A fresh infusion of Latin-Caribbean flavor in Hampton Roads, from tender pork to sweet plantains

As a Navy stronghold at the edge of the Atlantic, Hampton Roads has long been home to a wealth of Latin-Caribbean flavors — the long-braised pork, sweet plantains and earthy-spiced beans of tropical island countries with a Spanish-colonial past.

For the most part this has meant a welcome wealth of Puerto Rican and Dominican restaurants, from the rainbow of mashed-plantain mofongo at De Rican Chef’s locations on both sides of the harbor, to the chicharrones and meaty yaroa casserole at La Yaroa’s two southside spots.

But the past year has also seen a new crop of Latin Caribbean restaurants — and a whole new batch of flavors. This includes two Cuban spots on both sides of the water, a hole-in-the-wall Puerto Rican restaurant with a different menu every day, and a pan-Caribbean picnic party with painkillers and natural wine.

Here’s the rundown.

The mojito-filled Cuban hang: Cohiba Restaurant and Bar

1296 S. Battlefield Blvd. Chesapeake, 757-410-0634, cohiba2020.com. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Dine-in, patio and takeout with online ordering. Beer and cocktails. Meals $8.95 to $18.95.

In a red-curtained and spacious Chesapeake room adorned with pressed tin above the bar and Ernest Hemingway’s glowering visage in one corner, Cohiba offers an answer to a question I’ve often been left to field with a shrug: Where can you get a good Miami-style Cuban sandwich in Hampton Roads?

The truest test of any sandwich is the number of perfect bites, where all the parts collide into a symphony brimming with rightness: the soft give of ham that is sweet but not oversweet, the earthy spice and chew of long-braised pork, the light sinus blast of mustard and bright crunch of pickle, and just the right crackle at the edge of the bread leading to buttery softness within.

And Cohiba’s version bats better than half — not only on the Cuban, but on their unorthodox take on soft, sweet, medianoche made with joined buttery rolls that can be split into three little sliders.

The real key to the success of those sandwiches, of course, is the splendidly tender and acidic, delicately spiced, long-braised lechon asado pork, marinated for 24 hours and roasted for seven more — made with a secret blend of adobo spice that co-owner Brenda Cardoso learned from her husband Jussuam’s grandmother, born in Santa Clara in the midsection of Cuba.

You can find that pork on the sandwiches, as a pork platter with sides, or on a couple eccentric dishes named jokingly by Jussuam’s Navy buddies: a loaded french-fry platter called the Cuban French Fries Crisis, and a pork nacho platter called Bay of Pigs. Each is loaded with more pork than a Senate appropriations bill.

The bistec was a little dry, but other standouts include the beef picadillo-stuffed empanadas and especially the ropa vieja: a long-marinated, pulled brisket pressure-cooked for hours and served in a pepper-garlic-tomato Cuban sofrito deepened with the juices of the meat. Order it with an excellent black-bean-and-rice congri and sweet maduros, and maybe a $5 budget mojito at happy hour. (The best mojito on the menu, the Diplomatico, uses nicer rum and is $12.)

Though the food is Cuban, the kitchen at Cohiba is a gathering of chefs from all over Latin America. Jussuam is Cuban — and works at the restaurant every day while still active duty in the Navy — but Brenda Cardoso is from Guatemala, and another cook is from Peru. And if you’re lucky, you’ll catch her making that country’s famed ceviche as a special.

But for now the menu at Cohiba is a little smaller than they’d intended, so the ceviche is off the regular menu.

The Cardosos first served their food on a truck, Cubania, which they started two years ago after Jussuam noted a distinct lack of traditional Cuban spots in Hampton Roads. But it broke down last year, and after a false start trying to open up a stall in a still pending Granby Station food hall in Norfolk, they launched their restaurant in Chesapeake just a week before pandemic restrictions hit Hampton Roads.

The government-mandated restaurant closure made it hard to find new customers, and so after closing for a couple months during the pandemic, they got the whole family together for a trip to Lowe’s and built a little patio out front with potted plants where customers can smoke cigars Cuban-style if they’d like.

They also streamlined the menu, cutting the ceviche and other Cuban standbys like croquetas and breaded steak. In the meantime, fans of the food truck have begun to find them, and the restaurant has begun to build a regular stable of customers.

“We’re surviving,” Cardoso said. “And a little later we can put things back on the menu.”

The Pastel Party Patio: The Pink Dinghy

609 19th St., Virginia Beach, 757-937-1010, facebook.com/thepinkdinghy. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. Patio and takeout. Wine, beer and cocktails. Plates $9 to $17.

If Virginia Beach’s ViBe District ever lived up to its name, it’s at the Pink Dinghy.

The Dinghy is a Pepto-pink house party blasting Sister Nancy’s “BAM BAM” while picnic tables full of diners down bottles of crushable glou-glou wine or $7.50 margs. The food menu, meanwhile, attempts to mash up the whole Caribbean into one bright package, wrapped up with a ribbon bow of pink pickled onion.

The Dinghy’s food doesn’t purport authenticity, or the essence of any one country’s cuisine — it reflects, instead, the particular obsessions of owners Stephanie Dietz and Chase Pittman.

That means painkiller cocktails Pittman learned to make at Bomba’s Surfside Shack in the British Virgin Islands — where he also made psychedelic psilocybin-dosed Bomba Punch — served garnish-free except for toasted coconut, in a plain plastic cup that seems to grace just about every other table at the Dinghy.

And it means a growing selection of natural wines (usually $20 to $30 a bottle) that Pittman calls the punk-rock of grapes: chuggable young wines replete with bright fruit notes, earthy skin-contact orange wines, and wines that play with funky flavors of yeast more familiar from beer.

And at brunch on the weekend, it might mean wholesale inventions like the Yuca Hot Tash, a hash of pernil pork and excellent yuca tots that resemble Dominican-style arepitas — spiced, delicately crisp on the outside and soft inside — topped with the same over-easy egg you might get on your home fries at a country diner.

The pernil pork, too, is a little unorthodox, a pan-Caribbean mix of flavors and techniques that Dietz devised at a pop-up with her husband Jonathan Urena (also a chef, at New Realm Brewing). And so there’s the orange-juiced braising liquid of Cuba, the Puerto Rican love of adobo and the habit of cutting slits in the pork and pushing in cloves of garlic, and a cap of the vinegar-pepper-onion-tomato sofrito Urena grew up eating with his Dominican family.

Though the Dinghy was conceived as a rotisserie chicken spot, it’s that delicious, tender, complex pork that anchors much of the menu. It’s served also on a pineapple-topped al pastor sandwich that owes very little to Mexico, and especially a La Alma sandwich topped with a bright pickled-cabbage relish called curtido. To double down on the cross-cultural play of flavors, those sandwiches are served on bread from an Italian bakery, the excellent Tosca in Norfolk.

Empanadas might range from pork to vegan chorizo, while a new wealth of vegetarian options also abounds: bean-and-cheese Salvadoran pupusas, nut-brittle-topped acorn squash, or chimichurri-slathered carrots.

The rotisserie chicken, meanwhile, is off the menu for the month — soon to become a market item when the Dinghy opens its interior for grab-and-go foods as winter approaches. The other standout sandwich so far is also pork: a hearty brunchtime riff on a pambazo sandwich, stuffed with chorizo-potato hash and a lightly charred salsa roja.

But though the influences come from all over Latin America, a strength of the restaurant is its mix-and-match stable of flavors — the pork, the salsa roja, the curtido, the pickled onions and house adobo spices and Dominican sofrito — cross-utilized across a number of dishes. And so a mash-up that at first seems adventurous also amounts to a familiar house flavor, something you can crave and come back for the same way late-night stoners jones for the house blend at Taco Bell.

The Dinghy has had some bumpy patches — rotisserie chicken less crisp on its skin than hoped, a wine-by-the-glass served stale and oxidized — and during the summer the patio was beset by far too many flies, a situation Dietz says they think they’ve resolved with some advice from another local restaurateur (though for comfort, I’d still prefer a lid on those outdoor trash cans).

But that pan-Latin house flavor, backed by dancehall reggae and low-cost cocktails, not to mention adventurous wines you can’t find anywhere else, will keep the crowds coming back.

Oh, and note that Dietz is also the former proprietor of cult bakery Doughminion Donuts, and still serves her doughnuts in the mornings during brunch. But if you want them on the weekends you’ll have to show up at 9 a.m.: They sell out within the first half hour, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.

The rotating Puerto Rican food quest: D’Chinchorreo

2720 N. Mall Drive, Virginia Beach, 757-524-4381, facebook.com/dchinchorreo. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Dine-in, patio and take-out. Soda and virgin piña coladas till the alcohol license arrives. $10 every meal.

At D’Chinchorreo, a tiny Puerto Rican spot in the Lynnhaven North shopping center, don’t go expecting the same thing you had last week, or even yesterday.

The Rosario family’s little 4-month-old chinchorro is devoted to the consummate Puerto Rican experience of the chinchorreo: a beer-fueled restaurant hop through halls of roasted pork and little fried pieces of goodness.

And so at least for now, the menu is like a slow tour you take day by day: Maybe you’ll wander in one day to get a plate of mofongo, Puerto Rico’s mashed-plantain ground for countless flavors, and on another day you’ll find a little “canoe” of plantain stuffed with spiced beef.

And maybe you’ll get some rotisserie chicken, slow cooked on a spit until the spice-encrusted skin is just at the edge of crispness. If it’s Sunday, you’ll see sancocho, a hearty beef stew cooked up with squash and corn.

But most days, you’ll see Prentice Rosario’s take on pernil pork, a thick-barked pork butt with variable texture but delicate and lovely spicing — marinated for more than a day and spiced with garlic, pepper, onion, adobo and sazon con achiote. Customers come back for it so often that he now makes it almost every day.

And the same goes for the arroz con gandules, the Puerto Rican national dish of rice and pigeon peas cooked in warming sofrito, which Rosario will smother for you in another Puerto Rican favorite: earthy-spiced red beans, which differentiate the cuisine from the Cuban predilection for black legumes. Take advantage of the array of hot sauces, including a sweet-sour tamarind sauce from Puerto Rican brand Chef Piñeiros, or a distressingly fiery Don Rafael.

But if your favorite food is not there on one day — the shrimp and rice stew, the pickled gizzards, the steak cooked in citrus and onions — just get what’s in front of you, cooked by any of four members of Rosario’s family. As writer Nancy Trejo wrote in USA Today, “a good Puerto Rican chinchorro must have one thing and lack another.”

Whatever food you do try, a platter big enough to roll you onto your back will cost a mere $10 for an entree and two sides.

The shopping-mall Cuban surprise: Rumba Cafe

12300 Jefferson Ave., Patrick Henry Mall, Newport News, 757-249-2397. 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. Dine-in at the food court, take-out, delivery on Uber Eats and Grubhub. Coffee and milkshakes. Meals $10 to $15.

In Patrick Henry Mall, next to a ballcap store and across from the Sbarro, down the way from a room full of improbably expensive games of magic claw, you’ll find something you have no human right to expect: a decent cup of Cuban cafe con leche.

At Rumba Cafe, in a kiosk once home to a Wendy’s, you can now get a vibrant pineapple milkshake, or a meticulously prepared cortadito, alongside a selection of Cuban food favorites from croquettes to steak to empanadas. The kiosk is a fast-casual home to Latin-Caribbean flavor from some of the same owners who started short-lived Williamsburg restaurant Habana Hemingway.

The familiar favorites are in attendance: A toasted Cubano with sweet ham and a controversial generous dollop of mayo along with the mustard, pork and pickle. Spiced ground beef picadillo. Steak smothered in citric mojo sauce and onions.

The best dishes are likely a simple shrimp in garlic sauce, which offer a pleasant tickle to the tongue, and the macitas de puerco, pork chunks marinated in mojo sauce, slow-roasted and then flash-fried with spices. The best avoided is a tough butterflied chicken breast.

And if the roast pork is not at the level of the meat at Cohiba in Chesapeake — a bit simpler of spice, and over-reliant on salt — the kiosk nonetheless amounts to a fond surprise in a food court where you’d never reasonably expect yourself to be eating a marinated Cuban steak.

Matthew Korfhage, 757-446-2318, [email protected]


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