A pretty, pistachio-tiled lunch counter on Roncesvalles pays tribute to the golden age of Cuban cuisine.
Toronto’s recent crop of new restaurants tends to fall into the two categories: rowdy, super-hip chefs’ hangout, or decadent diner. Despite its vinyl booths and lunch counter, Roncesvalles’ La Cubana is a different sort of spot. Think of it as owner Corinna Mozo’s little slice of Havana—with a side of fried plantains, of course.
Born in Montreal, Mozo grew up eating empanadas, conch croquettes, and black-bean soup in a Cuban household; her father immigrated to Canada at age 18, before the revolution. In 2006, she made her own move to Toronto to open Delux on Ossington. Its food played up her classic French training—charcuterie, steak frites—with some Cuban influence that trickled onto the brunch menu of dulce de leche French toast and poached eggs with roast pork, rice, and beans.
But Mozo had long wanted to open a more casual, family-friendly place modelled after her grandfather’s lunch counter in ’50s Havana, a place that showed off the golden age of Cuban cuisine, when flavours were bold and ingredients plentiful. She took over what was The Blue Plate in the spring and transformed it into a 40-seat restaurant, with help from her woodworking husband and designer brother.
It’s retro done right, with subdued pistachio walls, custom-made floor tiles like those found in Cuban homes, and bar seats overlooking the kitchen flattop run by Leah Hannon, Delux’s former chef de cuisine. The Latin crooners on the playlist make it feel like a 12-hour fiesta. The vibe is cool but still inviting to moms with a beer in one hand and, in the other, a toddler gnawing on a yucca fry.
“Kids are just as important as the adults,” says Mozo, gesturing to the childrens’ placemat menu, which boasts a cartoon maracas-shaking sandwich and a saucy lady milkshake. “I want people to grow up with this place. In Cuba’s heyday, diners were built like that. Kids would come in after school for a sandwich, or you could come on a date, with your friends, your parents. We all used to dine out and it wasn’t always crazy expensive.”
Prices top out at $15 for plates of red-cabbage slaw, rice and beans, tostones (fried plantains), and meat—like chicken rubbed with achiote, a mildly smoky paste made from the harvested seeds of a tropical fruit. There’s also roasted pork shoulder and grilled Georgian Bay whitefish with sweet pineapple salsa.
Plates of bocaditos, or snacks, come in generous portions. The chorizo empanadas (three for $7) are plump little half-moon pockets stuffed with house-made sausage spiked with picadillo (the Cuban flavour base of onions, pepper, and garlic), along with golden raisins and green olives. Crispy tostones rellenos carry the weight of picadillo-seasoned minced beef piled amply on top (three for $7). Pillowy conch fritters (six for $7) go particularly well with the restaurant’s only beer: a light and fruity brew custom made by Junction Brewing Co.
The Cubano is brought over from Delux’s menu ($9), though there are other sandwiches available as well, like the juicy short-rib that spills out of a soft, brioche-like medianoche bun. Marinated overnight in Coca-Cola, then braised for hours and cooked further in a guava-barbecue sauce, the ribs first strike with sweet notes before veering into tangy barbecue territory.
To end, there’s a luscious little pineapple upside-down cake on the $5 dessert menu, along with donuts, a Cuban-coffee crème brûlé, and key-lime pie in a jar with a crust made from Hannon’s mother’s ground-up granola.
“The desserts are a bit old-school,” says Mozo. “I want people to experience the feeling coming out of a theatre at midnight in Havana, and everywhere there’s a playground of little medianoches and fried plantains. The stories from Cuba back then are so different from now, so I’m trying to recreate that atmosphere. This is my version of nostalgia.”
392 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-538-7500.