- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Omega restaurant disappeared from Washington’s Adams Morgan years ago, and there’s been a scarcity of good Cuban cooking since. Happily, there’s a new neighborhood restaurant on King Street in Alexandria offering a similar hint of Havana.

Bohio’s Cuban Bistro occupies the ground floor of one of those long, narrow houses typical of Old Town. The space is separated by a small bar in the middle of the room, with seating in the front and the rear. Decor is minimal, but white tablecloths and napkins and candles on the tables suggest elegant informality. Portions are substantial and prices are modest.

Diners are greeted by the affable young Wilmer Morales, who serves as both chef and manager. He’s happy to explain dishes and to make suggestions.

Strictly speaking, though many dishes are Cuban in origin, Bohio is Latin, and dinner begins with a dish of green olives and slices of toasted bread spread with garlic butter. This arrives unbidden, almost immediately.

Shrimp serve as the basis for several appetizers. They come marinated in lemon juice and cilantro as ceviche, and sauteed in butter and garlic as camarones al ajillo. Perhaps the most unusual shrimp appetizer is the tostones rellenos con camarones, in which three small baskets of fried green plantains are filled with shrimp in a slightly spicy Cuban Creole sauce of tomatoes, onions and peppers. The plantains taste almost like pastry. It’s an unusual and delicious dish, a large portion that is made for sharing.

Shrimp reappear in a main course of enchiladas as well as in a casserole of mussels, scallops and mahi mahi in a Creole sauce.

A house special is the Bohio’s trio, a combination of fried ham croquettes, yuca balls and sauteed spicy Spanish sausage. Empanadas Cubanas are two large fried empanadas with a somewhat meager filling of ground beef. The menu boasts they are to be served with a cilantro sauce, but what came to the table looked and tasted like a mix of mayonnaise and ketchup. Nary a cilantro leaf in sight.

Soups include a traditional Spanish chicken soup (caldo gallego), a seafood soup named for Ernest Hemingway, a black bean country soup and a traditional Cuban chicken soup.

Among the main courses, pollo a la plancha is first rate — a grilled chicken breast topped with sauteed onions. A cup of wonderful white rice and a cup of black beans are served on the side. The rice is buttery and tender but not mushy. The beans are bland, and the chicken could use a squeeze of lemon, but it’s nevertheless tender and juicy.

Chicken is served in a typical Latin fashion, arroz con pollo, with yellow rice and vegetables, as well as breaded a la milanesa.

The menu lists seven beef dishes, including a New York steak and a filet mignon. More typically Cuban is the picadillo Cubano (spiced ground beef served with rice, black beans and sauteed plantains); boliche (thin slices of beef in a wine reduction); bistec de Palomilla (sliced sirloin served with caramelized onions and Havana fries); and ropa vieja (shredded well-done beef). Both the ropa vieja and the boliche are served with an interesting mixture of beans, rice, bits of roast pork and a little hot pepper in a dish called congri.

Flank steak is prepared Argentine style, marinated in a chimichurri sauce and served with vegetables and fries. Chimichurri sauce is a concoction of olive oil, vinegar, parsley, onion, garlic, oregano, salt and cayenne pepper.

The entrees we tried were flavorful and well cooked, but the chef has a heavy hand with oil, especially in the ropa vieja.

A whole red snapper is fried and served either with mashed potatoes and a vegetable of the day, or a la Hemingway with papaya chutney.

Lighter fare includes several salads and sandwiches that include a Cuban steak sandwich and the sandwich Cubano made of pork, ham and Swiss cheese, similar to the media noche sandwich, which has the same ingredients.

House-made desserts include a flan, tres leches, tiramisu and rice pudding. The tres leches is a rich, creamy cake-like dessert. The rice pudding was highly touted by Mr. Morales, who returned to our table, somewhat chagrined, to announce that his staff had eaten all the rice pudding, “their favorite.” Bohio’s Cuban Bistro is that kind of place.

There are a few well-priced wines available by the glass or bottle. Service is eager and friendly. On Friday and Saturday nights, there’s live guitar music, a delightful change from the loud canned music that has spoiled the atmosphere in so many restaurants. The guitarist limits himself to Spanish-style pieces, and he’s good.

RESTAURANT: Bohio’s Cuban Bistro, 1026 King St. Alexandria, 703/299-8886

HOURS: Lunch noon to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and noon to 2 p.m. Sunday; dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICES: Appetizers, salads, soups $5 to $12; main courses $11 to $22; desserts $4 to $6.

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, Master Card, Discovery

PARKING: Metered street parking

ACCESS: Not wheelchair accessible

METRO: King Street (Blue and Yellow lines)

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