Casa Don Rolando sits on secluded Parthenia Place, a one-block street that curves between a row of tawdry gentleman's lounges and rundown taquerias on Sepulveda Boulevard and a vast, gaudily lit stretch of auto dealerships and tire retread shops in North Hills.
But step inside the restaurant's set piece of a dining room and you might feel a bit like Alice having traveled down the rabbit hole to Wonderland — or in this case into a fantasy of a magnificent old Cuban hacienda whose grandeur has been softened by years of patina.
Wrought-iron chandeliers hung with a few topaz-colored crystals emit a gentle shimmer above the heavy walnut-hued tables and carved wooden armoires that seem hand-burnished by time. A straw-thatched awning and simply framed vintage photos of beautiful Cuban women with gardenias in their hair add to the sense that you might find a Humphrey Bogart-type in a crumpled white linen suit hunched at the discreet wine bar that occupies one corner.
The chef's pedigree is just as unexpected. Rolando Gonzalez, who has helmed restaurants in Spain and Jennifer Lopez's now-closed Madre in Pasadena, cooks dishes that are as classic as the room.
Nothing is interpreted or fused. Most Cuban Americans would tell you the food tastes the way it should. The fish is fresh, the oxtail falls in delicate shreds into a well-seasoned tomatoey sauce devoid of grease, and each sandwich is heaped with enough filling to satisfy a hungry Laker.
Cuban appetizers can be appetite killers. But you'll probably want to order at least one anyway — if only to experience the kitchen's flawless technique (and you can always share). The papas rellenas' eggshell-thin fried exterior, dusted with a mist of crumbs, leads to a thin tasty potato layer and then the juicy ground beef picadillo flecked with soft, sweet onions and pimento. The two spheres, halved and opened like a book to reveal the filling, come with a creamy pungent aioli swirled into a tiny dish with a pastry bag. Yes, the sauce gilds the lily, but in a good way.
The similarly filled empanada de yucca, with a "pastry" covering made from mashed cassava, has a slightly chewy texture and fried crackly shell.
Most of chef Gonzalez's platos principales are familiar favorites. But a few, such as the fancy arroz imperial or arroz a la chorrera, look like something a devoted auntie would make for a holiday celebration. There is something deeply comforting about these dishes in an era of small plates and quick service.
The arroz imperial, a carefully layered construction, holds rich chicken broth-simmered rice, shredded chicken and caramelized plantains in several tiers. The arroz a la chorrera, golden achiote-tinted rice simmered in broth and white wine, then mounded dome-like over a moist, skinless chicken quarter, may remind you of Hainan chicken.
Some may miss the marinated, roasted, crisp-skinned chicken a la Versailles, but chef Gonzalez redeems himself with his seafood creations. One in particular, enchilado de pescado, a slab of lightly cooked white fish topped with a half-dozen large, sweet tail-on shrimp under a chunky fresh tomato sauce, is steeped in wine-saturated flavor.
The traditional sides shine too. Chewy tidbits of pork skin and meat give the broth for black beans a viscosity that helps it cling to each legume. The congri of rice stewed with pork stock and black beans is so loaded with flavor it's easy to understand why it remains the Cuban staff of life.
Of course there are maduros — caramelized ripe plantains — unless you choose the tostones, deep fried disks of smashed green plantain, or the chicharritas, lengthwise-sliced plantains as crisp as potato chips.
Pork, the king of Cuba's meat pantry, is honored with the hand-carved pernil asado, a Viking-size portion of the roasted leg and masitas de cerdo, pork chunks marinated in garlic and sour orange juice, then slow-cooked to a succulence that rivals the best carnitas. For the house sandwiches, that roasted pork is piled into toasted rolls hollowed out so they hold the most filling possible.
Casa Don Rolando recently expanded its list of wines, and about a dozen of them are served by the glass. As for dessert, the chocolate mousse cake and guava-filled empanadas come from Porto's Cuban bakery, and there's a proper house-made flan. Good as these are, it's the chef's pudding-like tres leches cake, served in a martini glass, layered like an English trifle and topped with a tower of whipped cream, that's the showstopper.
Location: 8755 Parthenia Pl., North Hills, (818) 920-2272Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times