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First-rate Cuban food: Las Palmas Restaurant 

Dark roasted Colombian coffees make a good choice for a Café Cubano. But outside of this combination, not many would think to put Colombian and Cuban together on the same menu. However, Las Palmas Restaurant: Colombian & Cuban Cuisine has done precisely this.

In a space which has been a revolving door of eateries -- a Lebanese fish restaurant, a chicken rotisserie fast food spot, a South American fast food restaurant, and then two successive Colombian eateries -- is Las Palmas. I hope this concept sticks.

Owner George Escobar is a native of Las Villas province in Cuba, but arrived in Charlotte after a stint in Union City, N.J. That small Jersey town across the Hudson from Manhattan is the epicenter for Cuban food in the New York City area. Escobar brought with him a Cuban chef who studied culinary arts in Havana and worked in kitchens along the famed Varadero Beach in Cuba before going to Madrid. This chef also had a Cuban restaurant in Union City.

Last July when Escobar bought the business, a Colombian restaurant, he decided to enhance that Colombian menu with Cuban dishes, rather than going strictly Cuban. He said that regular customers would have their familiar dishes, while new customers would venture into the Cuban dishes.

While the menu has been expanded, the interior of the 45-seat restaurant has remained somewhat static. The shuttered false windows giving the illusion of eating in an open air courtyard are still there. New to the décor, though, are the pair of Cuban cigars and a steaming cup of Café Cubano on a side wall. Two overhanging television sets broadcast soccer matches which, at times, galvanize the entire dining room and serving staff. The crowd is primarily Spanish-speaking; servers are bilingual.

Charlotte has been fortunate to attract a variety of Latino cuisines, particularly a diverse group from the Caribbean islands and South America. Colombia is known for the three "c"'s: coffee, cocaine, conflict. Its cuisine, however, has gone uncelebrated. Escobar kept two of the Colombian cooks for the former establishment in his kitchen and added a third. Thus, the menu is still primarily Colombian, but Escobar has been steadily increasing his Cuban selections.

While many of the words are the same on Latino menus, the preparation varies. Empanar is Spanish for "to bake in pastry." Las Palmas has both a Colombian minced beef empanada and Cuban ones with beef, chicken or a soothing pocket of cheese.

Also from the appetizer menu are the arepas -- too dense -- but its imported chorizo sidekick takes center stage. Table sauces heightened the whimsy on the table. One sauce with pureed chilies and onions looked like liquefied wasabi and had the same punch. Another was a feisty, complex herbaceous sauce similar in taste to chimichurri, the Argentinean parsley sauce. We used this sauce on most everything, including the fried cassava.

From the entrées are the heartier, stick-to-the-ribs dishes of Colombia: the Paisa, or Bandeja Tipica Colombiana, and the Picada. Both are enormous platters, twin peaks of food. The latter offers thin, chewy but ample slices of beef; a shower of crispy fried pork rind; several slices of fried green plantains; sausages -- both chorizo and morcilla, a Spanish blood sausage; fried cassava; small Colombian yellow potatoes known as papa amarilla; and griddled arepas. You can't finish it. In fact, my server explained that no one has finished this dish.

On the Cuban side is the fork tender marinated pork (cerdo asado) entrée with red onions. This same flavorful pork is used on their Cuban sandwich with bread baked locally by Suarez Bakery. This dish is Las Palmas' magnum opus. Also sensational is the midnight sandwich on a challah-type, sweeter egg bread.

Desserts do not disappoint. Cubans are not adverse to sugar -- after all, sugar cane is grown there. The tres leche cake and the flan were sweet, but not over the top.

An ABC license application has been submitted but not yet issued, so the current beverage list consists of a number of fruit juices as well as Cuban sodas, including the Dr Pepper-like Iron Beer, and, of course, Cuban coffees. Seafood dishes and traditional Cuban dishes such as Ropa Vieja and steak palomilla round out the roster. Sandwiches are under $6.95. Entrées range from $8.99 for Cuban beef stuffed plantains to $15.25 for a whole snapper with a salad and two sides. Most entrées are around 10 bucks.

Why do I want Las Palmas to stick? I could say culinary diversity is essential and we all benefit from this quirky, melting pot, Colombian-Cuban, simple and straightforward concept. My palate, though, would say their Cuban sandwich rocks.

Know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To be included in our online blog, Eat My Charlotte, send information to Tricia via e-mail (no attachments, please -- these are destined for the spam filter): tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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