By Cat Wurdack
3106 SE Hawthorne
Tues – Sun 11 am – 10 pm
El Cubo de Cuba is a warm hug on a chilly Portland afternoon. The colors! Red, yellow, and blue – the color of the sky at Veradera Beach on a sunny day.
Havana-born Milko Vigil Escalera and Kansas transplant Emily Roskam bring Escalera’s family recipes, three years of cart savvy, and a praiseworthy use of color to their new brick and mortar on Hawthorne Blvd. The couple tested and refined Escalera’s recipes with friends to create a menu Portland-friendly and true to Cuban traditions.
The staples of a Cuban diet include black beans and rice, pork, sweet potatoes, and sweet or salty fried plantains (maduros and tostones). Escalera’s beans are like his mama’s, he says – flavorful, with lots of garlic and onion, and some sugar because everything Cuban is a little sweet.
Choose from six entrees, all under $10, and four gluten-free sides at $4.50 each. “We wanted to focus on a small menu and do that well,” Roskam says, “in order to keep quality up and prices down.”
Mojo pork, a good introduction to the menu, is slow-cooked, tender pork shoulder served with beans, rice – and mojo, a slightly tangy, garlic and lime sauce. Salty, sweet potato fries are an especially good accompaniment. Roksam likes to mix these flavors and textures in a bowl and spoon them up together.
Cuban sandwiches and a (vegan) Caribbean salad of mango, cucumber, avocado and red onion in lime dressing round out the entree choices.
Debate swirls around the origin of the Cuban sandwich. Escalera says that it comes from Miami and not Cuba.
At any rate, El Cubo makes a pared-down, traditional version (no condiments) with slow-roasted pork and smoked ham on light, crunchy bread that is flat-pressed on a panini-type grill.
Café Cubano, a double-shot of strong espresso brewed with raw sugar so it almost caramelizes, is a great picker-upper with or without a sandwich.
Rum drinks are available from the bar as well as beer, and a winter special: a hot drink with espresso, coconut cream, and rum.
If you’re new to the Cuban experience and feeling adventurous, try a malta hatuey (like a stout without the alcohol), jupiña, a sweet, pineapple soda pop or a fresh fruit batido, the Cuban version of a smoothie.
El Cubo has 40 seats inside (counter and tables) and almost as many seats in the patio under the mango-colored umbrellas (the patio might be covered this winter), and there’s parking!
Escalera has been playing percussion in the northwest salsa and latin fusion band, Pura Vida for many years. “Food is like music,” Escalera says. “I cook with a lot of music. I dance in the kitchen.”