Sometimes you run across a business in a location that makes you doubt the sanity of the person who established it. La Bamba doesn’t quite rise to that level — it’s not down an alley or in a basement — but it’s in an unlikely spot, an odd triangular corner in an otherwise residential neighborhood. The sign out front calls it a Cuban restaurant, which is only partly true; half of the menu is Mexican, and there is a scattering of Jamaican, Venezuelan and other dishes.
There is nothing between the pleasant brick patio and the traffic on Glenoaks but a plastic curtain, but it’s an inviting atmosphere, more than we expected from the unpromising exterior. We ordered a Cuban sandwich with a side of fried plantains ($10.40), a taco combination plate ($7.95), and tilapia in a lemon, garlic and wine sauce ($10.95), along with soft drinks.
Cuban pressed sandwiches are composed of a mixture of ham, cheese, roasted pork and pickles, and they are a test of the kitchen. Grill them too long and the thin white roll shatters to bits; too short and you don’t get the crisp texture that is part of the fun. La Bamba’s version has guacamole instead of mustard, an innovation that would annoy purists (and some people do get exercised on the subject). It was properly grilled but not very flavorful — that shot of mustard makes a difference, and the bland guac didn’t replace it. Help was at hand, since the plantains were served with a delicious, mildly spicy sauce, and a dip of that perked up the sandwich. Since the plantains were delicious even without it, the sauce was repurposed.
The tacos were the American fast-food variant rather than authentic Mexican, but that’s fine — fast-food tacos are a nearly perfect snack, crunchy corn wrapper, lettuce, yellow cheese and all. These were much better than the chain restaurant version, thanks to quality meat and fresh ingredients, and I liked the Cuban-style black beans and saffron rice that came with them. The only thing missing was a homemade salsa to replace the chunky pico de gallo. With so many Mexican items on the menu, La Bamba should develop a sauce to match.
The star of the meal was the tilapia, not because of any particular innovation — but it’s a good recipe solidly executed. If you like fish at all, then a lemon, garlic and wine sauce is likely to go over well, and all ingredients were in balance here. Some garlic sauces preclude all social interaction for hours, but this one just had a healthy hint of sharpness and spice.
La Bamba is a neighborhood haunt with good service, decent food and lots of character. It’s an endearingly odd place for a relaxed meal at an affordable price.
What: La Bamba
Where and when: 2600 N. Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank. Street parking only, beer and wine served. Open lunch and dinner daily, breakfast Sat.-Sun.
Info: labambarestaurant.us and (818) 846-3358.