Cuba de Ayer

A family-run spot for wonderfully homey Cuban fare.

From June 2006 Cheap Eats

Cuban food is simple and soulful–the antithesis of most restaurant cooking. The places that do it best don't try to pretty up their plates or embroider them with detail to try to woo an upscale audience.

This newcomer is a mom-and-pop that knows how to translate home cooking into a restaurant setting. It's pretty–a narrow slip of a place with red walls and handsomely framed pictures of antique cars–and the food comes to the table on sleek plates. But the embellishments end there. The food is so unfussy and so lovably homely that it could have come straight from a mother's kitchen.

All the expected dishes are here, all treated with care–even the rice, well-slicked and fluffy, has been lavished with attention. Ham croquettes are addictive, two-bite poppers, a crisp armor of fry concealing a hammy, creamy interior. Beef empanadas boast a wonderfully flaky pastry crust.

Ropa vieja–shredded beef laced with stewed peppers and onions–is first-rate, the beef properly stringy but more yielding than most. A plate of masitas boasts thick hunks of pork marinated six hours in a sour-orange juice, then deep fried; the outsides are brown and crisp, the insides succulent. Picadillo, the popular beef hash that's often a catchall for the kitchen's leftovers (and often tastes like it), is given its due; the kitchen doesn't stint on the raisins, olives, or white wine. There are also wonderful plantains, sticky-sweet without being greasy, good black beans–soupy, lightly garlicky, and not mushy–and a Cubano sandwich that won't make anyone long for Miami.

A square of tres leches cake is irresistible, as creamy as any we've had.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.