There is little better on a hot summer day than a mojito -- white rum laced with muddled fresh mint leaves, cane sugar, and tonic with fresh lime juice and a lime slice served up in a Tom Collins glass with lots of ice. The drink is an aromatic as it is delicious, and quickly conjures yearnings for trademark Cuban dishes like empanadas and ropa vieja (Cuban-style shredded beef).
And while Cuban dishes make appearances on other Latin restaurant menus in Milwaukee, Cubanitas, 728 North Milwaukee St., is the city's first, and now only, entirely Cuban restaurant.
And, its longevity is not without reason.
Six years into its tenure, Cubanitas not only serves up a thirst-quenchingly delicious mojito, the appetizer and entrée items carry through the simple flavors and fresh ingredients that are the mark of good Cuban cuisine.
In a vibrant orange space with an intimate bar, Cubanitas takes on a more casual and upbeat face than its Milwaukee Street neighbors, which is likely part of what makes the restaurant a favorite for lunch and dinner. Service here on recent visits was somewhat inconsistent and rather slow, but what we found lacking in hospitality was made up for in the sandwiches and entrées we sampled on our visits.
Empanadas come in three varieties for a reasonable $2.25 each, and are large enough to share. Pollo arrived with a crisp, flaky pastry shell generously stuffed with seasoned shredded chicken punctuated by bits of chopped olives and raisins. Picadillo stuffed the same turnover with seasoned ground beef and cheese. The pollo was the more flavorful of the two, but both were very good.
Sandwiches are pressed to crunchy perfection on fresh bread the restaurant flies in "from out east daily," and are served slice diagonally lengthwise, which makes even the Cuban sandwich easy to eat in business attire with no mess. The Cubano ($7.50) piles lean ham with roasted pork, swiss cheese, dill pickle slice and mustard aioli for cravable results. A sandwich de pollo ($7.50) ordered on the server's recommendation, delivered juicy marinated chicken breast with a red pepper spread.
Sandwiches are served solo on the plate, but the serving is more than enough for one for lunch. Pair them with an order of Cuban guacamole with plantain chips ($6.75) in the evening to make a meal. The guacamole is above average, and the plantains are thin and crisp for a great complement to the avocado and spice.
Entrées come with white or yellow rice, depending on the dish, and some are paired with your choice of red or black beans. Ropa Vieja ($12.50) was thick with a tomato Creole sauce and shredded with peppers. Mixed with the white rice, this dish carried just a hint of latent heat, and was excellent. Camarones ($13.50) offered plump, fresh shrimp in a rich garlic white wine sauce and served with yellow rice. The shrimp were well-cooked, and the garlic was strong without being overpowering.
Cubanitas offers daily specials, but plan to get there early, as they are extremely popular and sometimes sell out. Expect to see creative items like baby back ribs with guava barbecue sauce and Cuban pot roast with chorizo on the evening specials menu, and Saturdays bring a Spanish omelet with chorizo, potatoes and onions.
Ice cream also appeared to be a popular option with diners at Cubanitas. Helados Ice Creams ($4) come in coconut or Häagen-Daaz Dulce de Leche and looked to fare well both with Cubanita's Cuban style coffee and the trademark mojitos as a cool, refreshing end to a vibrant Cuban meal.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.