Havana bites

Sol Cubano

5734 Watt Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95660

(916) 332-2883

Cuban food is richly spiced but notrighteously spicy. The City of Trees can now savor it, thanks to Abel Milan and Margarita Chang opening Sol Cubano on Watt Avenue across from McClellan Park’s gates in North Highlands. Look for the vintage white and red Oldsmobile ’88 out front sporting the “CUBA” license plates. The two opened the restaurant in December to “keep up the tradition” of Cuban cooking. They must be doing a good job, since a number of the patrons are Hispanic, Puerto Rican or Cuban.

All of Cuba’s greatest culinary hits can be enjoyed here. Lechón asado, close to the national dish, with its garlicky mojo criollo—lime juice, orange juice, oregano—marinated pork is accompanied by black beans. Ropa vieja, shredded beef in a thick, bay-leaf-blasted sauce of tomatoes and broth from the boiled flank steak, is another stalwart. “Sweetly cooked to perfection,” the menu says with more accuracy than braggadocio. Rabo encendido isn’t fiery as the name suggests—it actually translates to “lit tail”—but Sol Cubano’s iteration is a peppery mother of an oxtail stew tetched with thyme and bell peppers.

Among the side dishes, yuca al mojo con chicharrón, or yucca with pork skins, contains enough garlic to protect an apartment complex against vampire assault. The yucca is potatolike, the pork skins reminiscent of deeply tan Corn Pops but tasting like CornNuts. Crispy and sweet fried plantains is a more endearing choice. As pal Kristin, a Cubano aficionado, says: “Hard not to love something that can be a side dish and a dessert.” Moros y cristianos, nicely spiced rice and beans, is generously portioned for $1.95.

Sandwiches—among them pork, fried beef and fried tilapia—are $5.95 and can be ordered at breakfast, which starts being served at 8:30 a.m. when Sol Cubano opens. Perhaps a cup of Cuban joe to wash it down. Eat dinner early; lights out at 8:30 p.m.

If searching for a representative sample of fare Cubano, the $12.99 sampler platter isn’t the best choice. It doesn’t do justice to Abel’s cooking. It’s muy starchy. The centerpiece is an Epcot sphere of fried potato with a ground-beef core—papas rellenas. Potato-esque yucca, fried plantain and croquetas—fried beef sticks—accompany. The only verdure is a too-small patch of mixed greens, accented with red bell pepper slices and cucumber and tomato cubes. Softening the blow is very rockin’ oil-and-vinegar-based dressing, although two lil’ plastic containers are better than one.

The salad dressing also livens the pea-speckled paella, one of Sol Cubano’s daily specials. The pork from the sampler—you can choose the meat or poultry—is arid. Hot sauce is required for irrigation. Better to make multiple visits and march down the entree list for a more enriching expedition into Cuban food.

The authenticity carries into the soft drinks. Materva Yerba Mate, Jupiña, malta and IronBeer aren’t squeezed onto the shelf next to Diet Cherry Coke at the local SaveMart. Sadly, Iron Beer, created in 1917 and featuring a muscle-bound guy in profile, is not a malt beverage. It’s a sort of root beer that tastes like those orange popsicles with vanilla ice cream inside. Materva’s label isn’t too revealing, unless one is conversant on the constituents of tartaric acid and extract of mate. Turns out yerba mate is a laurel-like plant hailing from South America and the tropics. Apple-ish, ginger-alelike is the closest comparison. Jupiña is chock full of piña—pineapple—and is the lightest and fruitiest of the drinks sampled. The aptly named Malta is brewed from malt but is nonalcoholic.

To cap lunch, Margarita snaps a photo of Kristin and I for inclusion on Sol Cubano’s growing Walls of Fame. On the first visit, the photos covered one wall. Now they’ve spread to two. Is this the finest Cuban cuisine this side of Havana?

Nope, but it’s made with care and with heart. As Abel says to patrons after their meal, “Thank you, my friend.”

Make the pilgrimage.