Caribbean cooking falls into three categories, depending on which country colonized the island in which it is found.
Cuban food remains closely tied to its Spanish origins, relying on spices like saffron and garlic. Every Cuban restaurant serves roast pork (perhaps a bit spicier than the Old World versions) and paella . The English-speaking islands like Jamaica feature an entirely different cuisine. From the English they got codfish dishes, a legacy of early trading days when ships that came to get rum and bananas arrived with holds filled with dried cod. Islanders developed a taste for the cold-water fish, which has remained a staple. On the French Caribbean islands the food is, not surprisingly, similar to Creole cooking. Unfortunately we don't have any French Caribbean restaurants in Los Angeles. In fact, our Caribbean restaurants don't seem to be doing too well: A Trinidadian and Puerto Rican restaurant have recently closed.
The Cuban restaurants, however, are doing just fine. El Colmao is the best of them. Its decor is Cuban Baroque: strong on red- and gold-flocked wallpaper and veined mirrors. And while the menu in all three Cuban restaurants is essentially the same, the food at El Colmao is consistently delicious and prepared with care. In a dozen visits, I've never had a bad meal.
Paella is the most expensive dish on the menu, but at $12.50 it is a bargain. Since it takes half an hour to prepare, it's wise to order it by phone before you go to the restaurant. More than enough for one person, the dish has chunks of chicken and fish, large shrimp, lobster and clams ladled onto a bed of saffron rice. Just to draw up the aromatic steam is a heady experience. This is a paella sure to suit anyone who likes seafood--and worth the effort of calling ahead.
One of the best dishes on the menu is Jerez chicken, named for the Spanish city that gave its name to sherry. Two incredibly meaty, golden chicken breasts are smothered in an assertive sherry, onion and olive sauce. This is perhaps the best restaurant-prepared chicken dish I have ever eaten.
The ropa vieja is also excellent. The shredded beef, tomatoes, green pepper and onions are all individual entities here, deliciously mixed into a tasty dish. Masas de puerco fritas (chunks of seasoned, fried pork) is a special that turns up reguarly on the menu and is a kissing cousin to Mexican carnitas. Moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians) is the colorful name Cubans give to rice and black beans. Although they arrive at the table separately, the beans should be spooned onto the rice. The best salad to round out a Cuban meal is a simple plate of avocado and onion. Diners add their own oil and vinegar.
El Colmao has a long counter that singles and couples might find preferable to putting up with a long wait at peak hours--and also preferable to the dreary second room. The action--whole families in spiffy clothes, a jukebox stacked with top Latin hits and the owner who looks like Sidney Greenstreet--is in the main room.
El Colmao, 2328 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 386-6131. Dinner for two (food only), $15-$25.
Versailles feels like the most American of restaurants: the roadhouse, with parking in front, a long counter and neon beer signs everywhere. It is warm and welcoming. And while the dishes all have Spanish names, the barbecued chicken and roast pork would probably play in Peoria.
The room is filled with tables for four; bigger groups would be unwieldy here. On weekend nights, the restaurant is packed and there is little room for standees. It's sort of a Cuban-style Apple Pan with table. (It is not related to the well-known Cuban restaurant by the same name on Miami's Calle Ocho.)
The entrees are mainly pork, beef and seafood. The paella and zarzuela need to be ordered ahead of time or you'll face an ungainly wait and the standees will glare. Ropa vieja is not as finely done as at El Colmao but tasty enough to order again and again. Beware of killer pieces of tiny japones chilies that need picking out.
The three pork dishes are lechon asado (shredded and spicy), masas de puerco fritas (deep-fried chunks) and pierna asada (thin slices of roast pork sauteed in lemon and garlic; tasty but much too dry). The pork chunks are the most successful of the three, which are all served with incredibly sweet and juicy fried bananas slices, rice and black-bean soup. Round out a complete Cuban meal with an avocado-and-onion salad and a fruit smoothie: mango, banana, coconut or papaya.
Versailles, 10319 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista, (213) 558-3168. Dinner for two (food only), $15-$20.