Cuban Cuisine

A far-flung mix of cultural influences comes together in this island cuisine

Photograph by Edmund Barr

Cuba’s food is a rich fusion. Born in the kitchens of sugar plantations, its recipes evolved as slave cooks learned European techniques and applied them to local ingredients. Yucca, corn, and tomatoes were enhanced by pork, garlic, and sour oranges—and served with African plantains and yams. Today criollo cuisine, once regarded as rustic, represents the soul of Cuban cooking. In L.A., Versailles, Porto’s, and Xiomara may be our most visible Cuban restaurants, but others have also gathered.

Cuban Bistro | Alhambra

Many of the dishes in this spare modern space have a Cal-Asian spin: crab cakes with lobster cream sauce and tropical fruit salsa, lamb chops in cranberry-cabernet reduction with plantain chips and garlic mashed potatoes. Cuban classics like ham croqueta and masitas de puerco (marinated pork chunks) keep traditionalists satisfied. A full bar pours all manner of mojitos, and on weekends there’s live music and dancing. » 28 W. Main St., Alhambra, 626-308-3350.

El Rincon Criollo | Culver City

Years ago “the Creole Corner” was a drab hole-in-the-wall catering to Culver City’s small Cuban enclave. Its homey food—sautéed oxtail, a sandwich cubano laden with juicy roast pork, delicious flan—overcame the ambience. Lately the place has been spruced up with bamboo walls and oil paintings of Cuba’s vintage cars. Cocktails are served now, too, but the fine cooking remains. » 4361 Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City, 310-397-9295.

Havana Beach Cafe | Montrose

Booths with thatched roofs, a ceiling painted as a sky, and ersatz banana and palm trees give this place a tropical feel. Every night has a theme: On Wednesday the Caribbean Crabfest dinner includes a pound of Alaskan king crab legs; Thursday brings bargains on shrimp dishes accompanied by the traditional trio of fluffy white rice, black beans, and fried plantains. The ropa vieja (beef stew) is outstanding, and on the weekend regular customers know to reserve their paella-like chicken rice. There’s also a good selection of Spanish, Chilean, and California wines. » 2235 Honolulu Ave., Montrose, 818-248-1169.

Havana Mania | Redondo Beach

Hipsters at this festive bar sip fruit-studded rum drinks, and on Tuesday nights, long tables of partying Cuban expats cheer when a whole roasted baby pig is paraded through the dining room. Owner Louis Montesdeoca, whose parents opened the Culver City Versailles (originally called the Union Cuban Restaurant) in 1975, has preserved the family’s recipes, and the kitchen turns out an enormous menu of splendid garlic-drenched Cuban soul food, from slow-roasted pork to seafood-filled paella. On Mondays, mojitos are half price. » 3615 Inglewood Ave., Redondo Beach, 310-725-9075.

Photograph by EDMUND BARR