I’ve always been puzzled that Cuban food has sometimes struggled to gain fans in Bakersfield. I recall a restaurant on Chester Avenue that offered the fare at fair prices and it didn’t seem to take at all, despite its similarities to Mexican and Spanish food. Mama Roomba is the closest we’ve come, but their menu is more fusion Caribbean that straight Cuban.
By far the most successful local outlet has been Rincon, now known as Cuban Cafe, which has been open on South Chester Avenue since 2013 and recently moved into the old Valentien location on Truxtun Avenue. Now there are a few idiosyncrasies about the new restaurant, primarily its hours. Our first mistake was driving up on a Friday night. They close at 5 p.m. on Fridays. Closed all day Saturday too. Dinner is a Sunday through Thursday thing here. And don’t expect to get a can of Cristal or Bucanero with your meal. No alcohol, which means no Cuban beers with the black beans.
What you will get is a clean place with a friendly small staff and food that is authentic and inviting, pretty much what we found at the original restaurant. Our exposure to Cuban food has been limited to visits to Miami (where it’s pretty much everywhere) and Jamaica, but my companion has developed a particular fondness for the fare, particularly the black beans. She ordered the house specialty on this visit, the pollo al ajillo ($11.79), while I was torn between the ropa vieja ($14.25) and vaca frita ($14.25, shredded beef grilled with onions). Finally went with the ropa, shredded beef with bits of onions and bell pepper.
Nothing against my entree, but get that garlic chicken. It’s an order. It’s a dark meat quarter (drumstick and thigh) that is both roasted and fried so the skin is naked and crunchy, then topped with so much minced grilled garlic and onions, it’s amazing. On the plate it was accompanied by fried plantains, white rice and a bowl of black beans. A few red juicy tomato slices for a garnish. The beans are both soupy and smashed and some are still whole and there’s a simplicity to them that is just beautiful.
The beef is solid, no doubt, and I loved the veggies served with the meat, but it just seemed so agreeable, like a supporting player in a movie, unlike the star power of that chicken. And I do have to give the place props for bringing out buttered, sliced Cuban bread after we ordered, arrayed in a basket, all buttery and slightly crunchy.
I like what they’ve done to the small space, with a combination of tables and booths with the small bar/counter near the door remaining from the Valentien days. Staffing can be an issue, as our pleasant waitress seemed to be the only one out front. Fortunately there were only three other tables occupied during our visit, so no delays were visible anywhere.
Your beverage choices do include Cuban iced coffee, fruit smoothies, Cuban frappe and a virgin pina colada. There are a lot of sandwich choices, Cuban breakfasts including pan con timba, a warm guava paste and cheese sandwich. I can’t recall ever seeing that on a Bakersfield menu.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.