Few foods exert as tantalizing a pull on the Underground Gourmet’s voracious appetite as rice and beans. Throw in a vinegary avocado salad and some fried plantains and you’ve got the ideal U.G. meal: tasty, filling, and cheap. So it’s no wonder our interest was piqued by the quiet arrival of Café Cortadito, a Cuban-inspired oasis just off Avenue B, where a platter of dried black beans sitting in the window drew us in like a flashing Krispy Kreme hot doughnuts sign. Cortadito occupies that sparsely populated middle ground between Latin lunch counter and the full-blown quasi-formal service and stylized tropical vibe of Victor’s Cafe, where, not coincidentally, Cortadito’s mom-and-pop owners used to work.
Cortadito, like Victor’s, is old school—less Nuevo Latino than vieja Havana, down to traditional dishes like the vaca frita and the obligatory (and delicious) Cuban sandwich. But the place has the unpretentious, hospitable aura of a home kitchen, with the chef toiling away behind the counter and his wife greeting guests and taking orders. Ceiling fans whirl overhead, and a flat-screen TV tuned most often to the ball game hangs opposite a wall mural depicting a café not unlike Cortadito itself, apart from such louche, pre-Bloombergian touches as brazenly lit cigarettes and a trespassing pit bull.
Chef Ricardo Arias comes from El Salvador, and his wife, Patricia Valencia, is Ecuadoran, but you won’t find pupusas or seviche on the gently priced menu. You will find red meat, and lots of it. The various beefy dishes are tangily marinated and nicely grilled, served on wavy white platters with a neat mound of white rice and a cup of soupy black beans. The flavorful skirt steak “churrasco,” with its potent, garlic-packed chimichurri sauce, is an Argentine incursion, but Cuba is well represented with the evocatively named, tomato-and- pepper-sauced ropa vieja (old clothes) and that irresistible vaca frita (fried cow), shredded strips of skirt steak marinated in a citrusy, garlicky mojo and then panfried with onions until crisp.
Watercress makes a refreshing if somewhat unwieldy bed for the sliced-avocado salad, as well as the for the mango-dressed Guaguanco, with its salty-sweet contrast of pineapple, onion, avocado, and firm cubes of queso blanco. Sandwiches, or bocaditos, exhibit the chef’s commendable pressing technique (as any habitué of Chelsea’s sundry “Spanish food” lunch counters knows, the Cuban sandwich’s success lies largely in the unhurried, closely monitored pressing). The bread matters, too, of course, and Cortadito has sourced some excellent rolls from Parisi bakery, light and fluffy inside, with a terrific crunchy crust. They pave the way for a first-rate Cubano: the pork marinated a day and a half, then cooked to a juicy tenderness and meticulously layered with ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles. The Vegetariano, lavished with black-bean purée, melted Swiss, avocado wedges, and roasted red peppers, is pretty good, too, despite its meatlessness. And the “fritas Cubanas” turn out to be a quartet of sliders, garnished with ketchup, mayo, and crunchy potato sticks called “Julian’s fries.”
The room is bright and welcoming at brunch, when the egg dishes exhibit Latino touches like the plantains in the “amanecer corralito” omelette, and the steak and eggs (“calentado”) is served over rice. When the twelve-seat, four-stool room is full, the service can be slow, but that’s only because the sole waitress (the gracious Valencia herself) is taking orders, squeezing fresh orange juice, and brewing up some serious Cuban-style coffee drinks, which you might want to savor with a cinnamon-dusted arroz con leche or a supersweet tres leches cake. Until the liquor license arrives, you’re invited to BYO, or to partake of Valencia’s thirst-quenching virgin mojitos, as refreshing and sweet as Café Cortadito itself.