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La Cubana: Empanadas and medianoches to make a Cuban dad proud

The Guava BBQ Short Rib Medianoche sandwich with chimichurri sauce at La Cubana.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

La Cubana
392 Roncesvalles Ave., Toronto, Ontario
Appetizers, $4 to $8; sandwiches, $7 to $9; entrees, $15.
A tight selection of classic, rum-based Cuban cocktails, plus five decent wines, a nice house lager and plenty of non-boozy choices.
A cheery 1950s diner somewhere in Havana – and half of Roncesvalles Village has flown in for a bite.
Additional Info
Best Bets: Chorizo empanadas, glazed fried squid, mussels, jicama salad, Cubano sandwich, guava barbecue beef short rib, doughnuts.

La Cubana received a Cheap Eats restaurant rating.

Growing up in Montreal, Corinna Mozo couldn't escape from Cuban food. Ms. Mozo's father, Emilio, had spent much of his childhood in the popular diner his family ran in Camagüey, Cuba's third-largest city. After emigrating to Canada, he never gave up on the tastes of his childhood.

"He'd tell us we were having pork chops for dinner and we'd get so excited," Ms. Mozo recalled on the phone last month. "But then he'd say, 'They're Cuban-style.'"

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Mr. Mozo was known for his cod frituras and black bean soup, and the empanadas he filled with ground beef picadillo. As for that pork, he smothered it with soffrito and slowly roasted it. He often made pork-and-cheese-stuffed medianoche sandwiches for lunch.

Eventually, Ms. Mozo became a chef; one of her first big jobs was as the opening chef de cuisine at Chez Henri, in Boston, where she built the bistro's menu around Cuban-inflected French food. It worked, too: though she left after three years in charge, the culinary foundation that Ms. Mozo constructed bought Chez Henri nearly two decades of business. It finally closed this past fall.

Yet when she moved to Toronto in 2007 to open her own restaurant, Delux, on Ossington Avenue, Ms. Mozo didn't think that Cuban cooking would fly here. She made Delux a French-style bistro. Eventually, the restaurant introduced a Cuban-influenced lunch menu. But even today, its dinner menu remains conspicuously French.

With La Cubana, a cheery and family-friendly Cuban diner that Ms. Mozo opened on Roncesvalles Avenue this fall, the chef is finally back in the family business.

The room was modelled on the memory of her family's diner, Ms. Mozo said. It is bright and lively, with hand-painted tile floors, shelves laden with Latin American pantry staples, and a lunch counter where you can eat a pressed Cubano sandwich and down a Demerara-spiked coffee in 20 minutes flat. (That coffee, as rich and fragrant as a stroll past a sugar refinery, is worth the trip.)

The menus are printed in bright red ink on paper place mats, while the kids' menu, a highlight, is festooned with a dancing cartoon sandwich. There is nothing fancy or high-minded here; this is a diner, after all.

And the cooking – short ribs braised in Coca-Cola and beef stock, slathered with guava barbecue sauce; pork belly glazed with pineapple; superb medianoche sandwiches; a dangerously tasty house hot sauce – will likely impress anyone who's enamoured of well-made Caribbean food. (It is executed by chef de cuisine Leah Marshall Hannon, an alumna from Delux.)

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There are bocaditos (appetizers) to begin with: excellent fried squid tossed in a sticky habanero glaze, and very good bean and cheese empanadas. The tostones rellenos – crisp, dark-hued cups made from fried green plantain slices – cost $6 for three and could easily go for triple that at a posher spot. They're stuffed with peppery, slow-cooked beef and golden raisins, topped with jalapeno rounds, and cooling crema sauce.

The grilled shrimp were dry and overcooked when I tried them (for what it's worth, most of the shrimp I've eaten in Cuba were dry and overcooked; at least La Cubana's are authentic). The appetizer mussels came nicely timed, and beached in a very good lime and coconut broth.

Those mussels are terrific with La Cubana's thin-cut, skin-on French fries, but better still with the conch frituras – properly doughy deep-fried fritters that might as well have been invented for dunking.

Sandwiches are a strength. There are grilled medianoches (made with soft, white milk bread, the sandwiches are so named for their popularity as a midnight snack food) that come filled with the trinity of molasses-rubbed pork, smoked ham and gruyere cheese.

The grilled fish sandwich I had sitting at the lunch counter one day was also a standout. The Georgian Bay whitefish fillet had been just barely seared so that it was aggressively moist; there was fresh pineapple on top of it, plus red, lime-soured cabbage and mayo spiked with chipotle peppers and red onion, all inside a glossy, soft white bun. (That sandwich and a custom-brewed La Cubana lager: noon-hour nirvana.)

Consistency has been an issue for the kitchen, though. A few weeks after trying that terrific fish sandwich, I ordered the $15 grilled fish platter one night, only to find that same whitefish cooked nearly beyond recognition. I took one sorry bite and left the remainder on my plate. Similarly, the roast chicken was perfect when I tried it a few weeks ago but horribly overcooked another evening.

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There are plenty of other terrific dishes as compensation. The pork shoulder, rubbed down with molasses and slowly roasted, is a thing of sweet, jiggly, porcine beauty, and those Coca-Cola-braised short ribs show off the power of long, slow cooking: the meat pulls away into tender, immensely flavourful forkfuls. The dish, served with very good rice and black beans, red cabbage coleslaw and fried plantains, is a steal at $15.

The kids' menu was extremely popular with my five-year-old. He loved the grilled cheese sandwich, liked the traditional Cuban hamburger topped with matchstick potatoes, turned his nose up at the plantain chips (I very nearly disowned him; they're fantastic), and went berserk for the made-to-order mini doughnuts – which, it's probably important to say here, grownups can order too.

You might prefer the pineapple upside-down cake – good, though I resented the caramel sauce it came sodden with; properly caramelized pineapple would do the trick far better. There is also key lime pie in a jar and not-bad natillas (traditionally, loose, egg-based flans; here, they're much like crème brulée).

Overall, it's an excellent spot, particularly when you remember how cheap the place is, and that its point is to be a cheery, welcoming neighbourhood diner.

Ms. Mozo's father Emilio came in about a month ago, she recalled. "I could see that it really meant a lot to him, it brought back memories," she told me. "In a way that's what I was trying to do."

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Chris More


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