Review: Old Morro Castle chef comes back with disappointing Cuba Mia

Reconnecting with an old acquaintance can be tricky. There are expectations, there are risks. What if you don’t like each other anymore? What if you do? Suppose you’ve changed so much you don’t recognize one another. Awkward!

Such has been my experience with Cuba Mia, a casual Cuban walk-up counter in a nameless Buford Highway strip mall just north of Clairmont Avenue. Cuba Mia marks the reincarnation of the cooking of Mirtha Diaz, who ran the beloved Morro Castle in Midtown from 1981 to 1995.

Don’t be fooled by the name. Diaz’s old place was hardly a castle, just a shoe box on the corner of a storefront surrounded by old houses and converted apartment buildings, a rare commercial space in a residential neighborhood, even back then. Those who stopped by felt like it was their little secret: a place where the cooking was simple but soulful, where you could always get a Cuban sandwich hot off the iron, or a homey platter of roast chicken, black beans and rice.

Too bad Cuba Mia feels like a pale, modern imitation of its predecessor. It can be hit or miss, but a couple of dishes are worth recommending.

Pork is a mainstay of this Caribbean cuisine: lechon asado, masitas de puerco, sandwiches flattened with slices of roast pork and sweet ham.

No surprise, then, that the best dish we encountered at Cuba Mia was the mojo pork platter, roast pig that’s first marinated in mojo (the tangy citrus-and-olive-oil-based sauce that’s the island’s workhorse condiment), then roasted, chopped and smothered with thinly sliced marinated onions. Served with obligatory sides of black beans and a mound of fluffy white rice, the dish is delicious and satisfying.

Likewise, the ropa vieja.

The Cuban equivalent of beef stew, ropa vieja means “old clothes,” which is to say it’s a tough cut of beef that’s cooked to shreds. Diaz’s packs the rustic comfort of meat that’s simmered long in the pot with garlic, onions, tomato paste and strips of sweet red peppers.

My advice is to pour the little dish with the red oil slick on top on to the rice so that the flavors can mingle. If the meat is a little dry and stringy (mine was), take your fork and pull it apart. Give the rice a second to soak up the gravy. And be sure to order the sweet buttery plantains (maduros) instead of the bland, flattened tostones. Then all will be right with the world.

From here on out, based on my two weeknight visits, the sailing at Cuba Mia can be pretty rough.

I should have known better than to order the bistec de pollo, a flattened chicken breast cooked “beefsteak” style on the grill. I sliced the tough, flavorless bird into tiny pieces, doctored it up with mojo, and saved it, but it was a lot of work.

In the spirit of Cuba, the staff is convivial and the portions generous. The croquetas, for instance. You get five of the little cigar-shaped ham or chicken fritters for $1.25. Too bad both were such gooey, forgettable bites — nothing like the textbook version I had last year at Islas Canarias in Miami. The ham was better than the pollo, though the filling was infused with the fake smoke flavor of a Goya jamon seasoning packet.

I’d skip the empanadas, too. The picadillo and shrimp fillings were good, but the pastry was over-fried and hard. Pockmarked with little popped blisters of fat, the crust was not very appealing to look at, either.

Of the two sandwiches I sampled, the Milanesa was better than the classic Cuban.

Milanesa is another good example of how an inexpensive cut of meat can be elevated into something tasty. Here, several very thin slices of beef are coated with fine breadcrumbs and fried crisp. It’s the nutty-crunchy texture of the breaded cutlet, tucked into the sandwich with white cheese and mayo on one side and shredded iceberg and sliced tomato on the other, that transforms it. Cuba Mia’s Milanesa would be the perfect antidote to a late-night drunk craving: It’s unapologetically chewy and salty and filling and good.

But for a killer sandwich, you need impeccable bread — a slender white loaf with a crisp, golden crust and a rather springy interior. I’m afraid Cuba Mia’s El Cubano, though packed with ham and roast pork and sliced into two long triangles, was dry and lackluster.

Unfortunately, this sad-sack Cuban sammie is emblematic of the second coming of the once-sainted Mirtha Diaz. Nice to see you, old friend. Hope you’re back in better form soon.

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