I was about 11 years old when I caught and ate my first whole fish. I was on a camping trip with two older (and at the time, I thought wiser) cousins. We went fishing in an old muddy pond filled with catfish, bass and bluegill. I baited my own hook and reeled in a pesky little panfish, just as my boy cousin cleverly whacked it on the head with a rock to prep it for snacktime. So, just like we’d seen in the movies, we impaled it on a small tree branch and proceeded to roast the life out of it. It took forever to cook, and when I finally took a bite of the poor thing, it tasted like the inside of a port-o-potty smells.
My dad laughed at me so hard he and his warm PBR fell off his folding chair. We had neglected to actually clean the fish, so I had attempted to ingest this half-raw, char-black fish (scales, fins and all) that had been marinating in its own guts all day.
Now I’m particularly careful about ordering whole fish in restaurants. The idea of eating a whole, fried red snapper, even deliciously Cuban style, is a mental block I was hoping to remove courtesy of my trip to Don Yasmany Cuban Restaurant and Bakery.
I’ve been fortunate to have tried many Cuban dishes before, but I was willing and eager to sample more and pleased to find the place in a convenient location on the Central strip in the building formerly occupied by Country Vittles.
The interior has a homey feel, accentuated by blue and green walls and lots of eclectic Cuban memorabilia. It’s a small space, but the lunch bar against the window adds a few extra seats, and the tiny bottles of habañero sauce on each table promise good things to come.
The menu is arranged by days of the week—this is the first time I’ve seen this—and begins with a list of dishes, desserts, drinks and sides that are available every day, like tamales, stuffed potatoes, Cuban sandwiches, spaghetti with ham or chorizo, flan with coconut, rice pudding, Cuban French toast called lorrejas, and shakes made with guava, mango, malted milk or banana.
I went in on a Tuesday, when I had my choice of half a roasted chicken, palomilla steak (a luscious-looking serving of meat smothered with ham and melted cheese) or fried, whole red snapper ($8.75). I augmented my fish with a side of arroz congrí (mixed rice and beans, $1.95), tostones (fried green plantain, $2) and maduros (fried sweet plantain, $2).
There were other choice tidbits on the weekly forecast like Wednesday’s chicken fricassee, Thursday’s grilled pork chops, Friday’s pork ribs and Uruguayan steak, yellow rice and chicken for Saturday, and the shredded beef in tomato sauce and pork shank available on Sundays.
I was disappointed with the rice and beans. They were a beautiful dark purple color, molded into a spherical shape, but quite dry. The flavor of the black beans would have come through better with more moisture. The sweet plantain was very nice, sugary as overripe bananas but with a firm consistency. I was surprised to find myself actually favoring the green plantain, as the mashed patties were crispy-fried and fabulous when dipped in a bit of the habañero sauce. And then, the fish.
This snapper was sporting fins, a tail, a head and some truly delectable crispy skin. I checked the inside cavity before proceeding, and they kindly removed the entrails. I tore through the body, found the nice, chewy spots by the tail, and paid special attention to the really good, flaky meat up by the head. A garnish of lime slices made the fish's rich, nutty flavor even better, and although there were bones to navigate, they were big enough to see coming ahead of time.
That’s when I screwed up. I was curious to know what a fried fish eyeball tasted like so I looked around, took my fork, dislodged the peeper and put it in my mouth. Memories lit the corners of my mouth while I frantically scrambled for a napkin to spit into. I’m not the brightest berry in the bushel, but thank goodness I could order a pastelito de guayaba (a flaky turnover filled with sweet guava paste and cream cheese) to get that horrible taste out of my mouth. The restaurant was wonderful, inexpensive and not at all responsible for my learning curve.
The Alibi Recommends:
Fried red snapper
Pastelitos de guayaba
Don Yasmany Cuban Restaurant and Bakery, 4801 Central NE, 232-9554. Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. every day. Price range: Inexpensive. No smoking, credit cards accepted.