YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Restaurants | Counter Intelligence

Trendy Dishes and Grandma's

The Cuban Bistro in Alhambra serves adventurous cuisine and traditional fare.


Our Cuban restaurants have always had their own style. The Miami sort, the flashy nightclubby places with crystal chandeliers and red velvet, never really got off the ground here. Neither did the old Jackson Heights-type dives reeking of frying lard and cigar smoke.

After Castro's ascent, a lot of tidy mom-and-pop Cuban dinettes opened around town, each cultivating its own delightfully quirky personality. They offered homesick Cuban newcomers "abuelita cuisine"--the dishes any Cuban grandmother can cook by heart: codfish, roast pork marinated with tart Seville orange juice, garlicky chicken with crisp skin, all in the portions for which the doggie bag was invented. Many of these places are still going strong, but more recently the Nuevo Latino cuisine developed on the East Coast has fostered a few newcomers such as Xiomara.

The Cuban Bistro in Alhambra is unlike any of these, and very much an L.A. place. The decor is simple but sharp: teal walls, tablecloths covered with butcher paper, a big Cuban flag. The kitchen aims, with a fair measure of success, to appeal to trendy tastes while pleasing customers who just want grandma's food in a chichi ambience. "Traditional Cuban cuisine with a California twist" is how the menu describes the cooking.

From the main dining area you can hear laughter mixing with the clatter of dishes floating over a low wall that marks off a section often used for parties. There's a small bar off the entryway--too small, perhaps, for the ambitions of the very lengthy bar menu that offers a bubble gum martini and other wacky baroque libations. (Liqueur-spiked tequila is a "Cubarita"; Miami Nice Tea has six alcoholic ingredients.) Naturally, there are Cuban mojitos of rum and sugar, and very good ones, refreshingly minty and not too sweet.

Most appetizers stay within familiar territory, but there's one sensational exception: testones rellenos, two-inch lengths of plantain hollowed into boat shapes, fried crisp and stuffed with chopped shrimp and crab meat. Cuban ham croquettes can be a serious appetite suppressant, but Cuban Bistro's croquetas are dainty logs of smoky ham held together with a mere whisper of bechamel sauce and crumbs.

Dinner specials tend to be the most adventurous items, and among the most carefully cooked. One evening there was an impressive chicken breast stuffed with goat cheese and paprika-laced Spanish sausage in a shallow pool of saffron-scented chicken reduction and Chilean sea bass in a mojo sauce that used fresh tangerine juice in place of Seville orange juice. Both entrees came without the black beans many consider essential to a Cuban--or even a Cal-Cuban--meal. The $3.50 side of perfectly cooked black beans or the restaurant's rich smooth black bean soup can fill the breach.

Fish and seafood occupy the longest section of the menu. A mango-papaya salsa with avocado chunks brightens the garlic-laced grilled mahi mahi. Tender lobster tail, served in a potent buttery garlic sauce, is a luxury version of the traditional camarones al ajillo (which is also available).

Cuban comfort-food classics--lechon asado, ropa vieja, breaded pollo a la milanesa (accompanied with the bean-rice-plantain trilogy)--fill out the regular menu. For the most part, dishes are not overcooked the way they can be in Cuban restaurants, but a few items could be tended more carefully. My roast chicken (in a subtly sweet guava sauce) had dried out on re-heating; the shoestring sweet potatoes accompanying a beautifully grilled beef tenderloin were as limp as noodles.

Among the desserts, the classic flan and the coconut flan are both as tender as a mother's sigh, but the waiter always promotes the banana roll--a banana and chocolate chips wrapped in a flour tortilla, deep-fried, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and served a la mode. It turns out to be a delicious pastry--one of the many details that give Cuban Bistro a style of its own.


Cuban Bistro, 28 W. Main St., Alhambra, (626) 308-3350. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; noon to 11 p.m. Saturday; and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Street parking; public parking lot behind the restaurant. All major credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $27-$55.

What to get: testones rellenos, croquetas, black bean soup, mahi mahi with mango papaya salsa, chicken stuffed with goat cheese and Spanish sausage, lobster or shrimp in ajillo sauce, banana roll.

Los Angeles Times Articles