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Cuban Crocodile

The red snapper and shrimp seviche, served with

The red snapper and shrimp seviche, served with fried plantain chips. (April 29, 2012) Credit: Johnny Simon

Marivi Wolfe, although born in this country, comes from a family of native Cubans. At her new Long Beach restaurant, Cuban Crocodile, Wolfe cooks the food she grew up eating.

Here, the intimate upstairs dining room reverberates with Latin music. It's catchy -- infectious, even -- but sometimes a little too loud. When asked, our waitress was happy to turn down the volume.

This allowed for conversation over a meal that began with a trio of beef empanadas -- crunchy, flaky crusts enfolding a beef filling seasoned with spunk. Beef, shredded with onions, garlic and tomatoes, was the main ingredient, as well, in an appealing tapas called vaca frita. Offering fruity counterpoint was a seviche (non-Cuban in origin) featuring shrimp and red snapper in a lively citrus marinade. Another night, shrimp in garlic sauce offered simple satisfaction. And a Caribbean salad of greens and various fruits was beautifully plated, refreshing. Healthy, too.

The only health merit in the succulent pernil asado, or slow-roasted pork shoulder, skin and all, was the gratification it offered. Ropa vieja -- softly shredded beef with tomatoes, peppers and onions -- was served, as were most entrees, with very good rice and beans. It was a Latin comfort classic, respectfully rendered. So too, Wolfe's traditional Cubano sandwich made of ham, pork and Swiss with pickles and mayo grilled together on Cuban bread.

Less successful was the dish called palomilla, described as a "Cuban-cut juicy steak." Actually, it was thin, overcooked beef rescued, somewhat, by a smothering of onions and a spunky Cuban chimichurri on the side. The well-marinated pollo ala brasa, "juicy pieces of chicken," hardly described a single boneless breast grilled to dryness. Way better was the pargo Santiaguero, a red snapper fillet, beautifully grilled in a citrus and garlic marinade.

An unanticipated pleasure was dessert -- a lovely coconut flan and, best of all, an opulent wedge of cheesecake blanketed in mellow dulce de leche. I can't vouch for its Cuban authenticity -- only for how I would have liked yet another forkful.

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