- Matthew Schniper
- The yucca fries with our ropa vieja were the finest we’ve ever encountered.
I can’t remember when I’ve had a mojito this good. Sugar perfectly balances the lime bitterness without being oversweet, and mint leads the aroma (a fresh garnishing sprig) and flavor (a muddled clump suspended amidst squeezed lime wedges), with soda water crispness helping beat back the heat of the day.
Rumba Latin Cuisine owner and longtime home chef Angelina Galiana has personally made our round of the traditional Cuban cocktails, popping out to chat with us as we’re the first customers of the day, nabbing a patio table at opening. She’s exuberant and engaging, telling us how she and her husband have owned a remodeling company for 30 years — which explains the beautiful interior decor of brushed nickel-like gunmetal gray metal surfaces contrasted by dark woods and Tiki thatching— but she was feeling ready for a restaurant after regularly cooking for big weekend parties at their house for upwards of 100 people, she says. That’s no easy feat, especially with regularity; hence her carefree and collected demeanor here, I suppose.
With Rumba, Galiana, who says she’s been cooking her whole life, has incorporated her own recipes mainly from Cuban fare (about 80 percent of the menu), with touches also across Colombia, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Peru. Though she’s hired line cooks to run the grills, she shows up daily to prep the meats and make three styles of rice and beans fresh. It’s rare for me to ever highlight rice and beans — commonly the side dishes, the afterthoughts — but hers rate exceptional, memorable. I’d go for them alone, specifically the moro (white rice with black beans) and frijoles Colorados (red beans). Ours have just finished cooking — we know because one plate arrives several minutes after the others as its components were last to be ready. My chef friend, utilizing that erudite language that people who really understand food use, says that while it may not make sense to someone else, he could “taste the greenness, the chlorophyll, the plant umami” on the rices. I can’t elaborate on that, but I clearly get it, and simple enough to say it’s probably also because when we eat them they haven’t been held for any length of time for them to flavor-degrade.
- Matthew Schniper
- There’s nothing gummy or eggy under the whipped cream on Rumba’s “ideal” flan.
You’ll also find delicious plantains three ways, reflective of how different countries typically handle them: tostones (fried green), mariquitas (chips) and maduros (sappy sweet). Even empanada starters diverge from Cuban and Colombian renditions with differently seasoned beef; two appear in pre-made dough wraps while a third, our favorite, shows a more delicate, divine flakiness. The guava-cheese empanada’s so creamy and rich it’s almost like a Chinese crab Rangoon gone dessert mode.
One of my dining companions lives for Cuban media noche sandwiches (basically Cubanos on sweet egg bread), and she’s not disappointed here, even if the lack of typical pickles, replaced by onion shreds, leaves a touch of acid to be desired. The ham’s well-sourced, smoky and tender, and the pulled pork’s as lovely as it is on our lechon asado entrée plate, nicely braised and buttery, if in need of a touch of salt. The sandwich and our plate of ropa vieja also arrive with an interesting spicy mustard and feta cheese dip sweetened by evaporated milk and turned yellow by Peruvian aji amarillo chile powder. The ropa vieja, my favorite dish from my time spent in Cuba, doesn’t feature the addition of olives found in many recipes, but the onion and bell pepper essences shine through the stringy steak, and side cilantro rice sends it over the top with the most exquisite yucca fries any of us have had — pillowy and creamy starch on the inside, not oil-logged or dense, but remarkably light and airy and crisp-jacketed.
And because Rumba had clearly done nothing to impress us yet, we finish with the most textbook, ideal and gorgeously plated flan, a study in why most other flans fall flat. There’s no eggy or gummy interior (a common misstep indicative of a botched cook method) or cloying flavors despite a sappy dark caramel sauce and thicker garnishing drizzle capped by a whipped cream puff.
From starting with that perfect mojito sip to ending with this stellar finishing bite, we’re thoroughly impressed. Most home cooks don’t excel to this level commercially, but Galiana has broken out of the basic box.