrées, where there’s a roasted half-chicken to compare to those golden-skinned, deep-fried game hens prevalent in Little Saigon. You’ll swear the bird here also saw a Fryolator, since its skin is rendered to a crisp, papery wispiness, just like the Vietnamese version. Beneath it, the dark parts of the hen are still moist, even if the white parts are not.
The same lack-of-moisture problem also kept the ropa vieja—a classic Cuban staple of beef cooked to shreds—from living up to fond memories of the ones I ate in Miami’s Little Havana. But ask any Cuban who has tried Felix’s Cuban sandwiches, and they’ll tell you they got it right—a perfect pile of roasted pork leg, good ham, pickles, Swiss and mustard compressed between the hoagie-like softness of Cuban baguette bread.
One almost wishes Felix stuffed its version of a milanesa into it, a breaded-fried beefsteak pounded and stretched acre-wide dubbed bistec empanizado. But that would be sacrilege, despite the meat being tender enough to be torn by fingers and so thin you can take it home in a standard envelope.
Unless you’ve been deprived of food for months, this, too, will end up in your doggie bag. And yet you’ll come back in the morning to complete your collection of Cuban leftovers by ordering an omelet.