Ethnic cuisines like Mexican and Chinese are now so ubiquitous that they've become part of the American culinary stew. The sweeter, milder flavors of Cuban cuisine, on the other hand, are a little less common. But thanks to the recent opening of CasaBlanca Cuban Grill at 5506 W. Overland Road, Boise can now get a taste.
Housed in an old Chapala building, the arched windows and adobe color scheme of the space work perfectly for Cuban ambience, especially when basking in tunes from the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. It feels simple and relaxing, a vibe that owner Karina Soteras contends is just like eating at home. Soteras--whose head chefs are her mother and mother-in-law--said the restaurant's other name is "Mom's Kitchen."
The food coming out of that kitchen is traditional Cuban, which is based largely off the region's peasant cuisine: delicately spiced meats served with starches like beans, rice, fried plantains and tubers. And that of-the-people mentality translates to the prices at CasaBlanca. The most-expensive items on the menu are shrimp sautes in either garlic sauce or creole sauce (both $11.95).
I ordered the Ropa Vieja ($9.95), which was marked with a vaunted palm tree on the menu, indicating it was one of the chef's specialties. The dish was a subtly spiced shredded beef marinated in a light tomato base with onions and hints of olives. Despite the island's rep as a haven for all things spicy, it was a smooth and savory dish, with hints of sweetness from the olives and a hearty texture.
The menu also offers Vaca Frita ($8.95), a similar beef dish with a wedge of lime and onions in place of the tomatoes and olives. On the side was a black bean and rice mix and a bowl of yucca con mojo crollo, a cassava root tuber baked and seasoned to perfection. It had a hearty, starchy texture similar to thick mashed potatoes, and it was swimming in a delicious garlic oil.
Fried bananas finished off the meal. CasaBlanca offers two varieties: the starchier Tostones (raw green plantains, served with a citrus vinaigrette ($2), or the sweeter Maduros ($2), which are made from riper plantains. Both are excellent compliments to the meal.
The beauty of Cuban food is its simplicity. Much like American comfort food, it finds ways to let the ingredients' rich, natural flavors shine. And CasaBlanca dances those steps well, with food that manages to stand tall while totally lacking pretentiousness.