The best Cuban food I‘ve eaten in Los Angeles has been earthy, and served in no-decor places like Versailles, where the garlic chicken is succulent and citrusy, and the only ornamentation is a shrine to Santa Barbara (the saint, not the city). Expensive, elaborate Cuban food strikes me as an oxymoron, along the lines of a gourmet hot dog: What, exactly, am I getting for that extra 6 bucks?
Which is why I have reservations about dinner at La Boca, the restaurant in the chichi nightclub the Conga Room, which for four years has been packing in every great Latin act in the world (Celia Cruz, Los Lobos, the players from The Buena Vista Social Club), and where, despite two left feet, I once sambaed with Jimmy Smits, one of the club’s celebrity backers, and felt my knees turn to guava jelly.
La Boca, which opened just over a year ago, casts a similar spell. The large, habanero-orange room is both grand and playfully seductive, with mango-colored light bathing the only high-back white leather booths I‘ve seen outside of the Dresden Room. With the music keeping a non-intrusive backbeat, a cocktail seems in order. Perhaps a round of mojitos, the Cuban take on a mint julep, fresh mint crushed with sugar, spiked with lime rum and sparkled with soda. They are so good, as is a basket of crisp plantain, potato and yucca chips served with a peppery black-bean dip, that our foursome orders a second round before we even look at the menu, which turns out not to be exclusively Cuban, but an olio the restaurant calls “Nuevo Latino.”
We try four starters. A heady lobster steam announces the tamal de langosta, the moist cornmeal studded with chunks of sweet meat and floating in a briny saffron broth. Chile-rubbed sea scallops are flash-cooked, so rare they’re translucent, which, when scallops are this plump and fresh, is a very good thing; the slippery sauteed chanterelles alongside are an odd pairing, but excellent nonetheless. Costillitas con arepas is a toasted maize cake topped with a length of chewy short ribs, braised in Rioja wine and tasting like bacon, and a tangle of crisp fried onions, all sitting in a pool of rich cremanata that‘s taken on the smokiness of the meat. The one we all fight over is ensalada de calamar, crisp-fried calamari tossed with baby arugula and lots of diced avocado and tomato, in a chipotle honey vinaigrette. This salad is everything: chewy, crunchy, luscious, large, the sort of dish one dreams of having for lunch, alone, so as not to share one bite.
We tell our gracious and helpful server to hold the main courses while we have another mojito, and muse on the little diorama in the front window: snowball-like pompoms and spindly faux flowers, black-lit to make an ultrawhite, slightly otherworldly winter scene. We also check out the crowd, which, when we arrived, consisted of one set of grandparents and a toddler making a jungle gym of her chair, but which is now, at 9 p.m. on a Friday, smash-packed with young people partying as though the ship is going down. Cheers, I think, as the entrees arrive, four presentations so gorgeous and generous, we stare and giggle before digging in. Grilled gulf shrimp and plump mussels in the shell arrive with a mound of rice infused with lobster broth and saffron; Tonya says this is the best dish. The chile relleno, grilled until deeply burnished and supple (no batter or frying here), is stuffed with diced zucchini, corn, jicama and melting mozzarella, drenched in a smoky chipotle tomato sauce; this is Din’s favorite. Atun de Boca is chubby squares of tuna, seared at the edges, rare on the inside, stacked alongside a spectacularly tasty hillock of boniato (a South American sweet potato) mashed with ginger; Mary won‘t let anyone else at it after we’ve each had a bite. My favorite is the cazuela de carne, thick slabs of grilled rib eye overlapping what is the most unusual food I‘ve eaten this year: tamal cazuela with oxtail mermelada, moist masa mixed with a “marmalade” of oxtail meat and caramelized vegetables, and surrounded by a sweet, tangy port-wine demiglace.
Stupefied with all this good food, we can fit only two desserts, an excellent creme brulee that’s taken on the essence of the coconut shell it‘s served in, and a not-as-successful mango bread pudding, which, though cute in its little coffee cup, is a tad dry.
When Tonya tells me it’s the best meal anyone‘s ever bought her, I let her pay the $10 cover for each of us to go upstairs to the Conga Room (non-diners pay $20-$25), where we sit in the cigar lounge and enjoy one more mojito. Okay, two more, before hitting the dance floor — big as a gymnasium, as glittering as the prom of your dreams, with 100-plus samba aficionados burning down the house. We do our best to feign coordination. Thank god Jimmy isn’t here to witness the result.
5370 Wilshire Blvd.; (323) 938-1696. Open for lunch Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–3 p.m., for dinner Wed.–Sat. 6–10 p.m. Starters and salads $7–$12; entrees $16–$25. Full bar. AE, DC, Disc., MC, V.