At my count, there are, at best, seven Cuban restaurants spread out over Orange County. This is, after all, California, not Florida. We have no equivalent to Miami’s Calle Ocho, no dedicated Cuban epicenter where every other restaurant offers a media noche or a shot of café Cubano. Discounting Porto’s in Buena Park, Cuban food is a footnote when compared with our area’s abundance of Mexican and Vietnamese eateries.
This isn’t to say there aren’t great places to experience the food and culture of Ricky Ricardo’s home. Habana in Irvine Spectrum not only serves nearly every dish in the cuisine’s repertoire, but also re-creates the Cuba of the 1950s—those halcyon days before Castro’s revolution took over the island state. Everything from the strategically chipped Art Deco-blue bar to the aged look of the china recall a fabled Havana high life that’s gone but not forgotten.
These same motifs—from the blue paint on the bar to the antique plates—can also be found at the new Isla Cuban-Latin Kitchen & Rum Bar in La Palma. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, this could be called idol worship. Isla’s similarities to Habana were so clear that for the first few minutes after sitting down on my chair (which was also identical to the ones used at Habana), I began to wonder: Are the two restaurants connected?
As soon as the complimentary appetizer of cassava and plantain chips arrived with a dip, I decided it wasn’t. I remembered Habana offered a similar starter, but Isla’s take was different. While Isla offered only one dip—a thin, garlicky sauce—Habana put out three: a roasted-red-pepper-and-garlic salsa, a chimichurri, and a particularly addictive bean purée.
It would be easy to spend the rest of this review comparing Isla to Habana, but that wouldn’t be fair. Isla is considerably smaller. It has less than half of the square footage and feels more like a neighborhood bar than the carefully themed life-sized diorama that is Habana. And then there’s the noise level.
To eat at Isla on its busiest nights is to become temporarily deaf. Its echo-chamber acoustics create one of the loudest dining rooms I’ve ever been in. And since everyone in the restaurant yelled so that they could be heard above other people who yelled, if you were to bring in a decibel meter, the needle would snap.
The meal began with empanadas. Flaky and bubbled, the fried pastry half-moons came three to a serving. They were filled with seasoned ground beef or chicken, both becoming instantly better when liberally doused with the house hot sauce. The same can be said of the fried yucca balls, which hid a core of cheese and had the chew of mochi.
In fact, there wasn’t much that the Tapatío-like salsa couldn’t cure. I used dribbles of it on the inelegantly fried chicharron de pollo. These morsels of chicken, which resembled Japanese karaage, were simultaneously greasy and dry. If you’re going to order them, it’s better to opt for the appetizer portion, as they’re not only $5 less expensive than the entrée, but also served atop tostones, tiny fritters made of mashed plantain. But the best reason is that the appetizer comes with a side of wilted onion salsa, a tangy concoction that Isla should serve with everything.
If I had more of that onion salsa, I could’ve conquered the mofongo, a gigantic cylindrical hunk of mashed green plantain mixed with pork rinds and garlic. Though technically a side dish, the mofongo dominated the plate and dwarfed the garlic shrimp that I chose as a protein. By comparison, the shrimp resembled climbers scaling El Capitan. And with a texture as dense as clay, the mofongo was just as immovable as the Yosemite landmark. Only after putting significant pressure on my fork did I manage to chip a piece off, which reminded me of underseasoned day-old Thanksgiving stuffing.
A dish to which I automatically gravitate at any Cuban joint is the ropa vieja, which was served here with a mound of rice and a ramekin of beans. Unfortunately, since the meat was nearly as dry as jerky, this was my first time eating this classic Cuban shredded beef dish in which it felt as if I were actually chewing on “old rags.”
I left the restaurant with my ears ringing, a throat hoarse from yelling, and a full doggie bag. But an odd thing happened the next day when I ate the leftovers in the solitude of my kitchen: the food tasted better. The ropa vieja was still chewy, but this time, I noticed its deep, beefy flavor. Even the mofongo was edible after it was reheated. Why didn’t the food taste this good at the restaurant? Did the noisy surroundings dull my other senses? Maybe I’ll go back to Isla to test my theory—after I find some earplugs.
Isla Cuban-Latin Kitchen & Rum Bar, 30 Centerpointe Dr., La Palma, (714) 735-8597. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight. Entrées, $17-$20. Full bar.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.