We shouldn't have arrived at Tazablanca so early-it was before 6 p.m. on the longest day of the year-or perhaps we just shouldn't have started drinking right away. The sun was still high in the sky and most people's body clocks had not yet begun to chime for dinner, so when we arrived, there was only one other couple in the restaurant. They were already midway through their meal, sitting across the room by the stage where a live band plays on busier nights, and the one server working the floor was unoccupied and looking a bit bored.
I had never tried Cuban food before, but my friend had been to Tazablanca a few times and always had a good experience. She had raved about their mojitos, so we each ordered one before we even cracked open the menus.
Our waiter, whose turquoise eyes sparkled under his dirty-blond bangs, smiled broadly as he brought us our first round of drinks. We smiled back and stirred up the mint with our colorful straws. The mojitos were indeed delicious, strong but deceptively sweet, and we slurped them down like 6-year-olds partaking in their first-ever drinks of Sprite.
We perused the appetizer selection as we drank. Abby's strict vegetarianism left a lot of options off-limits, so we had to choose between two simple but traditional classics: Tostones or Platano Maduro Frito-fried green or fried sweet plantains. We chose the sweet ones and dispatched our idle and friendly server (I'll call him John) to place the order.
John loitered by the table as we waited for the plantains. Though we began by asking questions about the restaurant, he soon revealed that it was his 22nd birthday that day (he's on the cusp between Gemini and Cancer, if you're curious). Then he rolled up the cuff of his pants to show us some of his deeper surfing scars.
The appetizer arrived, and our focus shifted from the cute waiter back to the food. The plantains were fried golden but buttery soft, and they came with a lemon-garlic-butter sauce for dipping. They were devoured quickly, the contrasting flavors of the fruit and the dip growing on us with each bite.
"They're like good sex," declared Abby, deep enough into her mojito buzz to utter such things. "Just the right amount of sweet and salty."
When the time came to order the entrées, I asked John what he thought I should try. He recommended the Lechon-described on the menu as a leg of pork roasted and marinated in the chef's "special marinade," served with a house salad, steamed rice and black beans. I do enjoy pork more than chicken or beef, so I flashed John my sweetest smile and told him I'd love to try it.
The entrée pickin's being slim for vegetarians, Abby ordered her tried-and-true Sandwich Vegetariano, a medley of grilled mushrooms, onions, red bell peppers, zucchini and eggplant, covered in honey and topped with Swiss cheese on a toasted sweet bun.
When the second round of mojitos came, they were just as satisfying and rapidly consumed as the first. By the time John delivered the salad-the greens were pretty standard, but the tequila-lime-cilantro dressing was tangy and delicious-he was busy serving two new tables and no longer fully obliging our flirtatious banter.
Ultimately, our dinner was delicious. I had expected the leg of pork to be a big chunk of meat at the end of a long bone, but it was instead shredded like Mexican carnitas and smothered in a marinade of onions and green chiles. The meat was wonderfully seasoned, crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, though the portion was enormous and I wound up taking most of it home.
While there weren't many vegetarian options, the veggie sandwich itself was worth the trip, big and filling with tender, juicy vegetables and complex flavors both sweet and vinegary. The crisp golden yuca fries (the yellow root is a Cuban staple) "looked like tree bark," according to Abby, but were thicker and sweeter than their potato-based counterparts.
By the end of the meal, the mojitos were drained and our water glasses sat untouched; the ice had melted and a puddle of condensation pooled on the table at the base of each one. Too full for dessert, we asked John-who was now scrambling to accommodate two more big parties of five and seven people-to bring the check.
Feeling giddy and reckless, I half-jokingly asked Abby if she thought I should leave John my phone number with my credit card receipt.
She egged me on enthusiastically and I-too drunk on mojitos and high on good food to leave well enough alone-took her fool advice.
"Scars are sexy," I scrawled on my business card. "Call me."
Of course, he never did. And now, no matter how strong my craving for sweet plantains and roasted Lechon may grow, I'm too embarrassed to go back.
Tazablanca is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.