October is National Hispanic Heritage Month, and though finding great Spanish-influenced food is as easy as stepping onto an L.A. street corner, you could seek out Cuban-influenced California cuisine at Xiomara, a restaurant that's been at the Hancock Park end of Melrose Ave. for a decade.
A Freedom Flights refugee from Cuba with her mother and five siblings in 1967, owner Xiomara Ardolina's first restaurant was The Epicurean in La Cañada in 1979. It was after a divorce, and to support her two children, she "did the only thing I could: cook."
Next was the Xiomara Restaurant in Old Pasadena, before Ardolina twisted Nuevo Latino cuisine with Californian for a fresh, flavorful taste in her new neighborhood at Xiomara on Melrose in 2003. She also installed what was then a rarity, a huge, red guarapa machine that grinds down small segments of Floridian sugar cane (it comes in 6 foot high spears) into juice for their signature mojitos; strong stuff that appropriately comes in a drunken, leaning glass -- watch their bartender knock one up here:
One or two of these cocktails with the sumptuous menu fixture the Cuban sandwich -- made with Black Forest ham, slow-roasted pork and Swiss cheese, finished on the flat iron grill -- or even just their house-made Cuban bread, toasted with garlic and olive oil, or the knobbly crackers and javelin-esque Parmesan breadsticks, are great happy hour bites.
There are music and big food events this month too. Many of L.A.'s best Mexican restaurants will be at the 3rd Annual Taste of Mexico Festival on Oct. 11. But Ardolina has honored this month with her own special menu of traditional Cuban dishes, featuring some childhood favorites and dishes from her past restaurants:
The nuevo Cubano salad is made of vine ripe tomatoes, avocado, watercress and fresh hearts of palm, in a very cold lime-oregano-tomato juice dressing is refreshing and delicate. The seared pork hash and yuca frita con mojo y platanos maduros is shredded leg of pork, marinated fried cassava, black bean jus and very ripe plantains, which has returned as an elegant presentation of very traditional Cuban components. For dessert, café tres leches with caramel ice cream honor the Cuban love of coffee. Made with three types of milk, it's an espresso-soaked cake with bittersweet chocolate sauce and toasted almonds.
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Ardolina feels that, like many of her fellow Hispanics, she's lived the so-called American Dream, noting that her hard work and ambition -- as well as a great deal of sacrifice and struggle -- have allowed her always to be a sole business owner, and to raise two beautiful daughters at the same time.
"Over the years I have watched so many restaurants come and go, but I thank God that I'm still here."