Lunch Quickie: Homey Cuban food at Varadero Cafe on Commercial

Cuban food is pretty hard to find in Vancouver.  I haven’t tried Havana on Commercial Drive, but since it’s been taken over by Postmark/Belgard Kitchen/Vancouver Urban Winery group, I’m not sure what’s to come of it. I always thought it might be the Cuban equivalent of The Reef — a smoothed-out, shaved-off mainstream rendition of “ethnic” food. The Las Margaritas of Cuban restaurants, if you will. Well, there’s an actual hole-in-the-wall, homey Cuban restaurant on Commercial Drive now called Varadero Cafe. It’s been open since July 2017 and word-of-mouth has been promising. Moyenchow and I checked it out. If you’re into the starch-heavy, laidback seasoning that’s typical of Cuban cuisine, you’ll like this place. This small initial visit is positive.

Located on the same block as the always-busy Bandidas Taqueria. It’s a small place that seats maybe ~20 people?


Menu side one.

Menu side two.

A certain well-known Instagram couple made me crave tostones, so we had to order them. I’m always curious about the world of empanadas, so we ordered them too.

An early baseline visit wouldn’t be complete without trying the best known Cuban dish, Cubano (Cuban Sandwich).

Trinkets like you’d see in a Mexican restaurant except it’s Cuban.

Service here is cheerful but forgetful. Our drink orders were totally forgotten. I cooled on my choice of mango smoothie, so I let it slide.

Their house hot sauce. The server warned everyone that it’s spicy.

It’s safely medium-spicy. Tartness, saltiness, and fruity spice.

Empanadas ($3.00 each). We got one cheese and one beef.  Guess which one’s which.

The empanadas arrive hot, crispy, and blistered. The cheese one hit all the buttons — crispy/crunchy exterior, mild stretchy cheese inside.

The beef empanada was tomatoey and probably the most heavily spiced and seasoned thing we had there — relatively speaking because everything was spiced on the mild side, as per Cuban food in general. Good flavours and good amount of filling.

Side order of Tostones ($4.50), smashed green plantains. Subtly sweet but mostly starchy and dense. Some pieces were crispier than others. I hate to say “it is what it is”, but it is what it is — a heavy starch that’s meant to sustain and fill you up. I really like the crispy pieces, but I can’t eat a lot of this. These are included in a lot of the entrees, so if they get them a bit crispier, that’d be a winner.

Cubano Sandwich ($7.25) with roast pork, ham, swiss cheese, pickles, and “dressing” (I’m not sure what kind of dressing — but there’s mustard!). This looks like a pretty legit Cubano (ie. no lettuce or tomato). I like the flatness and crispness of the bread.

This is the kind of Cubano that doesn’t have the Genoa salami.

The flavours don’t smack you in the face. It’s more of a gentle balance between everything. I’ve never had a “real” Cubano, so I wasn’t sure what to compare it against. I wanted a bit more of everything in the sandwich (plus make sure there’s pickle in every bite), but otherwise it was ok. I’m sure there’s much more potential for this kind of sandwich though.

EDIT: I was reminded that I *did* try a Cubano at Tuck Shoppe in Chinatown, who does a pretty good version:

Note: the Cubano at Tuck Shoppe was $10 at the time. It’s now $10.50.  They used “mojo pork belly” which is like uncured bacon, as opposed to the roast pork that Varadero uses. But you *do* get more filling at Tuck Shoppe, so the increase in price is justified. I think overall the Tuck Shoppe Cubano is a more satisfying sandwich, but I do like the roast pork in the Varadero Cafe one though…

EDIT #2: Looks like Tuck Shoppe’s Cubano has evolved since I had it two years ago. They now use something that looks like roast pork:

So that may be the one to beat?

We ordered this staff-recommended Papa Rellena ($5.50) because they were out of their corn husk tamales. The chef himself brought this out of the kitchen, quite proudly I think.

It’s basically a huge croquette. Mashed potato with ground beef (similar filling to what was in the empanadas), crumbed and fried on the outside.

The food here is starch-heavy but there’s a certain homey, soulful quality to it. Initial visit is positive. I’m very curious about their Congri (Cuban black bean rice), which is in a lot of their mains. Will return.

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