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THIS STORY IS PART OF HOW TO L.A., OUR ONGOING SERIES OF PRACTICAL GUIDES FOR DAY-TO-DAY LIVING IN LOS ANGELES.
Los Angeles is no Miami but it has a long history of welcoming Cuban exiles. The first wave of Cubans came to L.A. in the 1960s, fleeing the Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro's regime. Many of them settled in Echo Park. In 1976, the city named the intersection of Echo Park and Park avenues José Martí Plaza and erected a bust of the beloved Cuban poet and journalist, who led the 1895 insurrection against the Spanish government in Cuba.
Today, about 50,000 Cubans live in Los Angeles. Many have left the Echo Park area and spread out to cities like Downey, Burbank and Glendale. They still celebrate their roots and, as with every culture, food is a major part of that.
Cuban cuisine is a combination of Taino (native Cubans), European (Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese), African and Chinese food. I grew up eating staples such as white rice, black beans, roasted pork and guava pastries. I didn't realize how much I would miss it when I left South Florida, so I've made it my mission to find Cuban food that reminds me of my late grandmother's cooking. The city hasn't let me down. Although I've encountered some spots that were laughably inauthentic (one sold clam chowder… what?!), there are some gems waiting to be found.
Tucked in a Glendale strip mall, La Cubana is a no nonsense restaurant offering classic dishes. The ten tables are surrounded by framed black and white photos of Cuba. At the counter, there's an espresso machine where a barista will make you Cuba's most popular coffee drink, a cortadito, a shot of espresso topped with steamed milk. One of La Cubana's best dishes is the pan con lechón, a sandwich of succulent shredded pork and onions marinated in mojo, a sauce of garlic and citrus. Their croqueta de jamon is a filled with ham and coated in crisp breadcrumbs. Eat with one of the Cuban sodas, like Materva, Iron Beer or Malta. La Cubana also has lots of dessert options including guava shells (eat them with cream cheese for a nice sweet and savory balance), bread pudding, rice pudding, tres leches (sponge cake with literally three kinds of milk), natilla catalana (Spanish crème brulée) and several flans.
You can purchase $4 Cuban crackers to go (the bags are on the counter). The food is a steal, $7.95 for a sandwich and only $.90 for a croqueta. Parking is easy too, at least for L.A. They have their own lot and if that's full there's free street parking.
801 S. Glendale Ave. #3, Glendale. 818-243-4398.
El Floridita Cuban Restaurant
Located in a strip mall off Fountain and Vine, El Floridita has been serving Cuban dishes in Los Angeles for 32 years. Inside, wallpaper with green palms and pink bird of paradise flowers lines the walls. Large red curtains hang over the wooden dance floor and lights are strung around. Two beautiful stained glass windows featuring palm trees and a couple dancing on the beach. Arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), masitas de puerco (fried pork chunks) and the filete de pollo a la plancha (grilled chicken breast) are favorites. The latter comes with white rice and fried maduros (ripe plantains). In a very homestyle approach, the server appeared with a bowl of black beans and scooped a big helping onto my rice. Everything on the platter was first-rate. Flavorful chicken and. Perfectly cooked plantains. Warm black beans soaking into buttery rice. The prices are on the moderate side. Appetizers range from $11 to $15. Main courses start at $15.
1253 Vine St., Hollywood. 323-871-8612.
Don Francisco's Coffee Casa Cubana
In downtown L.A.'s Spring Street Arcade, you'll find Don Francisco's Coffee Casa Cubana. It opened in 2017 but the roaster behind the restaurant, the the Gaviña family, has been in the coffee business since the 1800s. The hip café serves papas rellenas (meat filled potato balls), Cuban-style pressed sandwiches and variety of pastelitos, like the popular guava and cheese combo. Their Cuban Frita Burger, a patty of ground sirloin, chorizo and sometimes pork, served on a brioche bun topped with crispy shoestring potatoes, is very close to ones I've had at popular Miami spot El Rey de Las Fritas (The King of Fritas) — and, at $8.50, it's a deal. The mariquitas (plantain chips) are the perfect, crisp complement to the burger. Don Francisco's is a great spot for breakfast or lunch — they close at 7 p.m. Parking is difficult, so take public transit or a rideshare.
541 S. Spring St., downtown L.A. 213-537-0323.
Equelecuá Cuban Café
Equelecuá (pronounced eh-keh-LEH-kuah) is an expression that means "I found it!" and as the only vegan Cuban restaurant in the country, it's something of a "eureka" moment. Chef Caro Lafaurie, a vegetarian since she was 13, reimagined her grandmother's Cuban recipes. She makes her arroz con pollo with soy chicken instead of chicken while her "cubanized nachos" feature a mound of roasted plantain chips piled with black beans, bell peppers, non-dairy sour cream, a sweet and spicy agave sauce and your choice of a vegan protein. I opted for the lechon asado, made from pea and wheat protein combination, which looked and tasted much like the real deal. The saffron rice here is on flaky side–unlike how my family makes arroz con pollo with the rice being more is like risotto–wet and creamy. Prices won't break the bank with most menu items ranging from $8 to $10. Equelecuá is easy to miss but once you're there, head to the outdoor patio with colorful accents like blue and red chairs.
1120 W. Florence Ave, Inglewood. 323-741-2822.
Florida Restaurant in Downey reminds me of so many Cuban restaurants I've been to in the Sunshine State. From posters of the island to the country's coat of arms on the tables, its décor screams Cuba. It's a popular spot, so you'll usually face a short wait before you're seated. Then, you might end up next to a group of older Cuban women, who are notoriously picky when it comes to authenticity. The moros y cristianos, (literally Moors and Christians), a mix of black beans and white rice, were my favorite part of the meal. The soft rice and al dente beans make an addictive texture combo. The breading on the bistec de pollo empanizado (breaded chicken steak) wasn't too heavy. The maduros (sweet plantains) were sweet and ripe while the sofrito, a condiment made from onions, garlic and bell peppers, added a kick to the meal. Entrées cost about $10 but you can expect to wait for them because the service here is slow. The parking lot, next to a huge mural of Cuban art, often fills up and there's no street parking nearby.
10025 Lakewood Blvd., Downey. 562-869-7847.
Porto's Bakery and Cafe
The most famous Cuban bakery in Southern California, Porto's is busy almost any time you come in. You'll avoid the worst crowds if you visit on a weekday afternoon. On the savory side, the papas rellenas, chicken croquetas and empanadas are a must. For those looking for a more substantial meal, there's the ropa vieja sandwich, shredded flank steak with bell peppers in a tomato-based sauce. When it comes to sweets, the guava pastellitos are a must. The bakery calls them "strudels," a concession that makes some Cubans cringe, but Porto's founder Rosa Porto wanted to translate these for the American palate. She left Cuba with her husband and they opened their first location in Echo Park in 1976. Since then, the bakery has expanded to four locations and launched a home delivery service for their most popular pastries.
3614 West Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. 818-846-9100.
315 North Brand Blvd., Glendale. 818-956-5996.
8233 Firestone Blvd, Downey. 562-862-8888.
7640 Beach Blvd., Buena Park. 714-367-2030.
584 S. Sunset Ave., West Covina.
You can't miss the huge trophy by the counter of El Cochinto (aka "the little pig"), which holds the title of World's Best Cuban Sandwich. For $10, you get Cuban bread, toasted to a perfect crunch and layered with lechon asado (slow-cooked pork). The sammie doesn't come with a side so make sure you get an order of fried yuca ($5). Neither fibrous nor rock hard, it's the best I've had in California. The family-owned shop is a cozy, stylish space where you can spend a few hours chatting and sipping your coffee. Owner Gladys Gutierrez was following in the footsteps of her father, who ran a restaurant in Havana, Cuba, when she opened El Cochinito in 1988. It has been going strong ever since.
3508 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake. 323-668-0737.
Versailles Cuban Restaurant
The local Cuban mini-chain, named after one of the most famous Cuban restaurants in Miami, is known for a handful of dishes, most famously the roasted garlic chicken that's drenched in tart mojo and sliced onions. It comes with plantains and plenty of white rice to soak up the garlicky goodness. The roasted pork and oxtail stew are runners-up for top dishes. Dinner portions at Versailles are large enough to share (or to make a second meal out of) while the lunch specials offer a smaller version of their classics.
1215 S. La Cienega Blvd., Pico Robertson. 310-289-0392.
17410 Ventura Blvd., Encino. 818-906-0756.
10319 Venice Blvd., Culver City. 310-558-3168.