A few weeks ago, I had one of those days when I was sustained only by thoughts of a marvelous dinner. Before I even planned or cooked breakfast, I was mentally thumbing through my cravings list and wondering where to seek a ‘victual of the Gods’ to celebrate the end of a long hard week. A craving for a Cuban sandwich led me to remember that there is a new Cuban restaurant that I wanted to try. Gustazo doesn’t make Cuban sandwiches but I decided that I could expand the craving for Cuban from the signature sandwich to the entire cuisine.
I drove straight to the restaurant from work, but wanted desperately to be at home so I opted for carry-out. The place is tiny. I counted 21 seats(!), with a kitchen that might be as small as mine (but with a bigger stove. Oy vey!). Still, the staff were friendly and worked around me with good-natured humor since there is not really anyplace to stand and wait.
The carry-out menus (a double-sided trifold) were printed such that when the inside was correct, the outside was upside-down and backwards. I found this amusing, but it will annoy/offend someone. I’m sure they will correct it on their next printing run of the menus.
I ordered three appetizers instead of an app and an entrée. It was more than enough food. Ropa Vieja, which comes in smashed green plantain cups, with a small side salad; Guacamole Cubano (pineapple, sunflower seeds) with plantain chips; and a chicken empanada.
Overall the food tasted light and fresh. The flavors were present but not particularly unique or robust. I did not mind the latter, I wasn’t in the mood for heavy or overwhelming, but they could probably do with punching up the spice a bit.
The ropa vieja was very good. The texture was right. I was incredibly charmed by the plantain cups – a clever way to work-in the traditional tostones. My first experience with ropa vieja was at some hole-in-the-wall joint in New York City and it was sopping in tomato-y garlicky mojo. Gustazo’s was less sauce heavy. I’m not sure which is more traditional, but I prefer it with more sauce.
Guacamole Cubano. Apparently in Cuba the guacamole has pineapple in it and sunflower seeds. I was a little skeptical at first, but the pineapple lends both an unusual textural element and a pleasant sweetness (it is chopped pretty fine) that balances nicely with the raw red onion. The sunflower seeds are a nice crunch and second fatty note to go with the avocado. While I was waiting for my meal, I overheard one of the diners request yucca chips instead of the plantain chips that came with the guacamole. She said they were too sweet. They were not sweet plantain chips and they did not read sweet on my palate. However, I’m almost certain they were store-bought and not house made. If I were to beg one thing –and I appreciate the small kitchen and limited staff hours– it would be house-made plantain chips. So much more control over the flavor, texture, freshness. A small touch that would a lot.
The empanada is not on the menu. It was a special that night but might be recurring(?). They had three flavors chicken, beef, or spinach and ricotta. I opted for chicken since I was not feeling the veg and I already had beef. It is not a large empanada. Neither is it a small empanada, but if you were only eating empanadas you would want two. Speaking of two there seem to be (at least) two styles of empanada dough — a crispier, flakier puff pastry style and a softer, more-cumbly, doughy style. I like them both when well-prepared and light. Gustazo rocks the puff-pastry style and does it well with great filling-to-dough ratio and a lovely golden hue. I admit I prefer the comfort of the doughy texture but I also respect what might be more traditional in Cuba.
Overall, yum! I will definitely go back. The ambiance is not so much more compelling than home that I would want to eat out there, but I think carry out is a great option. I want to try lunch (when they do offer a Cuban sandwich, yay!). And I look forward to understanding the lack of deep, sloppy I-want-to-get-drunk off this mojo and the flaky empanada crust. Regional? Good start, Gustazo. To your long tenure!