It's Friday night and the bar at the bi-level Corazon de Cuba is packed three deep. Although the band hasn't arrived yet, the decibel level hovers between loud and deafening. But so what if you can't hold a conversation, let alone hear yourself think? You can certainly eat -- which you do with gusto, since this is one restaurant where the food matters as much as the scene. Perhaps more. For starters, you might want to share the picadera Cubana, a selection of appetizers from Cuban-born chef Oscar Juarez. Flaky empanadas, both chicken and beef, turn out to be irresistible, as do smoky ham croquettes, crunchy-creamy shrimp fritters, fiery chicken wings and cheese-topped grilled corn on the cob. Juicy and tender slices of grilled steak bocadillos come with a lively chimichurri sauce. And even if the waiter hears your order for quesadillas de ropa vieja as the tortilla-free caserola de quesos with ropa vieja, the soft shreds of skirt steak with peppers, onions, tomatoes and cheese end up winning you over. So, too, do bacalaitos, crunchy little codfish cakes topped with guacamole.
At lunch, an immeasurably quieter time, a salpicon -- or seafood salad -- features shrimp, calamari, scallops and mussels in a sprightly lemon and olive oil dressing. So fresh and simple. Then, there's a meltingly good Cuban sandwich with roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese accented by pickle, mayo and mustard.
At dinner, all heads turn when an entree of lime-and-garlic-marinated roast chicken is delivered, sizzling and steaming. It's a winning dish, as is lechon asado, moist and juicy roast pork. Another good choice: shrimp sirenas, sauteed with garlic, peppers and chili. But smoky marinated grilled pork chops, good as they taste, are way overcooked. Rice and beans come on the side with just about everything. The combination of choice: yellow rice, black beans.
A brownie sundae, while not particularly Cuban, is one way to conclude. Better, though, are empanadas stuffed with creamy rice pudding. A layering of starches? Here, it works.
On the way out, ears ringing, consider joining the salsa dancing near the bar.