Florida doesn’t have a distinguishing cuisine, not like Boston has baked beans or clam chowder, New Orleans has gumbo and even Buffalo has wings. So when people ask me where to go for a taste of local flavor, I send them to a close neighbor: Cuba.
Not literally, of course, because that’s just too complicated. But we’re close enough to the island nation, and so many of its native born have found there way here, that the flavors of Cuba can be found in many local restaurants.
As you might imagine, Cuban is not a fancy cuisine. But it is a filling one, and a meal at a good Cuban restaurant can be satisfying and filling without putting a strain on your wallet.
If you’re unfamiliar with Cuban cuisine, look for some of the traditional dishes: ropa vieja, which means old clothes, but don’t let that worry you -- it’s name refers to the shredded beef that is stewed in a tomato sauce; arroz con pollo, stewed chicken served with saffron infused rice; or boliche, an eye of round steak with chorizo, a spicy sausage, stuffed in the eye. You’ll also want to try plantains, the banana-like side dish that might be served soft or as firm chips, and yuca (not the same as the cactus spelled yucca) that is sort of like a potato, usually served boiled with a garlic sauce.
Or just as with any cuisine you’re unfamiliar with, dive in and order something you’ve never had before. With Cuban food it’s very unlikely that you’ll get something you don’t like.
Here are some of my favorite Central Florida Cuban restaurants:
Rincon Cubano Cafeteria: My current favorite, this Winter Park restaurant has wonderful and traditional fare. Don’t let the cafeteria part deter you -- that’s just an indication that you order your food at the counter and have the option of selecting items that are pre-prepared and on display.
Padrino’s Cuban Bistro: A bit more upscale than most Cuban eateries, but still quite casual. They have terrific empanadas, a flaky pastry filled with spiced beef.
Numero Uno: One of the area’s oldest Cuban restaurants, it has changed hands several times but maintains a fine reputation for quality.
Los Autenticos Cuban Cafe: A small space owned by a young couple. Be sure to have the chicken soup and the roast pork.
Rice & Beans Cocina Latina: Rice and beans are generally served as a side dish, but they’re so prevalent in Cuban cuisine that it isn’t unusual to see a restaurant so named. Mofongo is a specialty here. Though a bit more Puerto Rican than Cuban, it’s worth trying. And if you have rice and beans, go for the black beans.