Archive for the 'Cuban' Category

The Residency at UMAMIcatessen: Chef Micah Wexler’s “To Live and Dine in L.A.”

The Residency at UMAMIcatessen: "To Live and Dine in L.A." with Chef Micah Wexler

Meet: The Residency.

Housed in Downtown’s UMAMIcatessen, this culinary series features a changing roster of chefs from around the country every Thursday night, with each stint lasting 10 weeks. Think of The Residency as Grant Achatz’s Next with a dash of Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner and a pinch of LudoBites’ showmanship. Does that make any sense? You’ll see…

The Residency at UMAMIcatessen: "To Live and Dine in L.A." with Chef Micah Wexler

Kicking off the series is Chef Micah Wexler (left), formerly of Mezze. Joining him behind the 12-seat counter is Mezze’s former pastry chef Morgan Bordenave (center) and general manager Mike Kassar (right).

One of the coolest aspects of this experience is the intimacy of the space. With diners seated around a small U-shaped counter and chefs preparing and plating each course just a few feet away, interaction and conversation is encouraged like at no other venue in town.

The Residency at UMAMIcatessen: "To Live and Dine in L.A." with Chef Micah Wexler

Chef Wexler is as personable as they come, so it was a real treat bantering back and forth with him throughout dinner and probing him about important matters like how to best prepare the flageolet beans I received in my Christmas stocking last year.

Continue reading ‘The Residency at UMAMIcatessen: Chef Micah Wexler’s “To Live and Dine in L.A.”’

Porto’s Bakery – Los Angeles (Glendale)


Strolling around Porto’s Bakery on a bustling Saturday afternoon, it’s hard to imagine that the shop began over 35 years ago as a home-based business in Cuba. Since its humble beginnings, Porto’s Bakery has garnered a devoted following, outgrowing several locations and eventually settling into a 20,000 square foot building in the heart of Glendale.

Of all the fantastic restaurants in the city of Los Angeles, it’s Porto’s Bakery that has as come up time and again whenever a friend or acquaintance has recommended a local place for me to try. After receiving a half dozen solid endorsements for the place, I made a mental note to stop by the next time I found myself in Glendale.


After procuring a wickedly sweet suit for The Astronomer at the Glendale Galleria a few weekends back, we made our way to Porto’s Bakery to see what the fuss was all about. I knew that the bakery was beloved by many, but the crowd waiting for their piece of the Porto pie was truly staggering. The staff on hand managed the amusement park-esque lines smoothly and professionally.


Taking a cue from the customers ahead of us, The Astronomer and I ordered way more food than we had room to eat. The potato ball (85¢) was the lone savory item on our tray. The papa rellena was comprised of breaded and fried mashed potatoes filled with seasoned ground beef. The crunchy texture of the breading had me at first bite, while The Astronomer enjoyed the chili-like filling.


The guava strudel (65¢), one of Porto’s most famous baked good, was as tasty as everyone told me it would be. The mildly sweet guava jam smothered in between flaky layers of buttery puff pastry really made this little rectangular sweet shine.


The guava and cheese refugi (left – 65¢) and the cheese roll (right – 65¢) were on par with the guava strudel. The cream cheese filling in each one reminded me of Danish breakfast pastries. Puff pastry is an ingredient that I adore, but it quickly gets overwhelming. After taking a few bites from each one, we packed up the rest to go.


I knew ordering a creme brulee ($2.50) at a Cuban bakery wasn’t the smartest move, but oftentimes my gluttony gets the best of me. Much to my surprise, Porto’s creme brulee was completely competent and exceeded my expectations by a mile. The sugary crust was uniformly caramelized, and the smooth custard contained tiny flecks of vanilla bean—two hallmarks of a great creme brulee.

After just one visit to Porto’s, I totally understand why every other Angeleno is crazy about the place. The vibe is fun, the prices are more than reasonable, and the food is perfectly enjoyable. Win. Win. Win.

Porto’s Bakery
315 North Brand Boulevard
Glendale, CA 91203
Phone: 818-956-5996

The Tapasfication of Saigon

Communal nibbling is a tradition in many cuisines. Spaniards have their tapas, the Cantonese consume their dim sum, Greeks celebrate their mezze and the Japanese feast on sakana at izakaya bars. Cathy Danh checks out the big business of small plates in HCM City.

It used to be that going out for a meal meant ordering appetizers to start, which were then followed by entrees (usually a slab of protein paired with a carbohydrate and starch) and if there was any room left, dessert proceeded. Taking a cue from the global small plates trend, a number of popular establishments in town are deconstructing their menus. Appetizers, entrees and desserts are still present in some form, but the addition of small plates (or tapas as they are more popularly referred to) is notable.

HCM City’s chefs are adding an unexpected twist to this trend by rethinking and transforming cuisines not traditionally served in this fashion. Mexican, Cuban and Vietnamese foods are being given a modern makeover and becoming major players in the emerging small plates scene. Light bites, big groups and stiff drinks are the name of the game, and the city is packed with dining options that fit the bill.

31 Dong Du, District 1
Qing has the honour of being the city’s first small plates joint. “When I looked at what was around Dong Du, there was already a Vietnamese restaurant and Al Frescos,” says Tony Fox of Qing. “We wanted to do something different and decided on tapas with a twist—Asian tapas.” Qing opened its doors in December of 2004 and has been doing brisk business ever since. Even though the menu includes traditional entrees and appetizers, “70% of our customers order wine and tapas,” says Fox. “It’s all about small bites and big flavours.” The Korean-spiced salmon with kimchi blinis and wasabi cream cheese (68,000 VND) are a crowd favourite. The delicate pieces of diced fish are placed atop a crispy pancake smeared with spicy cream cheese. The prawn wontons with ginger and spring onion dressing (75,000 VND) are also stellar. Each dumpling is daintily served on a porcelain spoon, and the combination of flavours are reminiscent of traditional dim sum.

La Habana
6 Cao Ba Quat, District 1
With over 50 delectable Spanish and Cuban-inspired tapas on the menu, live music and dancing nearly every night of the week and cocktails sold by the pitcher, La Habana is guaranteed to be a great night out. “Tapas and paellas are our signature specialties,” says Jane Speeger of La Habana. The Cuban meatballs (60,000 VND) in tomato sauce are hearty, rustic and satisfying, especially atop toasted slices of bread. The chilli garlic prawns (60,000 VND) garnished with a fresh spring mix are juicy, succulent and will leave you wanting more. The croquetas filled with mushroom, cheese and ham are served with a chilli pineapple sauce (60,000) to create an unstoppable combination of flavours. Every Monday at La Habana is a Tapas Fiesta where diners have a choice of three tapas for 150,000 VND. Add 30,000 VND for a glass of house wine.

Xu Café Bar
71-75 Hai Ba Trung, District 1
The Xu restaurant empire is taking a stab at small plates at the café bar on the first floor of their flagship establishment. A varied selection of modern “Vietnamese tapas” share menu space with an extensive wine and cocktails list. According to Elizabeth Fisher of Xu, the concept for the café bar was to keep food light and informal. “The menu provides something to snack on while drinking,” says Fisher. “If people want a full dining experience, then they can go upstairs to Xu Restaurant.” One of the best-selling tapas is the Vietnamese Pizza (60,000 VND). The base of this fusion dish is a cross between a Vietnamese crepe and a tostada shell. Squares of rare tuna and a smattering of cilantro are piled on top, and a chilli and lime dressing provides the finishing touch. “We’re taking traditional Vietnamese herbs and spices and giving it new style with our tapas menu,” says Fisher. A fine example of this blending is the Rau Ram Arancine (60,000 VND). The fried risotto balls combine the heartiness of Italian risotto with Vietnamese coriander. With the Vietnamese tapas menu receiving rave reviews from customers, the folks at Xu are now working to bring late night acts to the venue. “We want people to eat, drink and be entertained,” says Fisher.

Cantina Central
51 Ton That Thiep, District 1
For the past year, Cantina Central has been satisfying HCM City residents’ cravings for Mexican street food through its selection of small plates. While burritos and tacos dominate the menu, the short and sweet anojitos/tapas section is a fun option when noshing with friends. Start with the ceviche—tender cubes of fish marinated in lime, chilli, cilantro and onions topped with jalapenos (60,000 VND). The well-presented dish is a refreshing albeit tart palate cleanser. The selection of five mini tacos (steak, chicken, pork, fish, vegetarian – 55,000 VND) is just the thing for those who can’t decide what to order. The pork and vegetarian versions shine the brightest. The grilled steak torta with avocado and tomatoes (60,000 VND) is interpreted by the kitchen as a Mexican hamburger, and although it’s not authentic, it’s executed well enough.

97 Hai Ba Trung, District 1
Opened in September 2006, Pacharan is the only restaurant in HCM City specializing in authentic Spanish tapas. Stepping into the three-story restaurant, one instantly gets the sense that Chef Fernando Olivares knows what he’s doing. Bulky legs of Serrano ham hang above the bar, while the drinks menu is heftier than the bill of fare. The menu is divided by protein and is complete with all the flavours and textures of the Mediterranean. “We intend for diners to share each portion with our tapas menu,” says Nguyen Thanh of Pacharan. “These finger foods are best paired with white and red wine or sangria.” Sangria is served by the jug (215,000 VND) or glass (45,000 VND) alongside an ample array of red, white, rose and sparkling wines. The Montaditos de Jamon Serrano (75,000 VND)—toasted rounds of bread are drizzled with olive oil and topped with minced garlic, fresh tomatoes and Serrano ham—pair well with any of the libations. The cured meat is sliced paper-thin and has just the right amount of saltiness to balance the tomato’s tartness. The Spanish omelette (65,000 VND), which is served alongside fruity purees, is also deftly prepared. The tender Pincho Moruno pork skewers (65,000 VND) are marinated in savoury Moorish spices and grilled to perfection.

71/7 Mac Thi Buoi, District 1
The term mezze comes from the Persian maze, which means taste or snack. Warda, HCM City’s premier middle-eastern eatery, serves up hot and cold mezze for lunch, supper and late night. There is little more pleasurable than lounging with a group of friends upon plush pillows, passing around the hookah and indulging in a smattering of mezze. The Egyptian havashi (55,000 VND), grilled pita bread topped with sautéed spiced minced lamb, is a savoury dream. The lamb’s pure flavours stand out from the soft pita and fragrant spices. The sambousek (50,000 VND), oven-baked filo pastries filled with creamy goat cheese and spinach, are a lovely vegetarian option. The bite-sized turnovers are rich, crisp and airy. Another great meat-free option is the baba ghanoush (48,000 VND); roasted eggplant dip drizzled with olive oil and served with pita chips and warm flat bread. The small plates served at Warda are anything but; so do invite a big group to share in all the deliciousness.

Published in AsiaLIFE Magazine July 2008

Cuba Libre – Philadelphia

March 31, 2007
Cuisine: Cuban

10 S 2nd St, Philadelphia 19106
Btwn Market St & Chestnut St

Phone: 215-627-0666

Appetizer: Tamal Cubano – traditional Cuban fresh sweet corn tamal filled with shrimp, crab and ground conch. Topped with crisp calamari, avocado and chipotle vinaigrette ($13)

Entree I: Pollo Al Ajillo – French cut breast of chicken stuffed with chorizo and tetilla cheese, pan roasted and simmered in a Spanish sherry garlic sauce. Served on boniato mash with grilled chayote and crisp fried olives ($21)

Entree II: 10 Cane Tuna – sugar cane skewered tuna marinated with guava, soy sauce and 10 cane rum. Pan seared and served on coconut-calabaza rice tossed with king crab leg ($26)

Entree III: Guava B B Q Rib Sandwich – enjoy our spiced guava BBQ ribs shredded and served on toasted baguette with criollo slaw ($13)

Entree IV: Miami Frita – calle ocho style; hand formed patty of ground beef, chorizo and Italian pork sausage seasoned with smoked paprika seared and presented on Cuban bread with crisp shoestring fries ($12)

The last time I ate this much Cuban food was last summer while vacationing in Miami. The Astronomer and I just couldn’t get enough vaca frita and sweet plantains and gorged ourselves nightly. The Cuban food served in Philadelphia share a few similarities with the eats we had in Little Havana, but mostly leans toward Nuevo Latino/fusion cuisine.

For Lush’s last meal in Philadelphia, she requested that we dine at Cuba Libre. She ate there once before in college and wanted to see if it was as good as she remembered. We invited The Astronomer and our friend Tara to join us.

All of us shared the Tamal Cubano for an appetizer even though no one knew exactly what a “tamal” was. It turns out that “tamal” is singular for tamales. ¡Que interesante! My high school Spanish teachers would surely frown upon my lack of pluralizing knowledge. I liked everything about this dish except for the actual tamal. The calamari was perfectly crisp and spicy because of the chipotle vinaigrette. The avocado was ripe and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice took the dish up a notch. Sadly, the tamal tasted really seafood-y, which turned me off. Seafood past its prime should be tossed out, not made into a tamal.

Luscious ordered the Pollo Al Ajillo, which was a let down after three amazing nights with Steven Starr. The various components of the dish did not come together as she had hoped. Tara called her Miami Frita “a fat kid sandwich.” She said that even though the sandwich looked strange with an enormous pile of fries, it was in fact delectable.

The Astronomer and I shared the Guava BBQ Rib Sandwich and the 10 Cane Tuna. The sandwich tasted like a southern pulled pork sandwich gone tropical, which the Astronomer and I really liked. The BBQ sauce was sticky and sweet, but debatably guava. The slaw was lost in the abundant sauce and the bread was substantial enough to hold in the ample fixings. Some non-descript chips were served on the side, which I left up to the Astronomer.

The 10 Cane Tuna was a nice contrast to the rib sandwich. Two small hunks of tuna were speared with sugarcane and seared to a nice pink. I could taste the sweetness from the 10 cane rum on the exterior of the tuna. The highlight of the dish was the coconut-calabaza rice tossed with king crab leg whose light flavors worked well with the fish. My only complaint was the petite portion size. I’m not a big girl, but I have a big appetite.

Venturing to Old City is always fun, but Cuba Libre’s food and ambiance are nowhere near as polished, interesting, and delightful as Alma de Cuba’s. Next time I’ll stay closer to home.

Cuba Libre on Urbanspoon

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