Portland gets pretty gray and gloomy for a good part of the year. If you need a little pick me up, it’s worth stopping by El Cubo de Cuba on Hawthorne Boulevard. At Cubo, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, the Cuban food is down to earth, and the rum cocktails are plentiful. When you think of Cuban cuisine, I’m sure that classics like ropo vieja and lechon asado come to mind, which aren’t veg-friendly at all. But this is Portlandia, the happy vegan land, so naturally Cubo has vegan and vegetarian options available too.
I was invited to Cubo to try their vegan options and learn more about the restaurant. I had never had Cuban food until I met John, who is half Cuban and grew up with this type of cuisine in Florida. It was good to have my resident Cuban food expert tag along for this visit.
Even though I visited Cubo during off hours (when it’s better for photos), the space was filled with energy thanks to the pops of color, delicious smells from the kitchen, and the cheerful owners, Emily and Milko.
Born and raised in Havana, Milko moved here from Cuba in 1995, and his recipes are based on what he remembers of home cooked Cuban food. Milko explained that he tries to keep the food authentic, but recognizes that you have to adapt to what Portlanders want. For example, traditional Cuban food is not spicy, but due to demand from customers, there’s hot sauce available for the folks who insist on adding some heat.
I also learned that Cubo, like many other Portland restaurants, started out as a food cart, and there’s a framed illustration of the original food cart over by the picnic tables. The cart made its debut in 2010, and by 2013, Cubo was ready for a brick and mortar restaurant.
At Cubo, you order at the counter, then grab a table. Whether you’re looking for a small snack or ready to wolf down an entire plate, there’s something for everyone. We tried the full range of vegan dishes at Cubo, and overall, the flavors were simple and approachable. No frills, no nonsense here, just good homey Cuban food.
Cuban food is good with beer, but make sure you don’t miss out on Cubo’s rum cocktails. Better yet, make your cocktail a double for an extra $4. The Havana Sunrise momentarily transported me to somewhere tropical. The Sangria has refreshing notes of citrus, and if you’re lucky, there might be some mango and guava in the mix too. If you stop by for happy hour, cocktails are only $5, and you might catch Milko on the drums with his band.
One of the newest additions to the menu is the empanadas ($2.50 each). If you don’t eat meat, there’s a vegetarian guava and cream cheese empanada and a vegan soy picadillo empanada. Look at that golden color! Nice crust, not too heavy or greasy. The soy picadillo filling was warm and juicy. Give me a couple of these, and I’ll be very happy.
The Caribbean salad ($6) is loaded with cucumber, mango, red onion, and avocado. That’s a lot of avocado, but I have no complaints about that. For a side dish, this was a pretty large salad. The lime juice dressing doesn’t seem like much, and there’s some flavor from the pickled cucumbers. If I were to get this salad again, I might add on some guava sauce.
For all of Cubo’s bowls and plates, you can choose between white rice, brown rice, or spiced yellow rice. I opted for yellow rice for my vegan Portland bowl ($7.50). The black beans, mango, and avocado were enjoyable, but the maduros and tostones were the best parts of this bowl. The plantains used for the maduros were perfectly sweet and soft, but not mushy. And those tostones… such a good crispy fry on them!
The Picadillo de Soya is Cubo’s vegan alternative to the traditional beef stew with tomatoes, olives, and raisins. Using soy in this dish is not unusual as beef wasn’t available to everyone in Cuba in the early 1990s, and picadillo made with soy became a household staple. Cubo’s version is delicious, and it is definitely worth coming back for.
Note: I was invited as a guest to this establishment and received a complimentary meal. This was not in exchange for a positive review and all opinions expressed here are my own.