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RESTAURANTS / Max Jacobson : Cafe Offers the Tastes and Smells of Cuba

February 03, 1989|Max Jacobson

Garlic is to Cuban food what oil is to an Arab sheik, and from Felix Continental Cafe in the city of Orange, you can smell the garlic for blocks. Located on Orange's old Plaza Square, this tiny, funky cafe offers an enormous variety of Cuban and Spanish dishes, including many of the stall foods (such as meat pies and fried yucca root) that once abounded in old Havana.

After you smell the restaurant, you hear it. Customers ignore the sidewalk tables outdoors and cram inside the place like sardines on a plate at happy hour in a tapas bar--I've never seen a restaurant with less space between the tables than this one. You dine under dim lights on high-backed chairs of solid wood at glass-topped tables. The only decorative extras are a few potted plants, some Renoir prints and a flowery wallpaper that makes no sense to me at all. It all seems strangely European.

But you don't get food like this in Europe. The menu is full of dishes you may be seeing for the first time, so plan on about 10 minutes to read it. (It takes that long for anyone to get to your table, anyway.)

Many appetizers are wonderful--despite a sensory range perhaps best described as from forte to fortissimo . Lightest of a heavy bunch is papa rellena , a potato and egg croquette rolled in bread crumbs. Mozzarella Provencal , little balls of cheese rolled in egg batter and deep fried, has an intense onion sauce made with tomatoes and red wine. Calamaritos fritos gran via --garlicky, deep-fried strips of squid flavored with lemon juice--are as good as any squids I have ever eaten.

Empanadillas criollas are juicy ground meat pies with raisins, olives and other sundries; they taste good even while sinking inside you like a stone. I draw the line, however, at the nutmeg-flavored boulders they call croquettas de pollo y jamon de la casa (chicken and ham croquettes), though I did briefly contemplate bringing one home as a paperweight.

Dinners are served with a choice of soup or salad, one of those insoluble dilemmas since both are terrific. The best salad comes with a house vinaigrette that is almost pure garlic with a zingy, mustardy aftertaste. Homemade soups (red bean or split pea, for instance) are loaded with garlic and rich, hidden flavors. They even fooled the legume haters I brought along for objectivity.

Unfortunately, my theory that most small ethnic restaurants strut their best stuff before the main course rings true here. One or two main dishes have their moments at Felix, but few (and there are nearly 30 entrees) are really special. It's nice that most come with congri , a hearty blend of rice and black beans cooked together, and a choice of fried bananas ( maduros ), fried baby green bananas ( tostones , which Felix usually runs out of) or fried yucca root, which I find particularly delicious. It's also nice that portions are so generous. It's just that some of the dishes themselves aren't that nice.

An exception is Felix's roasted chicken Cubano--it's the best I've tasted, a crispy, half chicken roasted with butter, bitter orange and scandalous heaps of garlic. It is also the least expensive item on the menu ($6.95). Conversely, paella Valenciana , at $13, is the most expensive item, and possibly the least palatable.

Apporeado de tasajo , a Cuban sofrito with shredded beef, would be a treat if it were less salty. Empanada Gallego de pollo --a square pastry with a shredded, highly aromatic chicken filling--is unique enough to be interesting. Pierna de puerco asada , roasted pork leg served traditionally at Easter in Cuban homes, has the same bitter orange flavor that makes the chicken so irresistible.

It's difficult, but do save room for dessert--it's the best course at Felix. Pineapple-raisin bread pudding--a soft, buttery suspension of rum, eggs, flour and fruit--is spectacularly good. The pear tart is a crusty masterpiece with a delicate filling topped with fresh pear. There is an excellent chocolate cake; a quivering, whipped cream-smothered flan ; natilla , a vanilla pudding; cheesecake and a sumptuous rice pudding. Every one would bring me back for seconds. And there's not a bit of garlic in any of them.

Felix Continental Cafe is inexpensive to moderate. Appetizers are $3.75 to $5.75. Cuban and Spanish dishes are $6.95 to $13. Desserts are $1.95 to $2.25. There is a fine selection of Spanish wines at fair prices (the excellent Gran Sangre de Toro from Torres is only $12.95).

FELIX CONTINENTAL CAFE

36 Plaza Square, Orange

(714) 633-5842

Open 7 days from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

All major cards accepted.

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