It's funny how one restaurant can open and suddenly change your understanding of a cuisine. When Tamarind (now Tamarind Seed) opened, for example, it immediately set a new standard in the city for Thai dining. Soto did the same with sushi.
Now Palomilla's Cuban Grill House (6470 Spalding Drive, Norcross, 770-242-0078) may well ruin my taste for food at other Cuban restaurants. This inconspicuous suburban cafe opened less than a year ago in a strip shopping center. It serves by far the best Cuban food I have ever tasted. And believe me, that's saying a lot. Years ago, I was married to a Cuban woman whose mother was a spectacular cook, and I've spent a good bit of time in Miami.
Palomilla's is as plain inside as it is outside. Brown seems to be the predominant color. An exception to the monochromatic scheme is the art. I was pleased to see colorful landscape paintings by an old friend, Ellie Harold, who was pastor of Unity Midtown about 15 years ago.
The restaurant's decor is also enlivened by the cheerful staff members, who are more than happy to answer questions and make recommendations. That's a good thing, because your roving eyes, surveying the fare on nearby tables, will prompt plenty of questions. The food just doesn't look like the usual Cuban fare.
There's a reason. The chef, Javier Salas, is Peruvian. The manager told me he's been cooking Cuban for nearly 20 years in South Florida. My knowledge of Peruvian cooking is pretty limited, but the presentation, of appetizers in particular, looks quite influenced by Peruvian style, which tends to employ intense sauces and multiple tastes on a filled plate.
Thus, papa rellena – stuffed, deep-fried mashed potatoes – doesn't arrive as several globes with a dollop of meat filling. Here, it's almost a free-form loaf with an indention from which spicy picadillo is flowing. The potatoes are heavenly, creamy, with a thin, crispy outer layer.
Similarly, a tamale – fluffy, redolent of cornmeal – is served on a large corn-husk wrapper and shares the plate with a tangle of lechón – roasted pork – topped with mojo, the ubiquitous sauce of onions in garlicky olive oil.
Entrees seem more classic in their presentation, but flavors are more complex and savory than usual. A chicken fricassee, a Monday lunch special, really took me back to my married years. I don't think I've had this dish since then. Palomilla's serves half a chicken stewed perfectly in a tomatoey sauce, served over potatoes with olives. There's a surprise in the dish I'd call a Peruvian touch – a halved hard-boiled egg. Peruvians seem to like eggs a lot.
I noticed the same ingredient in my friend Gregg's entree of roasted pork, served, like the portion accompanying the tamale, with the mojo sauce. Both of us ordered black beans and white rice on the side, plus an order of yuca frita to share. This was the only dish I had some problems with. The yuca was cut a little thicker than I like. Another side was sticky-sweet plantains that could have served as dessert, especially considering the enormous portions.
But we had driven too far not to order real desserts – mango pie and flan. The flan was dense, almost airless, delicious, but the custardy mango pie was just plain astonishing. Chef Salas must use twice the amount of ripe mango others use. Gregg, who is counting calories, kept begging me to eat half the slice and, when I refused, gave himself a dieter's pep talk, which was so inspiring he rewarded himself by eating the rest of the pie.
I should note that lunch specials are in the neighborhood of $6 or $7. Prices rise in the evening. Call your friends and charter a bus.
Las Palmeras (368 Fifth St., 404-872-0846) remains my favorite intown Cuban restaurant. I always order the masitas de puerco here, but I think, generally, the rotisserie chicken is everyone's favorite. Wayne favors the fried chicken. Don't miss the yuca frita here or the flan, probably the city's yummiest.
Papi's (216 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-607-1525) in Midtown is a complete mystery to me. I've visited several times and have never found the food consistent. At my most recent visit, I was served tea that was sour with age. A special of ropa vieja was passable at most. Yuca frita was good but served without any mojo. When I asked for some, I was given olive oil with a ton of minced garlic. A tamale was overcooked. Perhaps that's consistent with the eastern Cuban food the restaurant's literature says it's serving.
Havana Sandwich Shop (2905 Buford Highway, 404-636-4094), with more than 25 years of operation, is probably the oldest Cuban restaurant in the city. The sandwiches here remain many people's favorites, but there are decent plates of boliche, picadillo, steak milanesa and more.
There is also the beloved Kool Korner Grocery (349 14th St., 404-892-4424) whose sandwich is regarded by many as the city's best. The shop roasts its own pork. One hears continual rumors that Kool Korner is closing for one reason or another, so hurry and give it a try. It's takeout only.
La Fonda Latina has several locations around town and, although it features a pan-Caribbean menu, the chicken grilled Cuban style is one of my favorite dishes here. I also like the quicky version of paella, Spain's signature dish. Yes, La Fonda's signature paella combines seafood and meat, considered taboo by purists, but there are several other versions available.
Mojito (125 10th St., 404-892-4440), inside the Wyndham Midtown, is the successor to the much-missed Mambo in Morningside. Lucy Alvarez is certainly the most inventive Cuban chef in town. Her "Chino-Latino" dishes at Mambo were probably the city's first. Many of the other Mambo favorites are available at Mojito. Although the location is a bit daunting in terms of parking, you can use the valet or park it yourself in the adjacent garage. Parking is free.