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RESTAURANT REVIEW : El Morro: A Taste of Cuba in Glendale

In the past few years, Caribbean-style food has become increasingly popular, if not downright trendy. Witness Noa Noa or Cha Cha Cha and its offspring, Prado.

Even so, there have been few options for local diners looking for good Cuban food. With the notable exception of the Westside’s Versailles--the crown jewel of Cuban restaurants--searchers have been limited to a handful of small restaurants offering limited fare.

El Morro is a partial exception to the rule well worth adding to the short list. It is a small neighborhood establishment--but the menu is fairly extensive, offering many choice dishes for Cubanophiles.

Well off the main boulevards of Glendale--once the white-bread dining capital of Southern California, now host to a growing number of ethnic eateries--El Morro is a pleasant cafe with a takeout deli counter in one corner. The decor is an odd but pleasing mix: a light-pink wall with a large painting and map of Cuba here, a floor-to-ceiling mirror opposite, a large wood wine rack there.

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There is a schizophrenic quality to the menu: You can dine well for less than $10 a person on the left side (meat and chicken) or you can splurge and easily top $30 each from the right side (seafood).

Whichever side suits your mood best, start off with some croquetas , wonderfully mushy potato fritters served burning hot and, if available, some papas rellena , somewhat crisper spudlets stuffed with ground beef and spice .

Most diners will want to try El Morro’s version of Versailles’ signature dish-- pollo frito al mojo de ajo. Good news for Eastsiders: Half a large bird, marinated in what smells and tastes like a bushel of garlic cloves, crisp on the outside, juicy inside, the El Morro version more than gives Versailles a run for the money.

On the meat side, something slightly different that tastes remarkably familiar is the boliche , sliced eye of round cooked in a watery tomato sauce. Familiar? It’s the flanken your grandmother stewed for hours, only better.

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Steaks are good-sized and a bargain. A filet mignon, on a wood platter with fried onions and sweet plantains, was thick and perfectly done--medium-rare, exactly as ordered--as was a grilled rib steak.

Of the seafood dishes, the decapods get the nod (a dried-out grilled halibut wasn’t fresh; a fried kingfish couldn’t be saved by its tasty Spanish sauce). The enchilado de camarones --shrimp in tomato puree, onion and bell peppers--was very satisfying, albeit a little bland, and its sister dish, camarones al mojo de ajo , was a garlic-lover’s delight, the equal of any trendoid Italian restaurant’s scampi.

If you want to splurge, there’s paella that must be ordered in advance. It’s good, with an amazing mix of lobster, crab meat and crab claws, shrimp, scallops, clams and mussels over moist, heavy rice, but the price is steep, especially for a neighborhood place--$54 for two.

Salads are basic, but if you go with a party of four or more, ask the waiter to throw together a salad for the group. A huge platter six-inches-deep with lettuce, tomato, onion, avocado chunks, parsley and a whole clove of garlic will appear, swimming in a delicious, alternately slightly sweet, slightly salty oil and vinegar dressing.

Desserts are variations on the traditional flan. They’re not exceptional but all are fresh and tasty.

You can get up and browse the wines on the rack, but the wine list contains bottles not on display. There is a fair mix of foreign and domestics; the Spanish Marquis de Riscal (both red and white) are pretty good. Better still, try the Chilean and Argentine offerings. The Counsino Matul reserva is a standout--a dense, almost heavy red the equal of California’s best.

Do try the Savory & James sherry. Despite the odd name for a creme sherry from Jerez, this wonderful drink gives new meaning to the term full-bodied --a macho sherry if you will, thick, heavy with the taste of Southern Spain.

There is a small selection of beers; tropical sodas such as jupina (a pineapple drink) and Southern Hemisphere milkshakes: gaunabana , mango and papaya.

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End your meal with some of the industrial-strength espresso that tastes as if it was filtered through Fidel’s beard, light up a foot-long Macanudo Prince Philip Rothschild (from the Dominican Republic, but hey, the sensation and aroma is the closest you can get to Cuba in Glendale) and reflect on the good food you have eaten and the good life you are leading.

Watch out Versailles--there’s competition.

El Morro, 1110 E. Chevy Chase Ave., Glendale. (818) 507-1479. Lunch and dinner noon-9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday-Thursday; noon-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Beer and wine. Parking lot. No credit cards. Dinner for two, food only, $20-$54.


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