Restaurant Report: La Cubana Cuban Flavor

As you turn southward after exiting Interstate 40 at Campbell Station Road, it's all too easy to drive past the little strip mall on the right that houses, among other things, a Dunkin' Donuts. But take the time to turn in, because this is where you'll find La Cabana—and it's a place worth finding.

The restaurant is decorated simply and feels authentic despite its plaza location—that owes a lot to lively music and a warm welcome from co-owner Jorge Bernal; but mostly, it's the excellent fare that lifts you out of Farragut and plants you just outside Havana. Chef Ariel Salvador serves the kind of straight-forward and soul-satisfying cuisine that would make his Cuban grandmother proud.

In fact, his grandmother was hanging out in the kitchen during this visit and, judging from the chef's big smile and easy demeanor, Grandma was pleased (and that's a relief). But it's easy to understand why: From start to finish La Cabana delivers good, traditional food that is well prepared and simply plated—there are no frilly accents or sad attempts at "Americanization" (except for the wise inclusion of chicken tenders and mac-n-cheese on the kids' menu).

There are too many good experiences to relate here and even to enjoy on a single visit. Suffice to say that the menu merits some exploration. If you've never tried Cuban food or have only managed a Cuban sandwich and perhaps some beans and rice, you should know that the fare is neither super spicy nor is it swimming in salsa or cheese sauce. The food is frequently long cooked, subtly seasoned, and deeply satisfying in a way that any Southerner with a crock-pot can understand.

In both the masistas de puerco (fried pork) and arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), the meat is tender and falls from the bone easily. The classic ropa vieja (shredded flank steak) is almost as toothsome and luscious as any good pulled pork can be and has the added advantage of being cooked with red peppers, onion, and garlic.

Some of the side dishes are beautifully flavored; for example, both the yellow rice and congris—black beans and rice—are quite tasty alone. Other dishes like yucca and tostones (fried green plantains) aren't heavily seasoned. You can grab a bottle of hot sauce if you must or just eat them with your food, and you'll understand their place on the plate just as you might understand the role of simply prepared potatoes.

Dessert, too, is a lovely experience. Chef Ariel's arroz con leche is a perfect execution of rice pudding, and the coconut flan is a shimmering slice of joy. La Cabana also serves Materva, a Cuban soda made with yerba mate that's worth trying; it's sweet, pleasant, and reminiscent of cream soda. But whatever you do, don't overlook the Cuban coffee or latte—they're fantastic and sweet but potent, so take care before yielding to the craving for a second round.

Must Haves

Croquetas: Also called Cuban Style Poppers, these little bites of paradise are proof positive that you should never, ever neglect the appetizer section. The crispy flour and cornmeal coating surrounds a deceptively light filling of ground ham and béchamel so that you get a satisfying crunch followed by a tender, almost melting bite of well-seasoned pork. There's a fleeting mental association with a perfect corn dog, but you won't want any mustard; in fact, these beauties don't really need anything, not even the delicious garlic sauce that comes with them.

Grilled Steak "Bistec": This isn't a steak in the fat, char-grilled sense—in fact it's a wholly different and delightful way to get your beef fix. Thinly sliced top-round rests in a marinade of olive oil, garlic, and lime juice until it's ready to hit the skillet where it meets with salt and pepper. This simple preparation is surprisingly tasty—the combination of salt and lime is as effective here as it is with tequila. And although the steak isn't soft like melted butter, the texture is as enjoyable as the flavor.

Cuban Sandwich: Of course, despite the quality of the rest of the menu, the Cuban sandwich remains the litmus test for both quality and authenticity. Happily, La Cabana's effort passes with flying colors, which is due in large part to the tender and beautifully roasted pork shoulder. Chef Ariel takes no shortcuts with his pork prep, and this mouth-watering and mouth-filling sandwich proves it. The sandwich is meaty, well supplied with pickles, and the bread is good enough to eat without pressing.