Café Cubano at Laru Ni Hati
By Scott Sharot
Laru Ni Hati is one of the Duke City's top unisex hair salons. In fact, it was named No. 1 Hair Salon by Alibi readers in this year's Best of Burque poll. The name means “clear blue sky” in one of the native languages of the Caribbean. Partners Greg Chakalian and Alan Schechner have created more than a hair salon; they've also provided a great place to hang out. Now you can even enjoy a little slice of Cuba at their café, whether you're there getting beautified or not.
Cutting-edge style abounds and the attention to detail is evident at every turn, and believe me, there are lots of twists and turns. You can shoot a game of pool, buy a birthday card (from one of the best selections of greeting cards in town), watch any number of flat screen televisions, listen to a live disc jockey (if you happen to be there at the right time), swill a glass of wine or beer, enjoy a delicious Cuban repast and smoke a hand-rolled premium cigar (outside on the patio)--all under the same roof. Clientele includes both an all-ages crowd of salon patrons waiting to be worked into tonsorial splendor and a loyal café crowd, there to enjoy the food without the salon treatment.
The café is nestled in the front corner of the space and spills out into a diminutive curbside patio, great for Nob Hill people-watching and street ambience. Café seating includes a tiny counter with a bird's eye view of the action packed kitchen. Be careful with the makeshift foot rail in front of the counter, it is temporary and made just of boards and Corona Beer buckets. On my first visit to the café, I sent the whole thing flying and felt like a bull in a china shop. There are also a few small tables along the wall for dining and two beautifully designed curved counters with frosted glass shelves and drop-dead good-looking stools for customers to sit on while snacking and drinking. A custom designed wall unit filled with artfully displayed high-end beauty products extends from the café area up the ramp to the salon. A tasteful waiting area surrounds a regulation pool table that sits waiting to be racked.
The café's limited menu features some of Cuba's most popular dishes, including the Cuban sandwich (small $5.95, large $6.95). Their version is surprisingly authentic, made with marinated roasted pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese and the requisite pickle. The addition of sliced onions, tomatoes and a tasty mayonnaise-based sauce are not typical of Cuban cuisine but don't interfere. The sandwich ingredients are placed inside a length of crusty bread and then the whole loaf is pressed in a “plancha” (a heavy-duty Cuban sandwich press) which magically melts and browns it into a rich masterpiece. The Cuban sandwich is served with a side of Cuba's national dish, black beans and rice, which can also be ordered as a dish unto itself as a soup ($3.95) or as Moros y Christianos (Moors and Christians, $4.95), black beans served atop a bowl of dirty rice.
Bananas are an integral part of Cuban cuisine but these are not the same variety that commingle with Cheerios here in the states. Platanos are starchy tropical bananas that are used both when ripe and green. Don't miss the platanos maduras ($2.95), deliciously sweet, ripe bananas that are served with an excellent fresh mango salsa. The green version of plantains is called tostones ($2.95), firmer than maduras and savory with lime juice, vinegar and salt.
My compadre liked her arroz con pollo ($5.95) and remarked it tasted similar to the same dish she enjoyed in Cuba recently. The chicken was a bit dry for my taste but the flavor was just fine.
Specials offered on weekends include very traditional dishes like bacalao ($6.75), a casserole of rehydrated, salted codfish and potatoes, and a six ounce marinated sirloin ($6.75) served with french fries. It's not listed anywhere on the menu but kitchen manager Jennifer Orr was happy to point out that all of the dishes on the menu including the arroz con pollo and Cuban sandwiches can be made vegan (with no animal products). Yes indeed, marinated seitan substitutes for the chicken and vegan cheese and faux deli meat in the Cuban sandwich. Lard is used in many traditional dishes but this café is a lard-free zone.
For dessert we enjoyed a wonderful (and typical) sweet empanada ($1.50). A flour empanada wrapper is filled with a combination of guava paste and cream cheese before being deep-fried to a delicious, golden brown. If you're lucky, you might also find strawberry rhubarb pie, mango cheesecake or other house-made treats. “Desserts come and go depending on the fate of the day,” posits Chef Orr. So you might have to settle for a decadent chocolate truffle ($.75) usually reserved as a post-haircut give away.
Cuban coffee plays an important ritual role in Cuban cafés. The coffee here is made from dry roasted beans from Mr. Espresso, and it's full-flavored and rich, just as it should be. An impressive beer and wine list includes the venerable Dom Peringon champagne for the big spenders among us.
Next time you're in Nob Hill, stop by Café Cubano at Laru Ni Hati to experience a precious little Caribbean gem in an unlikely but wonderful setting.
Café Cubano at Laru Ni Hati; 4313 Central NE; 255-1575; Hours: Tue-Sat 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Price Range: Inexpensive; Major credit cards accepted.
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