At the same time that I Love Lucy was the most popular television show in the country, a tiny storefront diner, The Neighborhood Grill, opened along Kansas City, Kansas's bustling Central Avenue. The Midway Theatre was across the street, the Gunther Bakery was right next door and the Spanish Village Café was just a few doors away.
In the early 1960s, just about when the Desi-and-Lucille marriage was falling apart, Central Avenue began its own identity crisis. The movie theater was torn down, the grocery store moved out of the neighborhood and the tiny diner became Betty's Café, then Pancho's, then, by the 1970s, a luncheonette called Central Lunch.
For the past nineteen months, the narrow diner with the long tan counter and a dozen whirling stools has been the home of the Cuban Corner Café, where the aromas of sautéed garlic, onion and green peppers waft from the pocket-size kitchen at the rear, tucked behind the TV set perched on top of the refrigerator, just past the plaster religious statues and the crucifix.
But if you haven't grabbed a stool or one of the three freestanding tables at this Havana-style diner, you had better consiga allá rípidamente: owner Jorge Manan, who runs the Cuban Corner Café with his sister Mercedes, is moving his operation into a long-vacant convenience store across the street in three weeks.
The new Cuban Corner, Jorge says, will be bigger and offer an expanded dinner menu, a smoking section and wines and beers -- which aren't available in his current space. Still, in its current incarnation as a humble diner, the Cuban Corner is a culinary treasure, though not stylish or sophisticated. It's actually pretty rustic; the primary offerings -- at both lunch and dinner -- are sandwiches made with crusty Cuban bread and served in plastic mesh baskets.
"Cuban cooking," explained food writer Maria Josefa Lluria De O'Higgins, "is home cooking." And because her homeland -- and the Manans' -- is a cultural melting pot spiced with Spanish, African and Chinese influences, the "home cooking" has a highly exotic flavor.
The crusty sandwich is a significant meal here, a multilayered concoction with an emphasis on texture: The steak sandwich combines slices of beef with cool red tomatoes and fried shoestring potatoes; the traditional "Cubano" sandwich, grilled on Jorge's home-baked bread, presses together slices of pink ham and roasted pork with mustard, Swiss cheese and pickles. A variation on the Cubano sandwich adds crispy fried ham croquettes to the mix (nothing like a little extra ham on an already pig-heavy sandwich).
Another sandwich, not on the menu, is listed on a plastic bulletin board high on the wall above the counter (up past the garland of ceramic fruit, the framed photos of Havana and the china plates painted with big-breasted cartoon women): the Castro burger.
"Oh, we really don't serve that," Jorge said, blushing. "I was trying to be funny." He thinks the dictator would be more popular in a sandwich than at the helm of a nation. "Nobody likes him! Nobody!"
The apolitical sandwiches on the menu are solid, rib-sticking meals. After two bites, you might think side dishes would be almost gratuitous, but the dark-eyed waitress hurries out with little paper boats filled with three plump plantains -- ripe, sweet and pulpy Caribbean fruit (think bananas with attitude) -- fried in vegetable oil until they bubble and sizzle. The starchy surface becomes lightly caramelized, and the yellow interior can be spooned out like freshly baked custard. The plantains are teeth-gnashingly sweet, but sweetness rules the menu at the Cuban Corner, a culinary tribute to its sugar-exporting namesake.
Dragging Jennifer and Todd along for a visit, I watched them warily order canned soft drinks imported from Florida's Little Havana. Ironbeer ("Original 1917 Flavor!") is an amber-colored carbonated brew that tastes exactly like a molten Dum-Dum lollipop -- cream-soda flavored. The equally sugary but slightly grassier-tasting Materva soda is brewed with the tealike mate herb but doesn't pack the wallop of the more-caffeinated Ironbrew, which so invigorated Todd that he was macho enough to knock back a couple of cans.
I stuck with ordinary -- and unsweetened -- iced tea on that particular visit because I had gone loco a few nights earlier and guzzled two tropical fruit shakes, one made from the creamy yellow flesh of the Dominican mamey (sweet and bland) and another, livelier and more tart, from the guayaba, or guava. Ice-cold and rich, these shakes were a chilly riposte to two of the Cuban Corner's hot appetizers: a flaky half moon of empanada crust folded around ground beef and onion; and the mochin de yuca, fluffy fried cassava fritters with a meaty interior. I slathered both of them with fiery red Valentina hot sauce and lingered over every savory bite, finally extinguishing the peppery burn on my tongue and lips with long sips from the cold fruit shakes.
I tried to be on far better behavior with Jennifer and Todd, but I nearly caused a, well, revolution by sticking my fork into Jen's lunch: a china bowl of shredded beef cooked with green peppers in a garnet-colored, cumin-scented broth.
"What is this," Jen scowled at me, "the Bay of Pigs?" So I was ham-handed in my approach, perhaps, but the slow-simmered beef (one of that day's lunch specials) was intoxicatingly delicious. Just like Lucy and Ricky, Jen and I couldn't be mad at each other for long, especially after we decided to share desserts.
Jen ordered dulce de leche, that sticky, chewy cooked-milk caramel (served, unglamorously, in a styrofoam cup) that begs to be eaten with cookies or even salty crackers. I was thrilled with the oversized wedge of creamy cheesecake that came buried under an invasion of glossy, intensely sugary coconut puree. After two bites, I was on the verge of lapsing into an insulin coma. I had to take a few bites of a Cuban tamale, moist and generously laden with bits of salty pork, to regain my equilibrium.
Although flan is on the dessert menu, it never seemed to be in the kitchen on any of my visits. Perhaps, like the Castro burger, it mysteriously vanished. There's always the spongy, decadently rich Three Milk cake, however. At first glance it appears to be an ordinary iced square of plain vanilla cake. But this pastry has been saturated with milk until it moos. Hot from the oven, it's drenched with a whisked-together mixture of sweetened condensed milk, dense evaporated milk and the regular fresh, cold stuff. It sounds absurd but tastes heavenly.
And on that note: the Manan family won't have to move heaven and earth to take their business to bigger quarters across the street. (Jorge Manan thinks his restaurant will only be closed for a day.) The religious icons and the crucifix go along to the new restaurant, where Desi Arnaz's biggest hit, "Babalu," may never be heard: It's a love song to a voodoo goddess of black magic. At the Cuban Corner Café, the food is magical enough.