Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Coco Loco

2625 Piedmont Rd. NE, Atlanta GA

Last night my friend Kevin and I had dinner at Coco Loco. Coco Loco opened in 1988 and claims to serve Atlanta's best Cuban food. It's located in a shopping center near the intersection of Piedmont and Sydney Marcus.

I have to begin this review with a story. Several years ago I worked with a guy named Carlos who had recently immigrated from Cuba. I asked him where I could find authentic, delicious Cuban food in Atlanta. He deadpanned, "Miami." I wasn't going to let it go that easily, and said that there must be some place that lived up to his standards, and asked if he had been to Havana Sandwich Shop, formerly on Buford Hwy.

"The Cuban sandwiches are great there," I explained. "They're served with black beans with onions and a side of yellow rice with tomatoes."

"There's no such thing in Cuba as a Cuban sandwich," he replied. "And Cubans would never eat yellow rice with tomatoes on top. Never!" He promptly directed me to a restaurant in Miami and refused to discuss the subject any further.

So in other words, I should have known better than to have great expectations of Coco Loco.

We shared an appetizer of empanadas and croqueta combo. Croqueta are deep fried ham croquettes. They were okay, but should have been removed from the fryer three or four minutes earlier. The empanadas tasted good but were runny. The crust, however, was nice.

Kevin ordered the Cuban sandwich ($5.50). Even though we've now been informed by a native that it's not an authentic dish, we still like it. Kevin was happy.

I ordered the paella. It was full of what I think was yellow rice but was nearly orange, with a smattering of squid, two shrimp, two mussells, three slices of sausage and a lot of sliced, nearly dry chicken ($12.95). It was average at best, which is a sad statement about such a dynamic, meat and shellfish packed dish. The plantains on the side were pretty good though, sweet and brown.

Verdict: Not terrible, but below average. If this is Atlanta's best Cuban food, then Atlanta's in trouble.

1 comment:

  1. Are those green peas on the rice? uuuuuucccchhhhkkkkkkk!!!

    With all due respect to Carlos, there is, of course, a difference between the sort of bocadillo Cubano variety of Cuban cuisine and the "native" original. In modern-day Cuba, the native cuisine is whatever you can find to eat. But I digress.

    The Cuban sandwich had its origins in the 19th century among workers who moved rather freely back and forth between Florida and Cuba, mostly in the cigar industry. The standard Cuban sandwich (sandwich mixto) was lunch fare for workers in the factory and was, in fact, made on both sides of the straits. It is related to a more typically Cuban variety of late-night snack (medianoche), though in that case, a different sort of bread is used, an egg bread more like challah.

    The Cuban Sandwich, then, is connected to a particular aspect of Cuban culture that ended very dramatically with Castro's takeover -- a population of workers who freely moved back and forth between south Florida and Cuba. After the revolution, as large numbers of exiles ended up in Florida, the Cuban sandwich became in many ways a badge of that particular community.

    In that sense, the Cuban sandwich really is a variety of Cuban cuisine, but one that reflects an aspect of Cuban social life and culture that no longer exists.

    This is not uncommon for regional cuisines. In Spain there are a variety of dishes that had their origins among mostly male migrant communities -- workers from the northern part of Spain who would travel on a seasonal basis to Castile to work in manufacturing or large farms. There are several "classic" Spanish dishes (including gazpacho) that emerged in this context. We might, then, be tempted to not consider them "authentic" cuisine because they cannot be assigned to a particular region, but insofar as they reflect the culinary activities of a particular social group, they have their own manner of historical authenticity.

    Cuban-American cuisine has evolved to be sure, but all cuisines do -- that is inescapable. And that evolution has been going on for quite some time -- well over a century and a half in the case of the sandwich -- with considerable variations within the region (it should be noted that in Tampa, it isn't considered "authentic" without salami). But it has indisputable roots within a community of Cubans whose primary home was Cuba. So they might not eat sandwiches there not, but at one time they did, in the days before Communism.

    (I suppose since we're on the brink of Communism, the Big Mac will only survive among refugee communities ...)