Latin Soul

Photo by Joy BastAmong the many contributions to American cuisine, the assists of Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro and Ho are among the least appreciated. Consider this when you recall that some of our favorite foods are gifts of people who have come to the U.S. fleeing commies—among these, the Cubans and the Vietnamese. Both cultures have built tight communities in which their rich culinary traditions have altered the dining landscape.

The Vietnamese community is to Orange County what the Cuban community is to south Florida: some of the world's best Vietnamese restaurants can be found in a 5-square-mile area of central OC. But the OC Weekly has written a whole lot about Little Saigon. So let us turn to Cuban food.

Most folk think of the Felix Continental Caf as the premier Cuban joint in the county and Habana as the sexiest, and I won't argue with either. Rafi's Cuban Caf doesn't have Felix's continental touches or extensive Euro-Cubano menu. But that's a good thing in this case. Rafi's looks and feels like being far from Orange County, which can be a salvation when the unending onslaughts of Olive Gardens dull the mind.

Located in downtown Tustin, one of OC's fine old neighborhoods, Rafi's has this vaguely rockin' third-world Latin feel to it. It's a big, airy place, with a dozen or so ceiling fans a-whirrin' and a radio playing in the kitchen. As Latin American places go, it comes with loud, primary-color walls (including the most beautiful blue wall in Orange County). You almost expect a chicken to wander through the dining room.

I like to think of Rafi's cooking as soul food, Cuban-style. Its staples are the core food groups of the cuisine: pork, chicken, rice, beans and plantains. The dishes are simply titled—Cuban-styled beef stew, chicken with yellow rice, stuff like that—and simply prepared. And the prices are unbelievable. Full dinners go for $7 to $8, and they don't skimp on the meal, either.

To get a good start on this Cuban soul food, I got a taste of an appetizer tamale (Cuban-style, of course) and the tostones. The tamale was moist and topped with shredded pork—a departure from the Mexican variety we're used to. The tostones are deep-fried plantain slices served like potato chips. The menu says they're great with beer (very true; but what isn't?). These tostones were addictive: if I had an infinite supply, I would never stop eating them.

But then I wouldn't be able to eat the entres. The Cuban-style roast pork features meat cooked unlike any you've had before: it's cooked in a broth of lemon juice, garlic and oregano, so it's very sweet. It's balanced against a side of congri, a traditional Latin American mix of plain but undeniably delicious black beans and rice. The other dish—the chicken with yellow rice—looked and tasted like a poor man's paella. The rice and chicken was a bit dry, but it came with a mound of peas and sliced red bell peppers on top. The color combination was dazzling.

I was dying to try the tres leche cake for dessert. The story, as told by the menu, is that this cake fled Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution for south Florida, where it found its way into Cuban restaurants. I guess both sides had the same affinity for communism. But Rafi didn't have the cake this night, so I had to settle for his awesome homemade key-lime pie, which was so tart and sour that my mouth puckered into a permanent kiss.

It is important for you single folk on the prowl to remember that key-lime pie equals puckering lips. It's the perfect date food.

Rafi's Cuban Caf, located at 425 El Camino Real, Tustin, is open for lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; and for dinner, Tues.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-9:30 p.m. (714) 505-4071. Dinner for two, $15, food only. Beer and wine. All major credit cards accepted.


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