Ropa vieja means old clothes in Spanish, but in Cuba and now on Overland Avenue in Boise it signifies something much more delicious.
To make that countrys signature dish, you roast the beef until you could eat it toothless, shred it, and combine it with a sofrito of tomatoes, onions and peppers and serve it up with rice and black beans.
At CasaBlanca Cuban Grill, green olives add to the complexity of the background, but the savory flavor of the featured meat itself is the star of this $9.95 dish, and thats exactly how it should be. Its true of most of the menu.
The puerco asado ($8.95) highlights the pork, slow-roasted with lemon and garlic. The fricase de pollo ($9.50) presents the chicken in a sauce brightened by the acidity of tomatoes and citrus.
These are rustic dishes, with simplicity in taste if not preparation. You have to pick around the little bones on the chicken, for example. Its not quite the best Ive ever had (though that may be tainted by my romantic memories of New York City nights and Key West sunsets), but this is the kind of food you would get at Grandmas house if she were from Havana. Plus, the atmosphere is casual and fun, maybe a little loud if the place fills up (its the old El Gringos space on top of the hill east of Curtis Road). Kind of what youd expect from la casa de la Abuela.
Cuban food, like Cuban music, is at once familiar and exotic. You may recognize the flavors or rhythms of Spain, or Central and South America, but realize in the end that you are experiencing something unique; bred, perhaps, by isolation. (If youve never seen the film Buena Vista Social Club or heard the soundtrack, do it soon. It will put you in the perfect mood to try this new restaurant.)
For most of our country, Cuban food means Cuban sandwiches: pressed French bread around ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and pickles.
You can get that at CasaBlanca (along with a few other sandwich choices for $6.95-$7.95), and thats a delicious option. But Im a food opportunist; now that I can get the full Cuban meal, with its signature overtones of cumin and garlic and annatto, Im going after it.
You cant go wrong with the traditional white rice and black beans, called moros cristianos for Moors and Christians (get it?), but I love CasaBlancas black bean soup, which is served over rice, where I would end up dumping it anyway. Grab a forkful of sweet, fried plantain, smear it around in the soup man, Im hungry just thinking about it.
The appetizers here are fun and different. Papas rellenas con picadillo ($4.95) are little fried balls of mashed potato, wrapped around flavored ground beef. The tostones (either fried, $3.95, or with a garlicky mojo sauce, $4.95) are plantains in their chip-like green, unripened state.
For another fun taste of the worlds influence on Cuban cuisine, try the croquetas de jamon ($3.95) and the bacalao a la Vizcaina ($9.95) and compare them to the Basque ham croquetas and salt cod we are lucky to have so readily here in Southwest Idaho.
As for the location, Im glad they chose this stretch of Overland Road. Its like the difference between the fancy Cuban joint right on famous Mallory Square in Key West and the spectacular and spectacularly busy neighborhood joint, El Siboney, a few miles away and well off the beaten track. CasaBlanca can focus on its food, keep its prices down, and not worry about being Downtown Boises next big thing. Maybe that makes it the next big thing?
Email Gregory Hahn: firstname.lastname@example.org