When pickings are slim, do your expectations lower? I wonder if our perceptions of a restaurant are skewed when we have very little to compare it with. I felt a bit of that unease when I first tried Andre's, a Cuban and Puerto Rican restaurant with a 20-year residence on Morena Boulevard. I'd been to the other Cuban food places in town—all two of them— but is that enough to get an educated handle on the cuisine? Would I know good Cuban food if it showed up on my plate? Well, even if I've never eaten at the iconoclastic Versailles, a Cuban Restaurant in Miami, or at its half-dozen copycats in the Los Angeles area, I know what tastes good, and for the most part, Andre's tastes good.
If it's your first time, start with lunch. The menu has a nice variety of options, and it's well-priced; there are even daily lunch specials called Recession Busters that include ample food and a drink for $4.99. Wednesday's lunch special is half of a hot grilled sandwich and a green salad, with choices ranging from tasty lemon-and-garlic-marinated carne asada and pollo asada with grilled onions to the classic Cuban sandwich, also called a Cubano. The sandwiches all come on baguette-shaped Cuban bread and are toasted until barely crisp on the outside. This under-crisping is not a great offense except in the case of the Cubano, which requires a serious pressing to melt the cheese that unites the sandwich's other fillings, which include homemade roast pork, baked ham and the essential pickles and mustard. (The best Cuban sandwich I've tried comes from Tropical Star, a tiny Latin American market/café on Balboa.)
Thursday's lunch special is a somewhat smaller version of a regular menu item, Pierna de Puerco Asada—pork marinated in a Caribbean blend of garlic, citrus and oregano and then oven-roasted until tender. The standard portion of this plate is very generous, enough to share with a friend and still have leftovers. Alongside come white rice and black beans, although a more delicious choice is arroz con gandules, a Puerto Rican rice dish with pigeon peas; the flavor base is built by sautéing sofrito, an aromatic mix of garlic, onions and mild peppers, with diced pork (yay!) and spices including annatto, which gives the rice a saffron-yellow color.
I could make a meal out of Andre's appetizers and sides alone. Yuca, a dense, starchy root vegetable, lends itself perfectly to frying but is equally good boiled and topped with mojo, a garlicky citrus oil with bits of bacon. Mojo is also great on tostones, slices of green unripe plantains, which get an initial fry to tenderize them, then are flattened into coins and fried again until crisp. Ripe plantains, which are slightly less sweet than bananas, are cooked until they're soft and caramelized. Of all the small plates, only the empanadas have been disappointing, their pastry shells a bit soggy and their fillings bland, requiring heavy use of the bottled habanero hot sauce that sits on every table.
To drink, there are a few Mexican beers and tropical fruit drinks and shakes. I like Malta, a stout-colored malt drink brewed from barley and hops that has a roasty, molasses-sweet taste. It's non-alcoholic, so I picked up a six-pack from Andre's adjacent market for some pregnant friends who've been missing the pleasures of beer. The market carries all sorts of Cuban and other Caribbean and Latin foodstuffs, from produce to cheese and packaged snacks. I like to end with a cup of café con leche—a mix of espresso and scalded milk—and maybe a flan, here made a little more firm than I prefer, but with a nice, not overly sweet, caramel flavor. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.