Tasty, home-style Cuban fare at Cuba de Ayer

Baltimore Sun

Cuba de Ayer is the wonderful creation of Jessica Rodriguez, who thought so highly of her mother-in-law's home-style Cuban cooking that she decided to open a restaurant. Her mother-in-law, Mayra Lopez, from Camaguey in Cuba, was, I assume, first flattered and later surprised when this actually happened.

Cuba de Ayer graciously serves moderately priced, wholesome, and very tasty food in cheerfully attractive and well-managed surroundings. It's the kind of suburban restaurant that is packed with merry regulars on a Sunday night, the kind of place that people discover by word of mouth and stay loyal to for years.

What I loved in part about Cuba de Ayer was simply how functional it is. You're noticed when you walk in and shown to a table. Very soon, a server comes by and asks whether you want a drink. Not long after, a food order is taken, as questions about the menu are patiently, competently answered. Soon, the food you ordered comes to the table - quickly, but not before you're ready for it. Empty plates are cleared away before coffee and dessert is offered. All along, appropriate dinner music plays softly in the background of a well-tended dining room that has been simply but very artfully decorated with photographs and paintings that evoke the cuisine's origins. In my experience, this hardly ever happens.

Feeling welcomed and cared for relaxes you and allows you to enjoy the company of your companions and good food, too. (A nice drink helps, too, and I saw in passing some gorgeous green mojitos, concocted here with diligent muddling.) The food at Cuba de Ayer holds up to attention, from beginning to end. A combination appetizer plate assembles a generous helping of luscious, citrus-y roasted pork; savory ham croquettes, seasoned gently with nutmeg; and freshly fried and lightly salted yuca that I kept looking for something to dip into.

Other appetizers include potatoes stuffed with beef, shrimp in garlic sauce and tostones relleno, or stuffed green plantains. Green plantains formed into cups can be stuffed with sweet and creamy ingredients for dessert; at Cuba de Ayer, they're stuffed with your choice of shredded or ground beef. They're adorable and deceptively simple-looking - making them looks like an act of patience, determination and skill.

The entrees are all available at dinner and lunch, and all come with black beans and rice and plantains prepared either sweet and mushy or salty and crisp. We were full after our appetizers, and the dinner entree servings were large enough to yield lunches for the next two days. There is plenty of beef on the menu, and pork, too, with a few chicken and seafood options. The ropa vieja gets a lot of attention here, but my friend homed in on the carne con papa. He knew something. This is the dish for lovers of pot roast and its cousins, big plates of slowly cooked meat and potatoes, here aromatic and terrifically tender.

Complementing this was an entree of shrimp in garlic sauce, a dish that works best when made very quickly with good seafood. Cuba de Ayer's version was very convincing. It might have been even better taken as an appetizer, though, with some good bread.

Dessert is limited to four tantalizing items - cheesecake, guava shells with white cheese, flan and, our lucky choice, tres leches, named for the three milk products the sponge cake gets soaked with before it hits your plate.

Among the things we didn't get to try but have very high hopes for are the Cuban sandwiches, which include versions with shredded beef and ham croquettes; the picadillo, a savory entree of ground beef with olives and raisins; and the lechon asado, a marinated pork dish. Next time, we'll be bringing more people, and we'll be ordering a mojito, too.

On the menu •Combination appetizer plate - $7.25

•Fried green plantains stuffed with ground beef - $7.25

•Shrimp in garlic sauce - $17.25

•Cuban-style beef stew - $13.99

•Tres leches - $4.50

Cuba de Ayer Where: 15446 Old Columbia Pike, Burtonsville

Contact: 301-476-9622

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Monday

Credit cards: Visa, AMEX, MasterCard, Discover

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ***

[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]

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