When most people think of Cuban food in Florida, they think Miami, and understandably so. With 24 of the top 25 Cuban communities in the country situated in Miami limits, the Magic City has more than its fair share of criollo joints. But my grandparents don't live in Miami; they live farther north on the Gulf Coast, so that's where most of my Floridian jaunts are centered. And to my pleasant surprise, I discovered on a recent visit that even a little town like Bradenton has at least one great source for lechon asado.
Crammed in to a narrow storefront on an unglamorous stretch of Cortez Road, Jose's Real Cuban Food has a classic mom-and-pop luncheonette feel: a pixelated shot of owner Jose Baserva on the sign outside, no A/C, and a menu of homestyle Cuban classics from Baserva's family (they emigrated from Cuba to Miami in 1959, when he was one).
Jose's Real Cuban is no-frills, but it isn't exactly undiscovered: a few years ago, the restaurant was featured on Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," and the place is consistently packed. One of the more popular offerings is the pressed Cuban Sandwich ($7.95), filled with thick slices of ham and Jose's signature lechon, or roasted pork shoulder, which he cooks at 500 degrees for five hours with a mojo marinade. The "hot and fast" method could easily backfire, but Jose's lechon is fork-tender and kicky with garlic, so I won't question it. The thin housemade salsa that comes with the sandwich, made with tomato, garlic, jalapeno, and vinegar, helps keep what could easily be a gutbomb of a meal feeling (relatively) light.
The gutbomb comes later, with the arrival of the Taste of Cuba combo platter ($13.95), featuring small mountains of lechon, piccadillo (ground beef in tomato sauce), and ropa vieja (shredded brisket in tomato sauce) on a bed of rice with sides of black beans, yuca, and plantains. The savory piccadillo, studded with bits of hard boiled egg and green olives, was my favorite, though the ropa vieja (literally "old clothes"), one of Cuba's national dishes, was a rich, satisfying second.
Bradenton has an active fishing community, so it's not all meat and beans on Jose's menu. Anglers can bring their fresh catches to Jose's to cook; the final product depends on his mood. On the day I was there, the cooks were running a fresh Shrimp Jose (market price) special with spinach, onions, peppers, and jalapeno sauteed in a garlic butter sauce; the vibrant platter was a pleasant change of pace from all the pork.
To finish: a jiggly Flan ($3.25), made with eggs, cream, milk, and sweetened condensed milk, and laced heavily with cinnamon. Dense, Jello-y flan is one of the fastest ways to gross me out, but this was light and creamy, and the fact that I ate even half of it is a testament to its texture.
I'm not Cuban, and I won't claim to be an expert in the cuisine. But eating at Jose's made me feel right at home.
Jose's Real Cuban Food
8799 Cortez Road West, Bradenton, FL 34210 (map)