For some reason, real Cuban food has always been a tough sell in San Francisco. The occasional place that gets it right somehow never lasts long — the owners switch to a more popular cuisine, sell out to people who don't do as good a job, or go broke. More often, places billed as Cuban are just concept restaurants where the only halfway authentic items are daiquiris and mojitos, and the menu's a fusiony hodgepodge of flavors and ingredients from all over Central and South America.
Real Cuban food has three primary roots. The indigenous Taino contributed still-popular staples including yuca (cassava), boniato (a kind of sweet potato), and beans. The Spanish invaders brought rice, pork, beef, spices, and traditional dishes such as tortilla (potato omelet) and paella; and their African slaves brought a taste for plantains and fried foods. This comida criolla (Creole cuisine) shares many dishes with nearby former Spanish colonies Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but has little in common with the food of Mexico or South America — for example, hot chiles are rarely used, and Cuban tamales are made with fresh corn and cornmeal rather than fresh masa. A typical Cuban meal (depending on budget and rationing) will include roast pork or some other meat or chicken dish, black beans, rice, yuca, and mashed ripe plantain.
Why isn't this tradition better known here? Back in the mid-20th century, when "Latin" music was all the rage, Americans lumped everything south of the border together. In the 1940s, Carmen Miranda (Brazilian) appeared as a nightclub performer in both "Weekend in Havana" and "Down Argentine Way." Rosemary Clooney's 1954 hit "Mambo Italiano" presented the mambo (Cuban) and the enchilada (Mexican) as a cultural package deal. The modern American concept of "salsa" music is a cosmopolitan blend of African-inspired rhythms and dances from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.
Even today, outside of Miami, New York, and a few other spots around the country with high concentrations of Cuban immigrants, few Americans have been exposed to the island's traditional dishes. Due to the homogenization of all things "Latin," and restrictions on travel to Cuba, they're largely unaware of the distinctive characteristics of Cuban culture, and so don't know that they're missing anything.
Paladar, a new addition to the restaurant row on Kearny between Sutter and Pine, is the place to get an introduction to the real thing. They do good to great versions of Cuban standards, plus some Colombian dishes that are a good fit.
Since the place is currently open only for lunch, let's start with the sandwiches. Paladar's cubano (or as they call it in Cuba, media-noche) is the best in town, almost as good as El Nuevo Frutilandia's was under its original Cuban ownership. A crusty roll is stuffed with roast Niman pork, boiled ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mayonnaise, and mustard, and then toasted in the same kind of sandwich press Italians use to make hot panini. The flavor is absolutely classic, though the texture could be improved by softer bread — the baguette-like roll is a bit chewier and less crunchy than tradition mandates.
The shrimp salad sandwich is less successful. Cubes of jicama and whole shrimp in a cilantro-ginger dressing are stuffed into a narrow French roll that's slightly crunchy, like it had been heated in the oven and then allowed to cool. The salad is tasty enough, but the combination of big slippery chunks and crumbling roll make it way too hard to eat.
The best appetizer is the yuca frita, small chunks of cassava deep-fried to a golden brown. The tuber's extreme starchiness makes for a great crunchy crust — as a friend said, "These make a potato look limp." They're served with a scrumptious, smoky, slightly spicy chipotle aioli instead of the traditional garlic sauce. Another standout is the mariquitas, house-made plantain chips, similar to potato chips but slightly sweet, perked up with a dip of mojo, the ubiquitous Cuban sauce of garlic and sour orange juice. Tortilla Española, described as a "traditional Spanish potato-onion omelette," is really more like a potato gratin: Thin slices of potato are piled up with barely enough egg to hold them together. This is incongruously served with something like a Romesco sauce, with a nice green salad on the side.
The must-try entree is lechón asado. Niman pork is marinated with citrus, garlic, salt, and oregano and slow-roasted until meltingly tender and delicious. In traditional fashion, this is served with congrí (black beans mixed with rice), boiled yuca, and sliced raw onions. This is the real deal — deeply, porkily satisfying. The black beans are also available plain as a side dish; they're completely plain and really need some mojo to perk them up.
Equally classic is picadillo Cubano estillo Elena, Niman ground beef sautéed with onions, bell peppers, garlic, green olives, and herbs, served with white rice and fried ripe plantains. The picadillo has good flavor but may seem bland compared with similar Central American dishes.
Sancocho Colombiano is a watery stew or hearty soup similar to a Cuban ajiaco or Mexican caldo. Beef rib meat, pieces of chicken, potatoes, yuca, plantains, and rounds of sliced corncob are simmered in a mild broth and, as if there weren't enough starch in the soup, served with a bowl of rice. The sancocho itself is bland, but it comes with a dish of delicious spicy ahogado sauce from the Santander region of Colombia, a purée of tomatoes, green onion, cilantro, cumin, turmeric, and chile. This is one of those addictive sauces that could make cardboard edible — it's also available as a side order.
Fricase de pollo's another winner. Pieces of chicken, potatoes, and carrots are simmered in a rich broth flavored with capers, green olives, raisins, oregano, and achiote. This comes with a big bowl of rice and, though it's not mentioned on the menu, a big helping of fried sweet plantains, so it's a lot of starch.
Salade "Cubaiçoise" was a sort of joking riff on a salade niçoise: a few slices of coriander-crusted seared ahi tuna are accompanied by a salad of olives, hard-boiled eggs, hearts of palm, potatoes, plantains, green beans, and radish. This dish doesn't make much sense, but there seems to be a law that every restaurant has to have some raw or nearly raw tuna on the menu.
Paladar's flan has a good caramel flavor but it's quite dense, very eggy, not rich or creamy — presumably it's made with whole milk rather than evaporated. Maybe this is where the tortilla's missing eggs ended up. The cortadito, an espresso ristretto macchiato (a short pull with a splash of milk), is absolutely classic: sweet, nutty, and rich. As noted on the menu, unless you order otherwise, it's served Cuban style with plenty of sugar. On one visit, the sandia cooler, watermelon and cucumber juice with a spring of mint, was very refreshing, another time it was too sweet for my taste — probably varies from melon to melon.
It's best to go with no more than three people, so you can sit in the sunny main room; the only tables that can accommodate larger parties are in a stuffy basement. Currently, the restaurant is open only for lunch on weekdays. They say they plan to open for dinner and perhaps weekends when they get their beer and wine license. If the kitchen keeps its focus on the soulful, traditional dishes it does best, Paladar could be a great addition to the downtown dinner scene.