We're at Cesar's Bistro, sitting on lime-green plastic chairs under a fluttering umbrella as the syncopated rhythms of a Willie Colón song pulse through the air. I'm sipping mint lemonade from a sweaty mason jar, and she's petting our dog, who's yawning on her lap. This is Long Beach, but if I close my eyes, it could be Miami or at least Spanish Harlem. I think the salsa music has something to do with it. It might also be the fried sweet plantains we're nibbling as an appetizer. What is it about the ripe fruit that it only takes a deep fry to turn it into something sweeter and more delicious than the most complicated bananas Foster recipe?
Cesar's Bistro dazzles with its plantain dish not because it drizzles house-made sour cream on top, then dusts it with cinnamon, as some South American recipes dictate, but because it serves it hot and crusted with the fruit's own natural caramel–a food that always reminds me of Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Jamaica, where almost every meal I ate included them in some way or another.
More plantains come when the Colombian calentao arrives. This time, they aren't sweet, but crispy, golden-fried and scattered in little pieces around the calentao's sculpted column of rice and beans. The bistro calls these nuggets "Crushed Caribbean Plantains." Depending on where you're from, you might know them better as tostones, patacones or platanos verdes fritos. The unripened fruit is fried, then flattened into discs, then fried again–proof the plantain, not the banana, is "Quite Possibly, The World's Perfect Food®."
We carve spoonfuls from the calentao and think it's almost like fried rice. It's a dish pulled together from last night's leftovers–if your leftovers happen to consist of beans, rice, pieces of some hot-dog-like sausages, pulled pork and corn. It goes well with the tostones and the otherwise-forgettable salad on the side. But it's those tostones that link together nearly every main course we eat at Cesar's Bistro this lovely afternoon. The restaurant bills itself as "New Latin American," which means it's a cover band to the cuisines of the region. It cooks Peruvian aji de gallina, Cuban ropa vieja, and a pan-seared fish slathered with a creamy red-pepper sauce dubbed "Cartagena-style." And each dish gets two coaster-sized rounds of tostones. The kitchen even piles the ropa vieja on top of a tostón, crowning it with sour cream and guacamole as though a tostada.
The aji de gallina is especially good. The cumin-tinted yellow pile of shredded chicken turns out to be three times spicier than the last time I ordered it at an actual Peruvian restaurant. Best yet, it comes with a scrumptious mound of rice that reminds me of the grains that come with Hainan chicken. The slightly dull chicken Milanesa–which is a dead ringer for Olive Garden's chicken Parm, with melted cheese and red sauce gilding the breaded chicken breast–gets the same rice as well as a drab bowl of beans.
If Cesar's has a specialty, it's the empanadas. The kitchen produces four kinds: spicy ground beef and potato; ham, cheese and pineapple; a veggie with spinach; and a spicy sausage. Chefs crimp the doughy edges with a special press that embosses "Cesar's Bistro" on them. And each table has a placard that advertises the empanadas are available for pre-order in party trays. We order a few, but I prefer the crispier empanadillas filled with lobster and shrimp. Unlike the empanadas, these tinier crescents are made of the same corn-cake material the kitchen uses to make the house arepas. And my, what they do with arepas! Cesar's scatters them throughout the menu, but there's an arepa stuffed to nearly overflowing with ropa vieja, caramelized onions and pineapple chutney as a main course.
We begin to eat it with our hands as though a pulled-pork sandwich. But soon, we take to it with a knife and fork. The structural integrity of an arepa this size is tenuous at best, but Cesar's ignores this fact. It even constructs a Wagyu burger complete with cheese and bacon crammed in between a split arepa. Though I didn't order it, its heft almost guarantees it would fall apart.
Cesar's also offers an unsplit arepa in its Monster Breakfast, which turns out to be a sampler of the best things it makes served on a plate with a thin omelet and bacon. Included is one of any empanada, a cheese-and-hogao-sauce covered arepa, and the chorizo, a splayed-open length of house-made sausage with flecks of chiles in it. This sausage, I discover, can also be had in a sandwich called choripan and is so good it's the reason to eat at Cesar's, even if there were no salsa music or fried plantains.
Cesar's Bistro, 6240 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach, (562) 494-1000; www.cesarsbistro.com. Open Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Meal for two, $20-$40, food only. Beer and wine.