For a while I went every Sunday afternoon to El Colmao, a thriving big-city Cuban restaurant set among the bodegas and Spanish-language record stores of Pico-Union, and I listened to the cumbias that blared from the big jukebox, and I got pleasantly drunk on half-liters of cold red wine. El Colmao seems to be to Los Angeles Cubans what Ratner's on New York's Lower East Side is to Long Island Jews: a good old place in the old neighborhood frequented mostly by suburban people who want to feel ethnic once in a while.
My girlfriend at the time, Cuban-born, had an interesting sense of humor: she coerced me to order meals for the two of us in sputtering menu Spanish, which she mocked to the waitress. She once taught me to ask for the check by saying " El check-O, por favor," which busted up the owner and amused everybody in the dining room but me. She'd comment loudly on the tight skirts of the women who came into the restaurant, in a way that implied she was responding to something I'd said. (I was young and inexperienced enough to be a good sport.) After we broke up, she got to keep my WWII officer's cape and I got the Sundays at El Colmao.
Each time I went to the restaurant I ordered the same things, and after a while, the waitresses would just recite my regular order back to me and save me the embarrassment of mispronouncing aguacate once again. It was a huge, greasy, splendid lunch.
There was always an avocado salad to start--cool, ripe chunks garnished with thin slices of raw onion, which I dressed with splashes of vinegar and torrents of good Spanish olive oil; then a heaping plateful of thin, pounded circles of unripe plantains, fried crisp as potato chips and dusted with salt. Sometimes I ordered an 80 cup of delicious caldo Gallego , a thick, Galician-style white-bean soup spiked with shredded collard greens and smoky chunks of ham and sausage, that made even the dry, puffy Cuban rolls taste good.
And then the food would come: Pla-Doh-textured boiled yuca , the color of a legal pad, sauced with oil, lemon and a truly astounding quantity of garlic; a big plateful of moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians), which is a tasty miscegenation of black beans and rice fried with garlic and gobbets of fat pork; piles of fried fresh ham, pierna de puerco , crisp and brown on the outside and meltingly tender within, topped with an immoderate portion of caramelized onions, all washed down with cold red wine served in those flared jugs pizzerias use for Almaden, poured into chilled glasses that still had bits of crushed ice clinging to their rims. (The wine was pretty bad, but anything subtler would have been lost in the avalanche of garlic.) For dessert there was good flan and torpor and cups of strong Cuban espresso to wake us up a little. The check rarely exceeded $20 for two; it seems to average about $25 now.
Even thinking about that meal makes me want to reach for a breath mint and take a nap.
Since then, though I've cut back to about one El Colmao meal a month, and I still order the same thing every time--I've tried to vary it a couple of times, but the only time a waitress believed me was when I ended up with a plateful of dryish turkey-roll asada --I've managed to try most of the things I'd only seen sail by before.
Various fried steaks and chops are garlicky and fine, if a little dry sometimes (the pierna asada can sometimes be dry, too). The arroz con pollo is about the best thing: a big, fragrant bowl of rice, stained Easter-chick yellow with achiote, studded with pimientos and the meat of at least a quarter-chicken, and of a pure chicken flavor. Chicken is also available sauteed with garlic and tomatoes (you can also get a big hunk of halibut done that way too), or sauteed and glazed with an intense sauce of sherry and fried onions. There's a good version of the shredded-beef stew called ropa vieja , and a delicious smoked pork chop served only at weekday lunch. There's real, fizzy Asturian cider served in flat Champagne bowls.
And as it turns out, you can order in English.
"I was wondering when you'd figure that out," the waitress said.
El Colmao, 2328 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 386-6131. Open Wed.-Sat and Mon., 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sun., noon to 9:30 p.m. Cash only. Lot parking. Beer and wine. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $9-$28.