I’ve been mourning the loss of Eastern Market’s Banana Cafe, that beacon of beef and plantains, ever since its untimely closing last year. I showed up to work hungover on at least two occasions after an ill-fated pitcher of mojitos. I also sorely miss being serenaded with Michael Jackson singles from the blind pianist at piano bar upstairs. Nothing can replace the old Banana Cafe in my heart, but dammit if Mi Cuba Cafe isn’t going to try.
Not exactly our usual fancy Friday night fodder, I’d had my heart set on this neighborhood hotspot in Columbia Heights for months. We walked in around 6 and got a table for four in the back; ten minutes later the entire place was packed to the gills. Service was a little slow, but they did come by early to drop off a basket of toasty, garlicky flat bread that made all of us moan with pleasure. I ordered my drink: “A mojito please!”
“Dos!” said my husband.
“Tres!” said my father-in-law.
“Um…the frozen one!” said my mother-in-law.
Delightfully minty, generous size, and adorned with sugar cane, these weren’t Banana Cafe pitcher-worthy, but that’s probably for the best. After we left the restaurant I was still tipsy enough to lose track of my entire family as we crossed 14th Street. Note: I’m not sure I recommend the frozen one, which had the mint blended in and was, shall we say, alcoholic toothpaste.
On a total whim, I ordered the guava and cheese empanadas, and I am sooooooo happy I did. They were piping hot with a bubbly skin like an eggroll, with sweet guava jam and tangy cream cheese inside. I think I could spend my whole life chasing down another empanada experience this good, like Captain Ahab, but…you know…for pastries.
My father-in-law got the special of the day: Ropa Vieja. It’s something they offer every day, it’s just cheaper on Fridays. I ordered the Aporreado, which is basically the exact same thing as the Ropa Vieja, just with chicken instead of beef. Cuban cuisine…so creative. Because they’re so creative, each entree comes with two side dishes. You can choose from rice and black beans, rice and red beans, or congri, which is rice and beans mixed together. Then you can choose from three different types of plantains. I feel like maybe I should be impressed by all the ways they’ve come up with to cook what are essentially bitter bananas. You gotta work with what you got, I guess.Here’s my Aporreado with congri and platanos maduros (and a fried egg because I know what’s up, yo). The chicken was moist and tomato-y. Contrary to the millions of green plantain tostones I ate on my recent vacation in Nicaragua, these plantains were of the more sweet, plush variety that I prefer, and so crispy and caramelized on the outside that my dentist will probably have to pick them out of my molars during my next visit. Fried eggs make everything better, although in this case, as in my general experience, Latin American restaurants have a tendency to overcook them. Numerous Central American acquaintances have asked me how Americans can stomach “undercooked” meat (read: anything less than sliced thin and well-done), and I think the avoidance of runny eggs stems from the same place. When you cook this at home, go for the egg. At Mi Cuba, just skip it.
My mother-in-law had the Pollo Mi Cuba, which was crisp outside without tasting overwhelmingly of char. She ordered the yuca frita but received plantain tostones and, honestly, I think this was the better option anyway.
My husband, who loves Cubanos almost as much as he loves Reubens, shocked all of us by ordering…the Cubano!
It was, in a word, enormous. It also came with an adorable Cuban flag so what’s not to love here? If there is one single complaint to be made about it, it was a little heavy on the ham. I can’t believe I have to live in a world where my husband complains that a sandwich has too much ham, but it’s 2018, Donald Trump is our president, black is white, up is down, and this Cubano had too much ham. Apparently.
All four of us received take-away boxes and packed up literally half our meals. My mother-in-law and I ordered some delectable cafe con leche and I’m not going to say this was the best con leche I’ve ever had, but… it was up there.
Price: $25 per person.
Bottom line: I’m in love. Mi Cuba is no-reservations and no-frills, but yes-flavor and yes-ham.