For four decades — two generations — Americans have not been permitted to visit Cuba; thus, tales and tastings of that country's indigenous cuisine have been left to large enclaves of émigrés within the United States, notably Miami and Union City, New Jersey. In those locations, all styles of Cuban eateries, bakeries and coffee shops are available.
Not so much here. Charlotte has had a handful of Cuban restaurants, and oddly enough, a bakery (which makes Cuban bread as a side item). Overall, however, while other Caribbean eateries (and their supporting native populations) flourish here, Cuban cuisine has been relegated to the ubiquitous pork and ham pressed sandwich and black bean soup.
As anyone who is or has a friend who's Cuban or of Cuban decent will tell you, Cuban cuisine experts can be as touchy and discerning as barbecue lovers. True aficionados honed their palates in those fabled enclaves of south Florida or northern Jersey.
Fortunately for those in this group who live in the area, there is Carlos Café. This small eatery opened a few years ago in the corner of a shopping strip in Rock Hill. Although opened by a native Cuban restaurateur, the business changed hands, then fell on hard times. Joe and Flor Strollo bought it and gave the space a total refit in May 2008. The smallness -- only 49 seats -- creates a sense of intimacy. Now a mural of a Cuban beach shines from the one long wall while a high stucco wall provides sanctuary from the kitchen. In the front is a small food display glass front case with stacked sandwiches.
But what hits you first is the warmth. The Strollos make it known that they are glad you are there. They visit with the customers, act as runners, bus tables and are only too happy to chat about the dishes on the menu. Flor Strollo is a native of Pinar Del Rio, Cuba, but was of Spanish descent and returned with her family to Spain before immigrating to the United States. Joe Strollo is not Cuban. He's of Sicilian descent and a native of Manhattan before he moved to Miami. When the couple decided to open a restaurant, the first choice was a New York style pizzeria in Concord. But then Carlos Café became available and the match was made.
Carlos Café is not a high-end emporium with mojitos with yerbabuena mint. After all, nowadays, expensive ingredients are hardly a dining imperative. This menu reads like a concise compendium of what Cuban cuisine lovers would look for in its comfort food. Listed are a half dozen starters and then entrées separated by protein: beef, pork, chicken and seafood. The favorites are there: steak Palomilla; fried shredded beef (vaca frita); shrimp in a tomato Creole sauce (camarones enchilados); and, of course, El Cubano sandwich and its sweet cousin media noche. Sandwich breads are by Charlotte's Suarez Bakery.
Order a few appetizers and the table will be crowded. Crispy mariquitas, thinly sliced plantains, arrive piled high on a platter large enough for four. The densely flavored quartet of smoky ham croquettes disappear quickly while the tamale Cuban shows the marvels of this well-instructed kitchen.
Order a pitcher of sangria and you'll find fruit cocktail in your wine glass. Also on the beverage menu are batidos, coffee drinks, beer and Cuban soft drinks, including Iron Beer, a Cuban Dr. Pepper.
Entrées are a strong suit. The table favorite was the lechon asado, pork marinated in mojo, olive oil, sour orange, garlic, onions and spices. In other words, a tropical pulled pork plate sided with luscious sautéed plantains, and black beans and rice (which comes in such a quantity, it could be an entrée). The irresistible dish with a bad name, vaca frita (fried cow), is densely textured ribbons of beef with a hint of the islands in the spice mix.
The desserts include a very good traditional flan (they also offer cheese and coconut flans) and an excellent group of hot churros, deep-fried dough drizzled with chocolate and stuffed with caramel. If you like hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts, you'll love these. Add a shot of Cuban espresso and the separate tastes melt together in a dreamy, symphonic progression in your mouth.
This year, tasty, filling and cheap reign. Carlos Café fits this bill. Most entrées range from $10 to $12. If Obama opens the doors to Cuban American travel, will tourists find antediluvian menus in Cuba? Or has American Cuban dishes become its own Americanized Cuban cuisine? (We do have a hint of this with churros.) It may not matter. At least for now, Charlotteans have a Cuban-inspired oasis in Rock Hill.
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