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Island fever: Cuban Pete's Cafe

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The bellwether dish for Cuban restaurants is a densely flavored black bean soup imbued with smoky ham, cumin, oregano, onions and peppers. Though I prefer a Puerto Rican-styled black bean soup, a cup of hearty Cuban frijoles negros is hard to beat. Advocates and aficionados of Cuban cuisine are legendary for their passionate intensity. Typically, they have honed their palates in mom's kitchen or in those fabled enclaves of south Florida or northern Jersey.

Fans of Cuban cuisine are exacting of their expectations: They want reasonable renditions that keep traditional Cuban cuisine alive in the U.S., not some American hybridization co-opting doing to Cuban what we've done to Mexican, Italian and Chinese. On the other hand, some believe Cuban cuisine in the U.S. has been stopped in its evolutionary path with dishes stuck in a Mambo time warp. After all, when was the last time you saw a croquette on a menu? They were once popular in the U.S., too -- only back in the 1950s.

With all this in mind, only a foolhardy person would dare make claim to authentic Cuban food if it were not so. Cuban Pete's Café makes no claim to its kitchen's authenticity, although the chef is Cuban. Their black bean soup doesn't taste like traditional Cuban black bean soup. Rather, it is a broth-based soup with carrots, chunks of potatoes, and a scattering of black beans. If you are dying for mom's (if your mom is Cuban) cooking, you may not find it here. But if you want a place that brings the flavor of the islands, I'm sure Pete's has a table with your name on it.

Pete's extensive and sensational rum list matches well with the Latino foods on the menu. The feel is more Caribbean than Cuban, which may in part be the influence of the rums, which include my faves from Bermuda, Jamaica and Barbados. The 120-seat interior looks like a set from Survivor: Island Beachside Bar. It's all island escapism -- more Jimmy Buffet than Desi Arnaz. The interior design was performed by owner Tony Ortiz, who is a professional interior designer and an artist before he took the plunge into the challenging world of restaurants. Ortiz has designed for high-end homes, bars, restaurants and retail spaces for 11 years in the New York, New Jersey area.

Ortiz's imaginative approach is apparent when you open the door. To the left is a Tiki bar hostess stand. If you can sit in the dining room on the left -- ocean-side -- some luggage is stacked on a quay. A few building facades front the all-embracing wall murals. Ortiz is keen on detail -- a lizard stretches out on one roof, while a bird perches on another. A line of children's clothes hangs on a clothesline in the afternoon sun (performed by lighting). Cuban Pete's has the look of a charming but slightly shabby beach-front.

Almost all the rough hewn dark wood tables host pitchers of sangria. The sharing of beverages entices patrons to order other communal foods. Pete's roster has a focused variety of Cuban dishes as well as a few vegetarian selections.

The best of small plates are the familiar empanada and the stuffed green plantains with minced beef. Both blend perfectly with rum drinks. In that line is also the media noche, a popular snack eaten after the bars have closed in south Florida. With the same ingredients as the Cuban sandwich, the Midnight is served on brioche-type bread.

The kitchen extends its light touch to some of the entrées. The Creole sauce covering the shrimp is a fine and hearty rendition. But the side of black beans and white rice, or moros y cristianos, is uninspired. Desserts -- and the rum -- are a must. The best of the confections is the visually appealing Cigars: two cannoli shells dipped in chocolate and piped with Gran Marnier cream. And it comes with ice cream and sprinkles of candied orange rind. The tres leche is a satisfying dish.

Entrées range from $10 for ropa vieja to $36 for a seafood paella for two. Sandwiches are $8 to $9. Cuban soft drinks, like Ironbeer, are available, too.

When given the choice between ambiance and food, corporate restaurants long ago realized that if you create a space which is fun -- think Disney or any ep-nic (Epcot plus ethnic) restaurant -- while delivering a decent food product, people will return. Clearly, the neighbors in Plaza Midwood have already discovered this place. Cuban Pete's is fun.

Know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To be included in our online blog, Eat My Charlotte, send information to Tricia via e-mail (no attachments, please): tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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