I grew up eating Cuban food at the homes of Cuban friends. While New Jersey's no Miami, there are a lot of Cubans there. If I could beam just one bit of information about Cuban food into the minds of Southern Californians, it'd be that there's more to it than marinated pork leg, grilled chicken, rice, beans and plantains.
Take, for example, the wonderful vaca frita (literally “fried cow”) at Bella Cuba, the newest entry into OC's slowly expanding Cuban restaurant scene. It's not quite the canonical vaca frita, but it's close. It uses some of the same mojo with bitter orange juice that you find in the aforementioned pork and chicken, but it's thinner, crispier, more assertively meaty, and set under a raft of sautéed onions and green bell peppers, which lends a vegetal note sorely lacking from the “big two” as popularized by Versailles.
Of course, rice and beans come with it; while some people like moros y cristianos (mixed together), I prefer mine to be separate, so that the well-spiced black bean liquor can soak into the rice. Still, no matter how you choose the sides, the fact is you'll be chowing down on the best Cuban beef since rabo encendido–and with a portion that will send you home with leftovers, including enormous sides, for $12.95, it's a bargain, too.
Bella Cuba, 3930 S. Bristol St., Ste. 114, Santa Ana, (714) 545-5711; bellacubarestaurant.com.