Food is only a part of the Cuban dining experience. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a big part — the sizzle of garlic and olive oil smothered over yucca; the tender strips of ropa vieja melting in your mouth; the thin, crispy shell of a croqueta giving way to its soft center; the perfect crisp of a mariquita; a media noche that fits perfectly into a hungry midnight hour….I could go on here. But the point is — going out to eat Cuban food is also about the experience. It’s all about the vibe — it’s about the chatter of Cuban men and women running through the airwaves, about electrifying cafecito, and a certain kind of elemental Caribbean warmth. When I moved very Cuban Miami to not so Cuban L.A., I knew I’d have to find a place to get my fix. Here are five great spots in the City of Angels, from an insider’s perspective.
Tucked away in a strip mall on Pico Blvd, El Colmao is the most authentic Cuban joint in LA. A family owned restaurant that opened its doors in 1969, and has been kicking and cooking ever since. From their Bistec Empanizado (breaded steak) to their Cuban Sandwich (a meaty smorgasbord: sliced ham, pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard — all hot-pressed on Cuban bread), the menu doesn’t disappoint. They even have a veggie option, which is rare for Cuban restaurants.El Colmao
2328 W. Pico Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90006 Hours: Mon, Wed, Thurs: 10am-8:30pm; Tues: 10:30am-5pm; Fri: 10am-9pm; Sat: 11am-9pm; Sun: 11am-8:30pm
Coppelia’s Bakery & Restuarant
Come to Coppelia’s on a weekday morning around 10am and you’ll find the regulars — wonderfully charming old men arguing about Cuban politics, for hours, one round of Cuban coffee after another. Sit, watch, and take it all in, while biting into a slice of luscious Tres Leches cake (which Anita, the owner, is famous for). Traditionally, “three milks” cake is made with evaporated milk, condensed milk, and whole milk. Anita, however, has perfected the Tres, Cuatro, Cinco, and even Seis Leches — the sixth of which combines everything that’s in the Tres leches in addition to dulce de leche, coconut milk, and almond milk. Plus, she caters to every occasion, from birthdays to weddings.
Coppelia’s Bakery & Restaurant
10825 Venice Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90034 Hours: Open Every Day (including Sunday) from 8am-8pm
There isn’t a Cuban in Los Angeles that hasn’t been to Porto’s. This place is a goldmine, so expect a line, especially if you’re going on the weekend. But the line goes fast, and your reward at the end of it is well worth the wait. Their pastelitos are the best in town, whether you like them with guava and cheese, meat, or chicken. They have varying locations, but the one in Glendale is the best and most lively. Their custom and seasonal cakes are also pretty spectacular — not just a blessing on the sweet tooth, but a feast for the eyes too.Porto’s
315 N. Brand Blvd Glendale, CA 91203 Hours: Mon-Sat: 6:30am-7pm; Sunday 7am-5:30pm
Quite possibly the best Mojito I’ve ever had. Made with real sugarcane juice, the tasty cocktail goes down so sweet and easy…let’s just say it’s a deliciously dangerous thing. This is a fancier spot than the others — ivy clings to the walls outside, the ambiance is chic, but absolutely friendly, and the dishes sing with culinary design. Think California Cuban — sweet potato croquettes with chili-coconut sauce; Brined grilled pork chop sautéed Swiss chard; and, my personal favorite, the aptly titled: “Very Cuban black bean soup.”Xiomara
6101 Melrose Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90038 Hours: Lunch: Mon-Fri: 11:30am-3pm; Dinner: Mon-Thurs: 5pm-10pm; Fri-Sat: 5pm-11pm
At Gigi’s, you don’t get the same atmosphere you get at some of the other top five spots, but you find something you rarely find anywhere else in the city of Angels: a Frita. A Frita is a Cuban hamburger — ground beef, pork, special seasoning (of course, there’s garlic in it…what’s a Cuban dish without garlic? ), and topped with fried shoe string potato chips. Oh, and it’s under five bucks. In general, this place is a good bite for your buck.Gigi’s
2200 W. Temple Street Los Angeles, CA 90026 Hours: Mon-Thurs, Sun: 6:30am-8pm; Fri-Sat: 6:30am-9pm