The Balsero sandwich at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
The Pan con Bistec steak sandwich at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
The order window at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
Atomic Cake at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
Cuban architectural art at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
Guava bread pudding at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
A shrimp po boy from Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
Tostones at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
The Frita Cubana at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
The appetizer samplet featuring deviled eggs. croquetas, monfonguitos (shrmp-stuffed plantain cups), and fried yucca at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
The inside of a fish croqueta at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
Black bean soup at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
Vaca Frita (fried beef with boiled yucca) at Caliente Cuban Cafe on Wayne Street.
Sunday, January 21, 2018 1:00 am
Second Cuban shop even hotter than first
RYAN DUVALL | The Journal Gazette
Caliente Cuban Cafe
Out of a possible five
When Caliente Cuban Cafe opened downtown, I sort of felt the way I would if I was invited to a housewarming party at a friend's fancy new place.
I was happy one of my favorite little restaurants was expanding, but I was skeptical. Why do they need to get so fancy? There was nothing wrong with the old place. Can they even afford this place?
But my hesitance turned to appreciation because not only is the new Caliente doing everything the original sandwich shop on State Boulevard does, the new space has allowed the family that started the business to do even more.
Gus Rodriguez and his wife, Yalili Mesa, are still the driving forces behind Caliente Cuban Cafe, but their son Nestor Rodriguez has taken the reins of the new store. Gus oversees the kitchen at the new store while Yalili handles things at the original. Nestor's brother Bryan helps at both spots and Nestor's girlfriend, Meredith Moon, is at the new store, too. It is a family affair.
My first dive into the new menu provided some dishes the original store never offered.
The Muestra de Aperitivos (appetizer sampler) included three croquetas, three mofonguitos, three huevos rellenos and fried yucca.
The mofonguitos – tiny cups made from savory fried plantain filled with shrimp, ground beef or vegetables and topped with house-made cheese sauce – were the cream of the crop. I chose shrimp and loved how the sweet little shellfish worked with the tangy, tomato-based sauce they were cooked with.
The little fried croquetas came with ham, chicken or fish, and I chose the fish. Its flavor was prominent in these addictive little snacks made from leftover bread. I loved dipping them into Gus' hot sauce, a relatively mild vinegar-based sauce that is also available by the bottle. That sauce was used by me on about every side and appetizer and worked well across the menu.
There was nothing bad I could say about the huevos rellenos – deviled eggs packed with crispy bacon. As much as I love bacon, I think rendered chorizo would have been a better, more-Cuban choice.
The Papas rellenas used to have chorizo, too, but I didn't miss it much as this appetizer remains one of my favorite bites of food in the Fort. Mashed potato balls are now stuffed with seasoned ground beef and deep-fried, then topped with a little sour cream, a dash of Gus' hot sauce and a banana pepper ring. What is not to like?
It is a struggle to try new sandwiches at Caliente because the Cubans and the po'boys are so good that it is hard to stray away from them. But I found a new sandwich that gives them a run for their money – the Pan con Bistec.
It had just thin-cut Cuban steak and grilled onions in the restaurant's fantastic crusty bread. The steak was tender and its marinade gave it a lot of flavor, the onions added sweetness and it was downright delicious. If you want to make it even better, get it with jalapeños and order a side of cheese sauce to dip it in, making it a Cuban cheesesteak.
Beef was sort of a running theme as most of what I fell in love with at the new store centered around it.
Gus was eager to incorporate some more formal Cuban entrées on the new store's menu and those appear as daily specials. One of them truly impressed.
Vaca frita is “fried beef” and this beef was the same stringy beef roast used on the Ropa Vieja sandwich. It was flash fried and paired with fresh cilantro, avocado and boiled yucca, all touched with a mojo sauce made of sour orange and garlic.
The beef seemed dry when it hits the palate but was still quite moist once I started chewing. The sour orange gave it a citrus zing and there was plenty of garlic aroma and flavor. Given the yucca emulate boiled potatoes, I mashed up the meat, avocado and cilantro with them, poured on some of the extra mojo from the little ramekin on the side and happily devoured it all. It was a Cuban version of my grandma's pot roast and potatoes.
The Balsero, which is sort of a Cuban loose meat sandwich, had seasoned ground beef, tomatoes, an egg – which I requested runny – and a “special sauce,” made with sour orange, tomato and onion. The egg was the key to this yummy creation to which I added banana peppers for more zing.
The Frita Cubana, which for some reason appears only on the kids' menu but is sometimes a daily feature, is basically a Cuban hamburger. The patty is super moist and more like meatloaf, but I wish it was bigger. The patties are 5 or 6 ounces, Nestor said, but they get a little lost in the bread and I will not choose it over the other sandwiches unless a bigger patty is offered.
When it comes to sides, the appetizers I discussed are the best bets, but the soups, tostones and french fry-like fried yucca are also worthy.
The black bean soup is basic as it gets with just beans, cilantro and onion, but its loose broth is perfectly seasoned and good to the last drop. The red bean soup had potatoes and some other vegetables and its red broth was a little brighter than the black. I would pick the tostones over the french fries or yucca, though all were fine, because these big, flat discs of fried plantain were as good as any I have had in the Summit City.
The guava-infused bread pudding at the new Caliente is just as dense, gooey and wonderful as it always has been at the original store, and Yalili is still the only one who can make it so good. But there are more dessert options thanks to pastry chef Indyra Gonzalez, who used to own Petite Bakery on Maplecrest Road.
Her Atomic Cake – layers of chocolate and white cake with sweet strawberry reduction and a thin layer of icing – was delectable. The cakes vary daily, but given I was a regular at Petite before it closed, I will be having them quite often.
The cake was great with a cup of Cuban coffee, of which Caliente offers several variations. The cortadito – a sweet, frothy latte-like steamed coffee – is my favorite and it is a must-have for me anytime I visit Caliente.
And though I was hesitant at first, I will probably be visiting Caliente Cuban Cafe a lot more often than I did the original. Its space downtown is gorgeous with just the right amount of Cuban flair – old photos and the like – to meld with its modern, inviting atmosphere, and the expanded menu has given me more of what I loved about the original.
Restaurant: Caliente Cuban Cafe
Address: 120 W. Wayne St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer and wine
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Appetizer sampler ($15), papas rellenas ($9), vaca frita ($13.95), Pan con Bistec ($8), Balsero ($7.50), frita ($6), bread pudding ($2), cake ($3), cortadito ($2)
Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)
Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at email@example.com; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.