Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gusto Cuban Cafe

Restaurant: Gusto Cuban Cafe
Address: 7910-7920 Harrison Street
Website: Gusto Cuban Cafe
Genres: Cuban
Check Constraints: $3.50 for splitting an item. No checks. 15% gratuity for 8+ people.
Chain: No | More Omaha Locations: No

  • Papa Rellena a la Gusto ($12.95)
  • Congris
  • Black Beans
  • Fried sweet plantains.
  • Bread Pudding ($3)
More or less halfway down the block around 80th and Harrison, Gusto is not as small as it looks on the outside, but they crammed so many tables into the area that it feels smaller than it looks, and that's unfortunate. Also unfortunate is the mix of seemingly-homemade seating and somewhat uncomfortable... I'm not sure what to call them. Porch chairs, maybe? They have somewhat flexible seats, and stiff arms, and are not at all comfortable for people who are significantly wide, and even if I wasn't, I couldn't imagine being quite comfortable in them. They seem the sort of chairs I would tolerate, at best.

In any case, the waitress was reasonably attentive, and we took a long, LONG time for this lunch. Like, two hours. Mecha has the price on the appetizer sampler later on, but we all devoured it, of course. For twenty three bucks, it was a heaping monster platter of food. It wasn't even a platter, actually. This is the first place I've been to that actually served their sampler on an honest-to-goddess big wooden lazy Susan. It was incredibly convenient, and I kinda wish more places would do that. Aaanyway, the sampler is basically damn near every appetizer they offer. It costs a boatload of money, and you get a boatload of stuff to try. When the menu says "...etc" in the sampler description, it is NOT kidding. Almost all of it was good, too, a rarity among appetizer samplers. Be on special lookout for the roast pork bits, which are a tad try, but are cooked in an awesome vinegar and lemon based sauce. Mecha got that stuff as his main dish, and I'd eat it for both appetizer and main dish.

After that, though, this ended up being a spectacularly bad lunch for me. When I ordered the main dish, I was under the impression that the menu was not lying to me, and that I was ordering a baked potato stuffed with heavily seasoned ground beef and topped with a bunch of cheese. What I actually got was that, plus a bunch of onions, olives, and tomatoes, which more or less ruined my lunch. The congris turned out to be black rice with bits of pork, beans, and heavy spice in it, which was not particularly appetizing to me. The black beans were more like a soup, but were so beany that I couldn't stand them, and the plantains were, well... plantains. They practically define the word 'plain'.

We had already taken two hours by the time dessert time came, and I had wanted to try the bread pudding, so I gave it a shot and had them box some up to take back to work with me. That was a mistake. It was bitter. Not as bitter as, say, the alfredo at Indigo Joe's, but bitter like "We put so much cinnamon in here that you can't even actually taste cinnamon anymore."

I say, if you're going to go here, get the stuff the other guys got. Or the appetizers. Unless that potato sounds good to you. Honestly, I'd have preferred getting some Taco Bell. Or the stuff the other guys got. Man, that fried chicken was good. Not as good as mine, but damn good nonetheless. And those roast pork bits were to die for.

  • Gusto Cuban Cafe Sampler Platter ($2?.??)
  • Masitas De Cerdo Fritas ($?.??)
    • Congris
    • Black Beans
    • Fried sweet plantains.
I have been so, so fried mentally. Hopefully, I will find the receipt for this place, as the online menu lacks prices.

So. Cuban food, a first for me, but I do like trying things. The Sampler Platter had a huge amount of stuff. One we identified as a sort-of crab-cake-like seafood item. It had three different plantain/banana looking chips, some very thin crisps, some longer sweet fried, and another type. The lime/lemon and such fried pork bits ND mentioned above. There was some sort of BBQish beans-flavored thing. Homemade thin potato fries of some sort. There was really nothing on this sampler that was bad, but they warned us that we were looking at a half-hour+ to make it beforehand, and they weren't wrong. I wish I had better descriptions, hopefully Cham will be able to shore this up in his section, and I'm sure the menu at the place describes the individual items better. If you've got the time and the people, you would be foolish to not give this a try.

The main meal was actually oddly disappointing in its size/delivery. Not that I didn't walk away full, but that it seemed small for its price. That said, it was all the fried pork with citrus undertones that ND talked above, for the main dish, and that is delicious. A little bit tough, but not too tough, the texture reminding me muchly of the 'teriyaki chicken' skewers that you get at various Chinese restaurants, but as pork. The flavor is fairly complex, and has those citrus notes (I think of them as lime, but ND clearly thought of them as lemon. Not really the crucial points) that really give it some bite. I don't know if I'd eat it as much as ND wants to, but I was glad to eat a good portion of it. The black beans actually had a very strange flavor, with the first note of it being cooking sherry, and then into the black bean flavor. Not my thing. The Congris was advertised as having pork, but there was no real pork flavor to it. Not bad at all, though, to me. Now, the fried plantains, those I would definitely go for again.

The place bills itself as having many a drink, but as usual, that's not something we got to try. It seems to more bill itself as a fun place to drink and karaoke and have unique good food at a leisurely pace, and the lunch we had supports that theory fairly well. It doesn't look like it would necessarily be too slow if you came in for lunch fare, either.

  • Mango Shake ($4.85)
  • Kidney Beans ($3.85)
  • Chicharrones de Pollo ($11.99)
This has not been the best winter for any of us. There has been plenty of mental frying to go around, and additionally I just purchased a house, so when I sleep at night, I dream of boxes, and when I wake up, I am in a valley between two walls of boxes, rising like a canyon around me. It is dark, and there may be grues. This is my flimsy excuse for my part in letting posts slip for weeks.

I am not 100% positive when the restaurant in question opened in this location. I dimly remember this being the previous location of, perhaps, something called Mimi's? But such memories are lost in the fog of time. Regardless, there has been time enough for the Omaha World-Herald to perform a review and for the review to be on the wall, so I feel fairly safe in saying that the restaurant has had time to work out the kinks. The service was decent despite there being only one waitress there, and the food was prompt (with the exception of the monstrous sampler platter).

The sampler platter had an extremely vast array of food. I will do my best to dredge recollections up from underneath the horrific visages of cardboard, but you should expect at best a faulty list:
  • Thin cut yucca fries, rather moist and oily, but possessing good flavor. It pretty much required a fork to eat them, though.
  • Plantain chips; these devices were fried cross-sections of plantain, allowed to cool. They were, essentially, the same as banana chips, but as expected were not sweet. Their primary application at the table seemed to be a delivery system for the next entry in the list.
  • Garbanzo beans with chorizo. Said beans had more than a hint of "BBQ" sauce in their flavor profile, but that may just have been due to molasses or other flavorings in the sauce. Regardless, they were fairly good.
  • Taro fritters. These objects were essentially pressed and fried cakes of taro, though everyone else at the table swears they could taste corn in the mix as well. They were perhaps a tad bland when compared with the rest of the heaping platter, but would probably have stood up okay on their own.
  • Fried plantain slices. These slices, unlike the chips, were warm (not to mention cut on a diagonal). They did well at playing to the plantain's strengths; namely, being a potato substitute with a slightly different flavor.
  • Roast pork in mojo sauce. These were quite clearly the star of the show, at least as far as our table was concerned. The bright citrus/herbal taste of the mojo sauce was a very high soprano paired with the pork's baritone, and the juxtaposition made for some delicious eating. If you're going with a single appetizer, pick these. For reference, I am pretty sure there was both lemon and lime in the mojo sauce, along with cilantro and some other herbs.
  • Papa Rellena Cubana; these devices were fried balls of mashed potatoes, stuffed inside with ground beef. They were excellent - we almost forgot they were there because of how fast they disappeared off the platter.
  • Ham and chicken croquettes; I suspect these were the items we thought were seafood (though those could have been the cod fritters). They were deep-fried to a brown crisp, and they went quite well with the mojo sauce we got on the side.
I am fairly sure that was everything, though with the large degree of fried foods arrayed before us it would have been easy to misidentify something. The only real solution is to go and check it out yourself.

On to the kidney beans, which were in the "soup" section of the menu. They were reminiscent of creole-style red beans, though with more liquid and with a more complex flavor. I can recommend them, though I'm not sure it would be worth it to get more than a cup.

The entree I got was, the menu assured, a Cuban version of fried chicken. I wasn't disappointed, though I was perhaps pleasantly surprised when the plate arrived and I was served pieces of bone-in-chicken which had been cut into smaller chunks, just the right size for picking up and then devouring down to the bone. The chicken was very flavorful; either brined or properly seasoned before frying. The biggest shock was perhaps the breading - a breadcrumb-based substance which had a sort of Shake 'N' Bake feel to it, but which was far better executed than anything from a box. The serving size was perhaps a bit small. Had I not stuffed myself to the gills with the monstrous sampler platter I could probably have gone through two of these, no problem. Still, the entrees are served with sides.

Everyone seemed to dislike the black bean side but me. I admit that after my initial taste I wasn't too keen on eating the rest of them, but the taste grew on me as I worked my way through the cup. As Mecha mentions, they had a very, very heavy bean taste, shored up by a rather strong wine flavor; initially I thought it was cooking sherry or some other intended-for-cooking-wine but as I was digging the last bean out I came to the internal conclusion it was just a very strong red, like a Shiraz.
Comparatively, the congris had a far lighter taste, and with the other strong flavors on my plate, it wound up being not much more than filler for me; which I definitely didn't need.

I'd be more than willing to go back here several times, eating around the menu and exploring various flavors. Though it'd be tough not getting that chicken again. Or just the sampler platter.

  • Ropa Vieja sandwich ($8.99)
  • Columbiana ($3.75)
Plantains. So many plantains. The appetizer plate was a fun thing to get, but it's definitely for more than four people. The pork was great. The BBQ-ish garbanzo bean stuff in the middle was pretty good. I liked the sweet plantains--the soft ones. The regular plantain chips weren't anything to go out of your way for, but they were good to munch on. I almost forgot there was a smashed plantain patty-thing too, but that's because it was rather bland. You could really tell which items were the seafood ones because they were pretty strong (but not bad). Anything else on the plate has blended into the mix in my mind by now.

The sandwich was delicious and pretty filling. I had a hard time eating it all with the huge appetizer plate. It was tangy and simply sauced brisket on a bun. I asked for plantain chips as the side, and it came with a SERIOUS load of them. No, more than that. It reminds me a bit of the potato chips I had at Dundee. I ate maybe a third of them. If I had known I would get so many, I wouldn't have eaten any chips off the appetizer plate. As it is, we didn't finish all of the appetizer chips either. The Columbiana was an interesting experiment. I had originally asked for the Pineapple drink, but they were out of it. It turned out to be a can of orange-colored cream soda. It reminded me a lot of the Barq's Red Cream Soda I used to have often when living in Indiana. It still had a slightly different flavor than that. For the price, it isn't worth a repeat buy for me, however. To me, those drinks are probably a try-once deal. It was good food, but it was a very long wait. I'm glad I wasn't in a hurry.