Havana was known for its casinos (before Fidel Castro and before the Miami exodus). Perhaps there’s a whiff of this at Embargo Grill (3960 West Point Loma Blvd.). The décor says Cuba. The menu says Miami. The execution is a roll of the dice.
Embargo Grill is less “Cuban” than “CubanAmerican,” reflecting Miami’s broader Latin influence. Take, for example, its Cubano sandwich. While it may be called “Cuban” it is—like Marco Rubio and (arguably) Ted Cruz—Cuban-American. Whether the first Cubanos were made in Tampa, Key West or Havana is a subject of debate. That the dish came to prominence in postCastro Miami is not.
The classic Cubano is a pressed sandwich featuring sliced mojo-marinated roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese and dill pickles layered on buttered Cuban bread slathered with mustard. It’s a play on the ham and cheese sandwich with the pickles adding another dimension. Often, though, dry roast pork spoils the ensemble. Embargo Grill addresses this brilliantly by replacing the roast pork with moist pulled pork. It is a truly great take on a classic.
Embargo Grill similarly turns another classic Cuban dish—ropa vieja—into another excellent sandwich. Ropa vieja is a stew of shredded flank steak with caramelization from the sear and the depth of flavor developed by the braise resulting in a dish of beguiling complexity. Embargo Grill combines that with the concept of a French dip. It’s an inspired mash-up, doubling down on meaty moisture to great effect.
Unfortunately, Embargo Grill went downhill from there. The Elena Ruz sandwich was a confused mess. Supermarket-level roast turkey fought with a gargantuan glob of guava paste, guava cream cheese and Cuban sweet bread that would have been wonderful had it not been showered with powdered sugar, dessert style. Had the sweet-savory balancing act come off it might have been a contender. It toppled.
Several classics disappointed. Tostones, fried plantains, were dreadfully overcooked. Mofongo, another plantain dish, was ruined by raw bottled chopped garlic. And what ought to have been a signature, the classic chop-chop (which, for reasons that are far from clear, they simply—and somewhat anonymously—call their “Embargo Grill Dish”) fell down at the last hurdle. It’s wonderful rice and beans with chopped romaine, tomatoes and onions on top. The classic version has chicken, chopped too, a mayonnaise-curry sauce, and is topped with rum-macerated cranberries. It’s pure Miami, made famous by South Florida’s Chicken Kitchen chain. Embargo Grill’s version has the form of the original without catching its magic. Perhaps the sauce was to blame, all mayo with just barely enough curry to color the sauce, and maybe the bag of cranberries was near some rum on the shelf.
The Caribbean curry stew was, perhaps, the restaurant’s poster child. The curry itself was deliciously spicy, deep and complex. But while the lamb meat was tender and tasty it was also untrimmed and featured huge blobs of fat. Someone probably found some of it in our napkins.
Embargo Grill is maddeningly inconsistent. At its best, it offers creative takes on classics. At its worst it is downright careless. It’s a roll of the dice.