When I was a child we summered on Varadero Beach in Cuba, cruising for cookies at Club Med, frolicking with Fidel on Fridays, snorkeling in the cerulean seas on Saturdays, cavorting in the crepuscular caves on…. Ok, since there’s not a day of the week that starts with “C,” here’s where I say no, no I didn’t summer in Cooba. I summered in my back yard and was forced to “go build a club house!” with my cousins, and our chances of summering on the beach were about as good as summering in Cuba. Because I’ve never been to Cuba. I don’t know a single person who’s told me they’ve been to Cuba. In fact, if Ricky Ricardo hadn’t been born there, I’d think the whole place is as mythical as Funky Town. Yet here we are in the U.S. coveting the Cuban cuisine of…rice and beans. Pork. Fried plantains. Really America? This has got to be why other countries identify hamburgers as American food and stop there. Urbanspoon’s most recent blog has Cuban food as the most liked cuisine around, but as hot dogs are second, who knows what it all means.
Since I couldn’t book a trip to Cuba to find out if rice and beans are considered the prevalant cuisine of the country because that’s what Big Dictator gives everybody for supper, and we were in Portland to shoot a wedding, I decided on the closest substitute. Pambiche on Glisan in Portland. It’s a favorite with the locals and it was time to figure out why.
Talk about Funky Town. The place is drunk with color, starting out with the pimped Victorian building where Pambiche resides on the bottom floor. How they got the whole building to go with their theme, I don’t know. Hopefully it involved cigars and rum. Deciding that a divide and conquer tactic was in order, James and I split up. I reconned and photogged the perimeter while James searched for a place to stake our flag. It was around 5:30 because I try to Happy Hour it whenever possible. Our friend Sammi, who had arrived first and was next in line on the list, was joining us for her first visit as well. While I took a few snaps of the place, James spotted an empty-but-as-yet-to-be-bused table before spotting Sammi. Note to pre-bused table snaggers: Pambiche workers don’t take kindly to table lurking and we were on the receiving end of the Cuban stink-eye, but as we were more concerned about losing a great table than pissing off the busboy, we looked properly chastened and stood our ground until he finished. Maybe the stink-eye wouldn’t have been as potent had he not been the manager as well?
Our server arrived and she was as gracious as the busser/manager was surly. Without looking at the menu, I ordered a margarita. It’s an automatic when dining at any restaurant that has a hint of Latino. But hold up! Raúl’s long arm of the law reaches all the way to Oregon and apparently the officials who ration liquor have decided that Pambiche is not worthy. Pambiche only serves wine and beer, so we went with sangria ($6). It was fresh and fruity with red wine and bits of oranges and limes.
Maiz frituras ($4.5 regular, half price at HH) are a jazzed up hush puppy, heavily laced with lime. I loved the crusty exterior, but the overwhelming taste of lime kept me from thoroughly enjoying the deep-fried gems.
Cuban spanakopita, espinaca con queso ($4, half price at HH). This was my favorite dish at the Pambiche. Again there was too much lime, but I love it when perfectly innocent vegetables are lead astray by things like cheese and fried dough.
Jamón croquetas ($5, half price at HH). When I pinched open this stick, I knew there’d be trouble. It was like a cream of ham soup had been harnessed, breaded, and deep fried in lime oil. I didn’t like it. It’s surprising because I love most croquettes, but it’s the lime that’s killing me here, Smalls!
Since our dinner hadn’t arrived by the time the sangria had dried up, Sammi suggested the Piñosa ($5). It was made with fresh pineapple juice and sparkling Spanish wine. This was my favorite thing from the joint, so good I had dos. That avocado salad (although I think in order to call itself a “salad” it should contain more than one item, oh wait, there was enough lime juice to choke a chicken, so I guess it qualified) was complimentary as our order took too long and our server dropped it off to keep us tame. James and Sammi gobbled up the goods, but the mushy texture breached a hard limit for me. The server could’ve had me forever if she’d given us another round of Piñosas instead.
We really didn’t mind the wait because it was a gorgeous Friday evening and our outside seating allowed us to enjoy it. Only thing missing was an actual beach to go with the sea of people lining up down the sidewalk waiting for a table. It’s obvious the Cuban Restaurant police extend their 12 table limit on privately owned restaurants to franchises as well, because tabletop real estate was scarce.
Dinner arrived shortly after the avocado salad. James had the ajiaco ($12) which is a bowl of “tropical roots and vegetables, corn dumplings, creole seasoned pork and beef, served with arrozblanco and” you guessed it “fresh lime.” My favorite part is that they tossed two fritters right there in the middle, because I knew James wouldn’t like that part and I’d get to eat ‘em. James, who loves all things stew, loved the ajiaco.
Both Sammi and I orderded sammies. Sammi went with the Elena Ruz ($8.75) which is essentially a Thanksgiving dinner on a roll, had the preserves been cranberry instead of strawberry. She loved it and I thought it was a nice blend of sweet and savory. Those things on the side are tostones, the famous fried plantains. Somehow a cross between a banana and a potato. I have no idea what the hullabaloo is about.
I so so so wanted the pan con tortilla sandwich (Spanish egg and potato omelet), but they only serve them at breakfast. Really Pambiche?! I ordered the Sanwich Cubano ($8.75), a typical pork, ham, and swiss on a roll with pickles. I love a good grilled sandwich that’s been ironed flat.
Pambiche has a sweet dessert case that needs to be viewed and coo’ed over before making the final decision. Sammi was in for the Selva Negra ($6.75), a chocolate coconut cake filled with fruity cream. As much as I talk a big game about dessert, it’s rare that restaurants have good dessert. The only exceptions to this rule are Kingfish in Seattle and Screen Door in Portland. I was so hoping to add Pambiche to that list, but I just couldn’t do it. The truth is, I was pouting because the cookie case did not have any cookies for me to try, because they were sold out for the day. There was, however, a shady dude in the corner pointing to a shack out back where it’s possible they were being sold as contraband.
Overall, Pambiche’s is a fun experience that I’d recommend for anybody who likes deep fried food with a side of lime and their Cubans without hard liquor. And if you go, get the Piñosas and fried spinach and cheese.