Every genetic food genre across the globe has its own sub-category of comfort food – the noodle soup Phos of Vietnam; the Italian’s chicken parm; and, of course, meat loaf and mashed pots.
However, every dish in the Cuban repertoire seems to embody the very the notion of all things comforting. Maybe it’s the omnipresent swathing of garlic and onions that cover nearly every dish like a soothing blanket. Or perhaps it’s the mound of warm, soft rice or mushy, pillowy fried plantains that are to a Cuban plate as grandma was to hot cocoa. Cuban food just generally goes down like a giant hug to the belly.
One of the better examples of the genre is El Criollo which is apt, because the name loosely translates into “The Comfort.”
Set smack dab on Van Nuys Boulevard in the heart of the Valley just north of the courthouse, El Criollo is an oasis set between sidewalk, industrial storefronts. Inside, soft conga music sets the tone as does the deep-red brick walls adorned with colorful, cartoon movie-sized posters celebrating the culture and repast of the motherland.
The entrée-sized dinner portions are gigantic and overflow off the oval plates; so skip the carbo-loading appetizers (and even the complimentary bread and butter) and cut to the pungent chase.
The kitchen puts its own flavorful twist on traditional Cuban fare – from the tethered beef shreds of Ropa Viejo to the succulent snap of the simmered shrimp in a white wine, garlic, cilantro bath (Camarones Empanizados).
For me, you can always judge a good Cuban place by the quality of its Lechon Asado: marinated shredded pork. El Criollo’s version opens like a backhand slap to the jowls as the juicy flesh assaults the buds with a sucker punch of lime and garlic. Covered in a mass of sugar-sweet, deeply caramelized onions, to fit a fork with a bit of juice-soaked rice, a hunk of pork and a bite of onion is to taste the centuries-old essence of Cuban cooking.
The chicken here is also a revelation. Several entrees feature stewed or boneless bird in a variety of garlic-forward sauces. I opted for one of the two roasted half-chicken selections that our waiter assured us was his absolute favorite and unlike any Cuban-inspired chicken he had ever found in LA. This entrée is called Pollo Criollo, and it’s a signature dish of John Hancock proportions.
The half-bird is roasted to perfection with skin crispy like a shell and meat white, soft and moist. Before and after roasting, the meat is infused with a mustard-lemon marinade that gives the fowl a moisture that bathes the tongue with every bite. The meat is carved and presented on the bone like open leaves of a book, so there’s no fuss or muss; simply spear with your fork and twist some caramel onions onto the bite-sized chunks. Perfect.
A couple traditional Cuban sandwiches are also featured. Opt for the wonderful Cubano featuring roasted pork, ham, melted cheese and a mustard-pickle slather all pressed warm and toasty Panini-style on a flakey white bun.
You will not possibly go home hungry and with every entrée under $13, your wallet will be full as well. The only thing that lingers after the mass of garlicky goodness is sympathy for the poor devils at the gym who sweat beside you on the treadmills the next morning. Sorry…my bad.