The Plantain Cafe has been serving up authentic Cuban cuisine to Downtown dwellers since they first opened their doors two and a half years ago. Originally a lunch-only destination, the Plantain Cafe has slowly expanded to be open seven days per week, with evening hours most days and a selection of imported bottled beers. The food still remains the main focus of this small cafe space, which is colorfully decorated in cuban pastels. If you’re lucky, you can find a seat on their patio (which only seats eight), but it’s worth the wait if there’s a line during a busy lunch rush.
The Plantain Rolls ($2.75 each) are a unique appetizer that contains your choice of pulled chicken, pulled pork, or ropa vieja served on a bed of white rice and black beans, wrapped in a crisp fried plantain strip and topped with a small dollop of sour cream. If Cubans had invented sushi, I imagine that this is exactly what it would look and taste like. The meats are all slow cooked and excellent, and naturally pair well with rice and beans. The crisp plantain gives it a hard shell crunch, but I found that eating these without a fork posed a challenge. They’re too large to be bite-size, and biting into them destroys the integrity of the plantain, which holds everything together. Still, even if you have to resort to disassembling your roll with a fork, you’ll still want to try these out.
The Fish Tacos ($9.25) are three soft-shell tacos that include grilled tilapia, tomatoes, cheese, sour cream, black beans and cabbage, and comes with your choice of a side dish (mariquitas pictured here). If you’re used to the crunch of breaded fish tacos, the grilled tilapia might be off-putting at first. The hot fish, melted cheese and warm sour cream all have textures that start to blend and the combined flavors come across just a touch on the greasy side. The fresh cabbage and tomatos help to balance it a bit, but not in the same manner that breading on the fish would supply. The Mariquitas are fried plantains (the same thing used to wrap the Plantain Rolls) that are cut paper-thin, fried to a medium brown and served potato-chip style. A light sprinkling of salt make these a great snack on their own, which I would consume in bagged form if the Cafe could mass produce them. The chips are accompanied by a garlic-lime mojo, which is more of a liquid than a salsa or dip. It’s a bit too heavy on the sour lime juice flavor for my tastes, which doesn’t do these chips justice.
Plantain Cafe’s Cuban ($8.95 and comes with mariquitas) is a straightforward version of this classic sandwich, containing slow roasted pork, sliced ham, swiss cheese, pickles and a tangy mustard. The pork is well seasoned, juicy and tender, the pickles are lightly brined, and the mustard used has a slight brown edge to it without being spicy. The sandwich is pressed inside a traditional cuban bread, giving the outside a nice crisp finish. Hands down, one of the best Cubans your money can buy in Columbus.
The Masitas de Pollo ($10.25) is an entree of fried chicken breast served with a side of black beans and white rice. It’s also normally served with a side of maduros (sweet plantains) but the restaurant was out and substituted for tostones (fried green plantains). The chicken is marinaded with garlic and lime before breading, and garnished with cilantro and other spices. Essentially, this amounted to cuban-style chicken tenders, which were good, but not great. I think the lack of the sautéed sweet plantains during this visit broke the way this dish is supposed to work. Of the dishes I’ve tried at Plantain Cafe, this one has impressed me the least.
The small number of items on the menu at Plantain Cafe may at first seem limiting, but I think that it’s an example of knowing what you do well and sticking to the essentials. Despite a few personal preferences, I found that there’s a lot of attention being paid to the details in the dishes here, and subtle differences in ingredient choices are what make Plantain Cafe’s menu items work when compared to other Latin eateries. And just to reiterate; if you’re looking for a good Cuban sandwich, I can’t recommend this place highly enough.
The Plantain Cafe is located 77 East Gay Street in Downtown Columbus. They are open Monday through Saturday, 11am to 8pm, and Sunday, 11am to 3pm. More information can be found online at www.plantaincafe.com.