In a food town where one can dine on gourmet po'boys, casual piles of truffled frites and exotic popsicles, it's clear that if the grub is good, people will come.
That extends to Cuban food. Fans of the Old Havana Sandwich Shop laud its simple yet savory menu of grilled pork sandwiches, rice and beans.
Now enter Gregoria's Kitchen.
Chef Dania Gonzalez, who for decades has worked in local kitchens such as George's Garage, is of Cuban descent and grew up in south Florida. She says the menu at Gregoria's is based largely on recipes from her mother, the restaurant's namesake—though some, like the salmon dish, fuse several culinary styles.
The restaurant is located in a former home, built in the 1920s, which later became the Peddlar Steakhouse. Gregoria's Kitchen claims to be a steak house, but it feels more like an elevated bistro, which the prices reflect. There are no booths and none of the staff seriousness one often associates with the masculinity of a traditional steak house.
Although the staff seemed a bit inexperienced, Gonzalez made a point of visiting with guests throughout the night. The mojitos were $5 that evening, and the friendly gentleman who seated us said he could drive us home if necessary, and I believed his sincerity.
I entered the restaurant thinking I would try a steak entrée—the New York strip with roasted garlic and mofongo, a mash of fried green plantains, was especially tempting. But with the inspiring Cuban décor and vibe (Latin music was piped throughout the night) and the diverse menu, I opted for a steak by a different name: ropa vieja, the national dish of Cuba.
Singing with briny notes from the bounty of green olives served with the shredded skirt steak, it was nearly too salty, but outstripped by the savory, nuanced flavors. Resplendent with chickpeas (an innovative choice, since often this dish is just the steak and tomatoes from the cooking liquid), this interpretation was a hearty meal, perfect for cold winter nights. Try sopping up the gravy with the house-made bread topped with a tangy butter blended with peppers, garlic and green olives.
I sampled the fish entrée, which in the online menu was supposed to be mahimahi but in reality was salmon, served with arugula, chorizo and fried yucca. Another success, the fish holds up well under the intensity of the tamarind-based pan sauce. The dish was quite sweet, but the bitterness from the sautéed arugula helped it achieve more balance (there could have been more of it) and the yucca was the perfect starch—very tender and mild.
To complement the entrées, an array of sides like tostones (fried green plantains), maduros (fried sweet plantains) and frijoles negros (black beans and rice) were all priced at a mere $2.50.As for the appetizers, the chicharrones were large cubes of house-cured pork belly, served with a tangy tamarind dipping sauce and a side of pickled onions and cucumbers, although they may as well have been invisible. The pork was sumptuous and not at all greasy, even though a significant portion of each cube, appropriately, was pure pork fat. The chicharrones snapped open in your mouth and were obviously quite fresh; it is one of the best pork dishes I've eaten.
The stuffed sweet plantains with Cuban-style ground beef, relleno de platano maduro, would have sung more loudly had we not spoiled our palates with the pork. The beef stuffing had a kick to it, and the plantains were tender and nicely sweet in relation to the filling, but I would recommend something different since many entrées come with some form of plantains.
Out of curiosity we ordered the ceviche de crangrejo, a salad topped with crabmeat, mofongo, pork cracklings and other seasonings. I had seen mofongo made only on television; it's one of those ugly dishes that is supposed to taste fantastic. I wish there had been more on this salad, though it achieved a striking balance among the sweet crabmeat, acidic lime dressing and the hearty mofongo, all atop delicate greens with large pieces of sweet onion and tomato. Serving this at the right temperature was key; it was a surprisingly successful dish and perfect at room temperature.
A very strong café con leche helped wash down one of the best coconut desserts I've ever encountered, this time in the form of flan. The pineapple garnish atop was a distraction; I would have liked more toasted coconut. But the texture was pleasantly dense, yet still creamy and smooth. The coconut flavor coated my mouth and lingered.
Next time—and there will be a next time—I look forward to trying the croquetas. During my time studying in Spain, my favorite restaurant was a Cuban joint in downtown Madrid, despite the oppressive stench of the cigars that were rolled in-house. Croquetas were a favorite, and as Gonzalez informed me, Spanish cuisine is stamped all over Cuban food. There's a paella for two on the menu to prove it.