A Little Havana

The Port Cafe brings a tropical splash to the Castro

My first impression of the Port Cafe (recently conjured from the remains of the Port Deli) was that it resembled the ramshackle cafeteria of a 1970s high school with mod scheduling: The walls are a bruising orange, the overhead lighting harsh, and there is no potted foliage to soften the interrogation-chamber atmosphere. To the wall behind the counter clings a battered white cabinet of several shelves, all of them depressingly barren. The only real clue to the restaurant's change of identity -- other than the promising odors wafting from the kitchen -- is an array of Spanish-language LPs mounted on the soffit above the cash register.

The smells from the kitchen were a kaleidoscopic mingling of citrus, garlic, and chilies -- the sensuous, tropical signature of Cuba. Trendoids have lately fastened upon Cuban cooking as the latest culinary fad, and yuppies all across the city are tucking into tapas dishes that feature such Caribbean standards as garlic shrimp, black beans, and deep-fried plantains. The Port Cafe doesn't offer tapas; in fact its menu isn't even all Cuban. But the Cuban dishes it does offer are smashingly good and shockingly cheap -- a combination that ought to send the place into orbit.

One problem with not serving tapas is that there really are no starter dishes on the menu. We queried our server about this, and a few minutes later he appeared with a plate of croquetas ($2), little deep-fried balls of mashed potato stuffed with ham and white cheese. They were just enough food to awaken the appetite.

The Cuban main courses (all $7.95; there's also a list of "yanqui" dishes) include a prelusory bowl of corn chowder with mild green chilies. The soup had a satisfyingly chunky texture, and while it seemed too sweet at first to both the Boss and me, it responded well to a good salting from the shaker on the table.

Considering that the restaurant is pretty much in the heart of the Castro, the weekend dinner crowd was noticeably mixed: Along with the various assortments of gay men and lesbians (in couples and even more complex combinations) were a young hetero couple with infant child and a set of middle-aged parents with (presumably) their adult child and his or her opposite-sex love interest. There is so much commercialization in the Castro these days that it's easy to miss the neighborhood's quieter and more intimate face. It's still a place where people live -- not just shop or go to bars -- and the Port Cafe, near the action but not in it, is where a lot of those people seem to be eating.

I find it almost impossible, when in restaurants, to resist examining the plates of nearby diners: What are they having? Was it good? Do they seem to be enjoying themselves? Should I have that? The plate of the man not far from my right elbow (he was exchanging Saab stories with a friend) was littered with a promisingly large pile of chicken bones, which I thought augured well for my chicharrones de pollo. The half-bird, marinated in citrus and spices, had been cut into pieces and then fried until the skin was dark and crisp and difficult to resist eating. (I tried but failed.) I didn't care much for the starchy sweetness of the accompanying tostones (deep-fried disks of green plantains), but the black beans, served in a bowl on the side, were pleasantly heavy.

The Boss didn't like the beans at all and left his bowl almost untouched, but he didn't go hungry, because his palomilla steak -- a beef fillet pounded thin, marinated in citrus and garlic, and grilled -- was wonderful, tender and tasty. (So often with beef you can have one or the other, but not both.) His plantains were maduros (sliced from mature fruit); no better, really, than their immature siblings. Still, we ate them all.

Daylight looks kindly on the Port Cafe; sunshine washing through the west windows along Sanchez Street softens the restaurant's hard unfinishedness and encourages happy lolling. We drifted in for brunch early on a weekend afternoon and found the restaurant full but subdued, as if everyone were still thinking about the Sunday papers they'd just read.

Brunch generally means some sort of eggs. The Boss isn't keen on them, but he went for the day's special, a Spanish-style tortilla ($6.95) -- basically an open-faced omelet with three kinds of peppers, onion, and good tangy jack cheese melted over the top. A lovely combination of textures and colors, but the lack of salt was striking. I also thought the side dish, potato quarters sauteed with onions and peppers, was equally undersalted, but the Boss seemed satisfied, so I let him have them all.

Despite the slightly out-of-tune corn chowder from the dinner visit, I took the soup plunge again: a cup of Manhattan clam chowder ($1.95). The V8-like broth was powerfully scented with pepper and chunky with big bits of potato and clam. Generally I prefer soups that have more subtlety and depth, but there was something invigorating about the chowder's trumpet blast of spiciness.

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