If Cuba still sounds good to you, yet you'd like to avoid all the hassles and expense necessary to get there, then head over to Gay Street muy rapido, because that's where a zesty taste of the island can be had at the new Plantain Cafe. And this just-opened little lunch-only mom-n-pop restaurant has hit the metaphorically sandy, beachy ground running.
Yes, the Plantain Cafe is little and it's certainly narrow, but it's by no means a dingy, bare-bones lunch counter. The cheery eatery's merry lemon yellow and pale green walls (i.e. plantain colored) are further brightened by hanging amber teardrop lamps and zig-zagging strings of decorative bulbs, as well as daydreamy postcard-like photographs worthy of a Cuban tourist bureau.
After you seat yourself, you peruse a nice-priced, two-paged, table-planted menu with five sandwiches, three entrees, a soup and a few sides on it. The Cafe's opening food list was cleverly conceived with in-a-rush Downtown-employed diners in mind, as it features always-ready stewy stuff and other quickly prepared goodies. In other words, your food will shoot out here in mere minutes, guaranteeing you'll make it back to the office in a flash.
So what about that food? Well everything I ate tasted like pretty great Cuban homestyle cooking. And though I experienced a few minor first-week flaws, for the most part, the Caribbean-tinged dishes I dug into at the Plantain Cafe make it one of the more promising new restaurants in town - and another terrific Latin option for nearby El Arepazo fans. Oh, and dining here is certainly easier than getting to Cuba.
• Sopa de frijoles negros ($4.25) - A hearty, rich and creamy pureed black bean soup with a contrapuntaly tangy backbone.
• Frita ($7) - Freakin' great handmade Cuban hamburger with racy chorizo worked into the ground beef. Comes on a decent toasted bun and brilliantly topped with crispy shoestring potatoes.
• Cubano ($8) - Not perfect (just OK deli ham, cheese not fully melted, good pressed bread, not crispy enough), yet it's big, satisfying and made right and about as good a Cuban sandwich as you'll find in Columbus - and that's plenty good enough. Like all sandwiches, it comes with mariquitas (see box) or, sometimes, fries.
• Ropa Vieja ($11 as an entree with good rice and soupy black beans, or $8 as a sandwich) - Another triumph. Tender strands of juicy and savory pot roast were enlivened by wine, tomatoes, onions and the flavor of green pepper, all cooked together for a long time.
• Picadillo ($9 entree with rice and beans) - Terrific. A just-spicy cooked-down chili/stew made with ground beef, potatoes, green olives and plumped up raisins. All the complementary flavors were married to each other and in perfect harmony.
• Arroz con Pollo ($11) - A pea-studded saffron and pimento-flavored rice and chicken dish that tasted great. Unfortunately when I got to it, it'd probably seen better moments as my rice was a tad gummy and the chicken a little dry.
Plantains, plantains and more plantains
As befits its name, the Cafe's main side dishes are plantains - served three ways. All versions - perhaps surprisingly - were quite different yet equally and completely delicious. Here's a breakdown:
Mariquitas: These paper thin and crispy curls eat almost like potato chips and arrive just fried and glowing from a bracingly tart, garlicky and perfectly suited mojo sauce.
Tostones: Green plantains smashed and fried into what look like pressed brown flowers. They're midway between sweet and savory, halfway between crispy and chewy and all the way delicious.
Maduros: Cooked perfectly, dark fried mouth-melting fatty clumps of the mature plant. These have the deepest sweetness.