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Guantanamera: Cuban Cuisine in the Heart of Manhattan

July 18, 2008 - by Richard Jay Scholem

Outside on the sidewalk, a cigar maker is rolling stogies; and in the rear dining room, large tables of Latino families and friends are eating, drinking and laughing; wall-size murals and pictures of old pre-Fidel Cuba cover the walls; a jazz quartet with a Latin beat is playing away (they have music nightly); and the aroma of suckling pig, black bean soup, garlic, onions, and peppers fills the air.

It’s Friday night and the noisy, rollicking Guantanamera, one of the hot-spot restaurants that add to Manhattan’s rich, ethnic culinary stew, is jumping. Although Italian and Chinese eating places seemingly occupy every nook and cranny of Manhattan, Cuban restaurants are a relative rarity and the authentic three-year-old Guantanamera is one of the best of the bunch.

This dimly lit spot, with its golden lanterns, paper-over-white-cloth tables, flickering candles, and smallish storefront, could easily be overlooked along restaurant dense Eighth Avenue.  Yet, diners searching for something different, for the real thing, for one of the restaurants that make the city the culinary adventure it is, would be well-served by a huge portion of Adobo-touched pork chops elevated to a higher level by its luxuriant mustard cream sauce and ropa vieja.

The rich, robust black bean soup—with the beans intact, rather than pureed—is one of the best in the city.  The stuffed, crisp-coated potatoes come with a snappy peccadillo and cheese dipping sauce; yellow rice laced with plenty of tender shredded chicken, red peppers, and peas boasts plenty of zip; sautéed tilapia, covered with white wine, garlic, and lemon sauce, is a moist and interesting; and with the shredded skirt steak baked in garlic sauce, studded with tomatoes, onions, and green peppers, one is reminded of barbecue and/or pot roast.

Is every dish at Guantanamera then perfect? Although no restaurant is perfect, Guantanamera gives an exceptional accounting of itself in every course. Guantanamera, 939 Eighth Avenue (btw. 55th and 56th Sts.), 212-262-5354

Dessert is no exception. The flan is silken. The rice pudding tasty, the Tres Leches sponge cake rich and rewarding, and the banana bread pudding on squiggles of chocolate syrup sinfully good.

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