In the corner of El Oriental de Cuba, behind the takeout counter, is a plastic statue of San Lázaro. He looks right at home here, sitting beside a woman concocting guanabana batidos in a giant blender, amid the hubbub of hungry people waiting for a table on a Friday night. He gets it. Like El Oriental, he rose from the dead and is enjoying a second life.
In July of last year, the beloved Jamaican Plain restaurant was firebombed. The community rallied with fund-raisers; the loyal customers waited patiently. And a month ago, the eatery reopened. Lazarus looks the worse for wear after his ordeal: He's bleeding in several places and clad in purple rags. But El Oriental looks better than ever. It's spiffed up with shiny paint in pretty shades of green, outdoor flower boxes, hanging lights, and new signs.
But mostly things are the same: It's still El Oriental. The staff is still friendly in an efficient, I've-got-a-job-to-do way. The new ropa vieja looks just like the old ropa vieja. And the fact that things taste the same now somehow makes them taste better.
Which means that everyone wants a taste. Before the firebombing, El Oriental wasn't exactly an oasis of calm. Now it's really hopping. Every table is full, people swarm the takeout counter, and groups of friends stand in every available space hoping to be seated. More people wait outside.
Most of the time, this would make for a room of cranky people, but no one seems to mind that it will be 40 minutes till they can sit. (For one thing, the place smells fabulous.) A little boy plays with a toy car while his mother talks on her cellphone; hipsters and homeboys drink tropical shakes; teens joke around in Spanglish. This is one of those rare places in Boston where people of all kinds come, and feel at home. No wonder we missed it.
Of course, the food has something to do with that, too. Because it's Friday, we can get the oxtail special, but should we get pernil asado , chicharrón de pollo , green plantains or sweet plantains, red beans or black, white rice, yellow rice, or rice with black beans in it?
"I'm getting a cheeseburger," someone says. There it is, on the menu. Who comes to a Cuban restaurant and orders a cheeseburger?
Instead, we get some of the old standbys. The seafood soup is packed impressively with shrimp, pieces of fish, little tentacles, and several bright red crawfish, but the broth is the best part, rich and with a deep marine flavor. The Cuban sandwich -- roast pork, cheese, ham, lettuce, pickles, and more -- tastes sort of like a Latino Big Mac; this is actually a good thing. The shredded beef dish called ropa vieja is a saucy, garlicky, bell-pepper-laden delight. And the meat in that special -- sliced but still clearly resembling an oxtail -- is as tender as can be.
But just as important here are the sides. Perfectly cooked, stew-y red beans, sweet and sticky maduros, starchy fried yucca -- it's all homey, satisfying, and filling. Just what we wanted.
Washed down with the best-named drink ever, morir soñando ("to die dreaming," a blend of OJ and milk), and a slab of creamy, velvety flan, it's a meal worth waiting more than a year for, not to mention 40 minutes standing by the door.
Welcome back from the ashes, El Oriental.