987 Stewart Ave., Garden City
SERVICE: Prompt, if frenetic
AMBIENCE: Island-style meets Garden City in this huge space, where diners can sip mojitos and choose from a huge selection of Latin-inspired dishes.
ESSENTIALS: Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, until mightnight Fridays and Saturdays; no reservations, wheelchair accessible, major credit cards
The Cuban in Garden City looks like a movie set, starting with the dreamy fins and sexy curves of ’50s-era Cadillacs and Chevies parked out front. Backlit palm trees frame the entrance; their windblown fronds beckon with a promise of hospitality and a sunny concept.
The Cuban is eager to please, with a menu of Latin American dishes and island-inspired cocktails. Bargoers flock here for happy-hour deals such as $3 beers and $4 sangria before 7 p.m., while diners appreciate generous portions, value and a hopping scene in the dining room, especially on weekends. Don’t be surprised: With an Afro-Cuban soundtrack or a bachata beat, there may be dancing.
Those fabulous cars belong to Willy Martinez, the guy behind five locations of Margarita’s Cafe. He is a partner in The Cuban along with Inmar Fuentes and Greg Garofalo of Lobster Shack in Seaford. They’re running a 155-seat white tablecloth restaurant in a decked-out banquet space with sea green walls, ocean blue accents and gossamer window dressings. The setup is a labyrinth of rooms, including a square bar, a nearby stage and platform levels for large tables.
Servers wear Panama hats and guayabera shirts, even in winter. They’ll take an order for sangria, piña coladas or drinks that feature mango. And while service is prompt, there can be a lack of connection, since so many staffers tend to a table. Some aren’t keeping track as to whether diners have ordered or finished a meal. “They’re running through the dining room,” said a friend at my table. It’s great that there’s hustle. But rest a fork for too long and one might snatch a plate before you’re through.
Among starters on an oversized menu, chorizo medallions are cut on the bias, dolled up with garlic, onions and tomatoes — a perfectly fine dish. Scallop ceviche delivers an appropriately refreshing bite, layered with red onion, red peppers, serrano chile and cilantro. Salt cod fritters are less intriguing masked by bread crumbs, oddly undersalted. The gratis Cuban breadbasket is old school and on-point.
A soup-as-starter or a fine lunch, ajiaco de pollo brightens up with cilantro and lime, with an added salsa and the creaminess of avocado — no trio of potatoes or guascas, a hard-to-find herb, here. Regardless, this is a pleasing version of chicken soup that I’ve been looking for.
For entrees, consider the specials, though they’re not especially Cuban, from the osso buco that’s actually a tender pork shank — no marrow — served with black beans and rice. I prefer the lechoncito, a falling apart, savory roasted pork shoulder with crisp fried yuca and sharp but sweet pickled onions.
Plenty of entrees are designed for sharing, like the generously stocked paella, with lobster and shrimp, scallops, clams and mussels. Red peppers and garlic layer it with flavor. While it’s served in a cast-iron pan, it’s missing crispy rice of socarrat on the bottom — but that is all right.
For dessert, expect American-style coffee and Cuban-inspired desserts, of which the fried milk pudding with notes of vanilla and whipped cream is the winner. But if there’s a band playing get into the spirit of The Cuban. Order an extra cocktail, swallow your inhibitions and get your salsa on.