I count myself blessed to have grown up in the Bronx, just a short walk from Yankee Stadium, in a multi-ethnic world of Eastern European cooking.
There were delis and pickle stands and aromatic shops filled with smoked fish and pickled salads. I also remember the Italian wonders of Arthur Avenue, and the steadily growing realm of dishes from the Caribbean – in particular from Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Puerto Rican cooking was found mostly in grocery stores and on street corners. But Cuban immigrants – refugees from Castro and communism – liked to open restaurants filled with music and flavors that dazzled with every bite.
My love for Cuban cooking was born early in my life, and it’s never faded. The aroma of a plate piled high with ropa vieja – the shredded beef dish that translates as “old clothes” – can easily drive me into a feeding frenzy. Add on some papa rellena, and I’m back in the Bronx, just off the Grand Concourse, chewing my meat while the rattle of the IRT rolls across the landscape.
There’s no Woodlawn elevated train waking up the denizens of the San Fernando Valley. But there are, at least, two notable destinations for Cuban cooking that have fed us very well for years – decades, in fact. One is the Encino branch of the Culver City stalwart called Versailles, named for what may be Miami’s most famous Cuban restaurant. For most, mention picadillo and empanadillas, and it’s Versailles that comes to mind.
But for those of us who often traverse the streets between the Ventura and Golden State freeways, at the corner of Victory Boulevard and Western Avenue, at the cusp of Burbank and Glendale, there’s the venerable Mambo’s Cafewhich dates back to 1988. It feels like a restaurant that took over the space that was once upon a time a gas station – though I may well be experiencing a memory warp, and imagining a history that never was.
Whatever the past might have been, as Mambos approaches its 35th anniversary, it decidedly feels…well-loved and much cherished. The walls are lined with dozens, maybe hundreds, of photos of customers past and present, Cuban musicians, notables from the Cuban community – honestly, some annotation below the photos would be appreciated.
But there they are, decorating the walls, clustered over the bar, with its very old-fashioned wooden chairs, much like the cooking – sturdy and built to withstand whatever culinary trends sweep across our edible landscape.
About the most modernist touch on the menu at Mambo’s is the presence of a vegetarian section of seven dishes, which may or may not have been there back in 1988. The vegetable tamale seems likely; the garden burger less so. And really, it doesn’t matter. Although Cuban cooking is largely based on chicken, beef, pork and seafood, it’s more significantly built around herbs and spices, black beans and rice.
Order the Mambo’s chicken, and chances are good that before you consider the tenderness of the parts, it’s the lemon, the garlic and the grilled onions that will fill your mouth with joy.
The avocado salad may not sound all that special. But when you consider the tender sweetness of the aguacate, matched with the arrogance of the onions and lemon, that the subtlety of this dish tears into your consciousness. It’s such a simple creation…and so good.
But then, so much of the menu is seemingly so simple – and actually so complex.
I’m mad for the papa rellena – a perfect potato ball stuffed with ground beef, and so herbaceous. The chicharrones de pollo – chunks of chicken fried and flavored with (what else?) lemon and garlic. The pork is roasted long and slow, so slowly, till it melts on the palate, along with the grilled onions – which exist on the edge of melting anyway.
There’s the dish I went mad for in Miami years ago, the beautifully named Media Noche of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and picked on sweet egg bread – one of the best reasons I can think of for staying up past midnight.
For dessert, there’s flan. To drink, there’s Mambo’s iced coffee, made with not one, but two shots of the house espresso. The faces on the walls, so many, look down with approval.
But you should be wary of having a second iced coffee. Or a cortadito or a mochaccino. Too much strong Cuban coffee, and the photos will start talking to you. Just like the cooking, in Spanish. And you’ll understand every bite, and every word.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email [email protected]
- Rating: 2.5 stars
- Address: 1701 Victory Blvd., Glendale
- Information: 818-545-8613, mambos-cafe.com
- Cuisine: Cuban
- When: Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Sunday
- Details: beer and wine; reservations helpful
- Atmosphere: A reminder that Versailles isn’t the only Cuban game in town, this easygoing café – situated in what looks as if it could have been a gas station way back when – sits between two freeway systems, which still allow it to be a unique dining experience for those who prefer to travel by land rather than high speed road.
- Price: About $25 per person
- On the menu: 9 Entradas ($1.95-$19.95), 7 Salads ($3.95-$14.95), 9 Hot Sandwiches ($10.95-$17.95), 16 Entrées ($14.95-$21.95), 7 Vegetarian Entrées ($9.95-$16.95), 11 Side Dishes ($3.95-$5.50) , 6 desserts ($4.50-$4.95)
- What the stars mean: 4 (World class! Worth a trip from anywhere!), 3 (Most excellent, even exceptional. Worth a trip from anywhere in Southern California.), 2 (A good place to go for a meal. Worth a trip from anywhere in the neighborhood.) 1 (If you’re hungry, and it’s nearby, but don’t get stuck in traffic going.) 0 (Honestly, not worth writing about.)
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