- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Mike Tavener fondly remembered the Cuban food a childhood friend’s grandmother often made after school. After operating a food delivery service to Washington colleges, several delis and the defunct Carmichael’s restaurant on Connecticut Avenue downtown, his dream of owning a Cuban restaurant has come true.

Yuca — named for the cassava that is a staple of Cuban cooking —is bright, colorful, friendly and fun, with families welcome. The restaurant may be difficult to find, as its entrance is in the courtyard of the office building at 1800 M St. NW, but it is there, behind the Chocolate Moose gift shop at the corner.

Yuca serves authentic Cuban cuisine and fills with aplomb a hunger felt by Washingtonians since the Omega restaurant on Columbia Road near 18th Street NW closed decades ago. At Yuca, one can enjoy Cuban food better than that of Omega.

The chef, Victor Navarro, is from Cuba and was director of a culinary school in Havana, where he also worked at the legendary Tropicana cabaret. At a food competition in South America, Mr. Navarro had two airplane tickets: one that would take him back to Cuba, the other that would bring him to the United States. He chose the latter, joining his wife and children in the Miami area almost three years ago.

Mr. Navarro was one of about 50 chefs who responded to a want ad Mr. Tavener placed in the Miami Herald. At that time, Mr. Navarro was a chef at the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne. Mr. Tavener says that after each of his visits to Florida, Mr. Navarro remained at the top of his list of potential chefs.

Mr. Navarro and his family now reside in Fairfax County. He has familiar faces in his kitchen at Yuca, as he trained four members of the staff in Havana. One of his kitchen crew had settled in Portland, Ore., but was lured to Washington to work with Mr. Navarro at Yuca. Upon arriving, he was surprised to learn that one of the Yuca hostesses had been a childhood friend in Havana.

One test of a Cuban restaurant is its morsels of pork, sometimes called “masitas de puerco”; at Yuca, they’re known as “masas de cerdo fritas.” Mr. Navarro’s masas set a new standard for Washington. This flavorful combination of pork, garlic, onions and mojo is perfectly prepared and perfectly tender. Usually the onions are raw and sliced or diced, but Mr. Navarro wilts his onions and adds a red wine reduction that helps reduce the acid in the red onions in the brief time they are heated.

The masas de cerdo are delicious enough to order on each visit. There is more to enjoy at Yuca, however, including a delicious roast pork loin a la yuca, served with rice, a bowl of black beans, and plantains, which also accompany the masas de cerdo and many other dishes. One of the beef entrees is boliche , a sliced eye of round stuffed with chorizo from Spain — a winning combination. Sirloin steaks and beef filet are also available.

Mr. Navarro also prepares Cuban kebabs with beef and chicken, and that Cuban standby, picadillo a la criolla, in which seasoned ground meats are combined with the garlic mojo and cilantro and served with yuca puree and grilled tomatoes.

The chicken preparations include a breast stuffed with congri — rice and beans — and served with yuca and avocado, and a boneless chicken sauteed in olive oil with garlic, green peppers, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, chorizo and red wine. The roast chicken Rancho Luna style is treated to a marinade of garlic, soy sauce, bitter orange, cumin, oregano, lemon juice and spices before it goes in the oven.

The Seville, or bitter, oranges, Mr. Tavener says, are the only Cuban ingredient that is hard to find, and it is a necessity in the Cuban kitchen, beginning with the basic mojo a la criolla, a combination of olive oil, bitter orange, garlic and onion.

Mr. Tavener speaks of a woman who frequently comes to Yuca and is so fond of the mojo that she is served an extra portion in a small bowl. He quotes the woman as saying, “Look, I am Cuban. We live for the mojo.”

Seafood includes preparations of shrimp, grouper, sea bass and snapper fillet.

Among the side dishes, the chatinos — flattened fried plantains sometimes called tostones — are a must. Crisp on the outside and generously seasoned with garlic, one could make a meal of them alone. The yuca frita, ripe plantains, and the yuca con mojo also are tempting, a step above the grilled vegetables.

Mr. Navarro’s banana flambe in dulce de leche sauce is one of Washington’s great desserts — and I normally shun cooked bananas in anything. The bananas are sliced across and then heated with the dulce de leche, the ultimate in caramelized milk, and served on a large plate with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Like other Cuban dishes, simple foods are elevated by spices and seasonings in an honest cooking style that is full of flavors and textures.

After dinner, patrons can dance — and if they don’t know how to move to the Cuban music, free salsa lessons are offered from 9:30 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

Lunch specials, available from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., include combinations of Spanish bean or Cuban black bean soup with either a salad or half of an “original Cuban” or grilled roast pork sandwich for $7.95. Eight entrees from the dinner menu are available during lunch at lower prices.

Yuca has a room that can accommodate up to 35 people for a private party.

RESTAURANT: Yuca, 1800 M St. NW; 202/785-1177

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Thursday, and until midnight Friday; 5 p.m. until midnight Saturday; lunch specials available from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; bar and dancing open until closing; free salsa lessons from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday

PRICES: Lunch specials from $7.95 to $12.95; tapas, $5.95 to $9.50; soups, $3.25 or $5.95; salads, $6.95 to $8.95; sandwiches, $7.95 to $10.95; main courses, $12.95 to $24.95; sides, $2.95

CREDIT CARDS: Major credit cards

PARKING: Street parking, easiest after evening rush hour on nearby streets

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible.

METRO: Farragut North or Dupont Circle (Red LIne); Farragut West (Orange and Blue lines)

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