Bella Cuba's Mojo Rising

Bella Cuba is just like its mojo sauce: the longer it sits, the stronger it becomes; the more alluring it gets, the more irresistible it is. It opened about a year ago, and I wasn't really impressed at first. The food was fine, but not particularly memorable—switch the white rice for Spanish and the black beans for pinto, and you could be at any mainstream Mexican restaurant.

But the folks at Weekly World headquarters have always loved Bella Cuba, not only because it is in the part of Santa Ana nearest our offices, but also because the portions are very generous—salvation for someone surviving on an alt-weekly salary. And as every month passed, the scent of that mojo—the legendary Cuban sauce composed of garlic, olive oil and sour orange juice, as electric as Dylan at Newport—wafting from cubicles and conference rooms kept getting stronger and stronger. Earlier this month, I was able to detect it from about 100 feet away, its siren call luring me to pool a cup of it from trays and pour it over a mountain of rice, beans and maduros.

At that point, I was already a fan. Bella Cuba is simultaneously nice and fast, doing massive lunch business, but caring about the quality and presentation of its product. Tellingly, the lunch menu stocks those few Cuban dishes that have penetrated the American mainstream and described them in English—ropa vieja, rabo encendido and a media noche become “shredded beef,” “sauteed oxtail” and “Cuban sandwich,” respectively. But the flavors are all there: the ropa vieja is a thicket of cow, assertive and silky; the oxtail is savory and reeks of Calle Ocho. But it's dinner when Bella Cuba lets its inner Beny Moré out and brings forth the rarities: fat empanadas, a briny arroz con calamares (squid cooked in its own ink), even a massive offering of paella that can feed you until the start of the baseball season. It's that rarity in Southern California: a Cuban restaurant that attracts exiles and non-Cubans alike, all searching to fill their yen.

And back to that mojo. It's so potent you can probably toss it on a dead car battery and spark it back to life, so damn good that I usually just ask for a side of it (along with white onions drenched in the stuff) to cover my beans, rice and maduros to make it a meal. But don't be as simple as me: Get the entrées, and let the mojo get its, well, mojo on.

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