In Portland, pork and patios are high on the priority list. Sure, we have handfuls of gluten-intolerant-raw-vegans, but the term "Porkland" is often thrown around with a vengeance. El Cubo de Cuba, of downtown cart fame, has parked its wheels for a more stationary and spacious opportunity, a brick and mortar restaurant. Their new location has ample patio space for our beautiful but fleeting summer, and plenty of pork to go around.
The owners, Emily Roskam and Milko Vigil Escalera, met while salsa dancing in Corvallis, Oregon, to the same lively music that spills from the speakers at their new location. "The cart started as just a fun summer project, just something to do," says Roskam. "This was a few years back, when carts weren't even really a big deal like they are now. We weren't expecting it to get this big." But when the duo moved to Portland and realized how competitive the job market was, they decided to see what could happen with a few pork plates and a lot of plantains.
El Cubo de Cuba's dishes are rooted in recipes from Escalera's childhood in Havana, where he got his start in the restaurant business (he owned a pizza restaurant before moving to the United States). El Cubo de Cuba's menu is essentially the twin to the cart's: there are an array of plates showcasing slow-cooked meats like Ropa Vieja (9.95) (shredded brisket), and Mojo Pork ($9.75) paired with tostones (savory twice-fried plantains), maduros (sweet pan-fried plantains), black beans, sweet potato fries, or rice.
There is, of course, a Cuban sandwich: "A lot of other places might have versions of Cuban sandwiches, but ours is unadulterated. It's so simple, but so good," says Roksam. The sandwich has sliced mojo pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles pressed into Cuban-style bread.
The new menu also includes the addition of salads and alcohol offerings. "We never had the refrigerator space for salads before," says Roskam. "The carts would get so hot, I think one day we hit 135 degrees in there." Those craving vegetables can go for the Vegan Plate ($7.50), which combines a choice of side, Cuban black beans, rice, and the Caribbean Salad, a mix of mango, cucumber, avocado, and red onion tossed in lime juice. "Cuban black beans are prepared differently than say, Mexican black beans," says a staffer. "They're cooked with significantly less cumin, and a little sweeter."
The drinks menu has booze-based Cuban classics, like the Mojito ($6.50) with sugar, fresh mint, lime, and Bacardi Silver. There are also sweet caffeinated options like Cafe Cubano ($2), espresso brewed with turbinado sugar along with the grounds. One mainstay from the carts are Batidos ($3.50), essentially Cuban milkshakes, in flavors like pineapple, mango, and papaya.
The new location can be found on the quieter side of SE Hawthorne, a few blocks from the bustle of restaurants and art shops. Inside, the same lively spirit of the cart is present; the walls are painted in vivacious reds, teals and yellows, and are adorned with paintings and photographs showcasing Cuban landscapes and cars. Order at the counter and make your way to picnic-style seating on the large patio, small inside tables, or at the counter in front of expansive windows looking out to Hawthorne. The landlords also happen to be the owners of Artichoke Music space nearby, so patrons can expect live salsa shows in the near future.
While the cart may have started out as a fun pastime, it's become something more: "Our food is always evolving," says Roskam. "We take feedback very seriously. There's been a lot of burnt briskets. When we were crafting the mojito recipe, we took hours making sure there was the right balance of lime, and sugar and rum. It has to be the best."
About the author: Kat Vetrano currently lives in Portland, Oregon where she's eating her way through food carts, farmers markets and pho joints. Follow her on Twitter @kat707.