It’s a delightful detail: the little mason jar mug filled with chilled, fresh-made guarapo – sugar cane juice. This refreshing sip is intended to welcome you to Guarapo’s Cuban Cuisine as well as to underscore the name of the casual café located in a Boynton Beach strip plaza.
Sip the juice between bites of hot, buttered Cuban bread (also gratis) and you feel most welcome, indeed, as you glance the menu and take in the vintage Beny Moré tune playing in the background.
There are plenty of reasons to visit this pleasant spot besides the welcome sip and good Cuban tunes, particularly if you’re a lover of fresh-made, humble Cuban dishes. And if you’re a downright Cuban food snob, one who seeks the authentic flavor profiles and renditions of the classics, you’ve got nothing to fear here. Yes, you’ll find some misses and near-misses, but for the most part, Guarapo’s serves some tasty grub.
Start with a shared order of “mariquitas,” a mountain of fresh-made plantain chips ($3.95) that are warm and crispy and served with a thimble of garlic oil for dipping. Or go country-style with a hearty appetizer of “tamal con lechon,” a sweet-ish ground corn tamal that’s served in a husk alongside a respectable mound of roast pulled pork ($8.95). In this dish, the interplay of flavors is essential — the sweetness of the tamal contrasts with the acidic mojo sauce that infuses the roast pork. I would have preferred a more savory and flavorful tamal, but it does work in combination with the garlic-lime pork flavors.
For something more simple, try the “chicharrones de pollo frito,” fried chicken chunks ($6.95) that are tossed with slivered, seared onions. Although the word chicharron implies fried-crispy skin, these are skinless, boneless bits of chicken breast. They’re the P.C. version of a chicharron. They proved decent enough, but I say leave the skin on and fry them crispy, as nature intended.
Whatever you order to start, make sure you try the “yuca frita” ($4.95), thick, fried yuca fries that are served with a creamy and garlicky cilantro dipping sauce. This is one of the best bites here, yuca that’s hot and crispy outside, yet so tender inside it melts in your mouth.
Of course, you may not want to fill up on appetizers if you’re planning to attempt a full entrée, which can prove to be sizeable. Then again, many of the entrées — particularly the stewed or saucy meats – make great leftovers and re-heat very well.
An outstanding choice is the “vaca frita” ($7.95 lunch, $10.95 dinner), which translates literally to “fried cow,” and is one of the house specialties. A good hunk of flank steak is marinated and fried until it’s toasty-seared outside and pull-apart tender inside. It’s served with seared onions and the side of your choice. This is a dish I would return for, and I’d have it once again with some of Guarapo’s delicious “moros,” black beans and rice cooked together ($2.50 if ordered separately), and crispy “tostones,” pressed and twice-fried green plantains ($3.25 if ordered separately).
I also enjoyed the “ropa vieja” specialty ($7.95 lunch, $10.95 dinner), another flank dish that’s pulled apart and simmered in a tomato creole sauce. The name translates to “old clothes,” but there’s nothing foul about this special, which pairs well with white rice and some of the café’s nicely seasoned and pretty straightforward black beans. Oh, and throw in some fried sweet plantains for a few added flavor notes.
Seafood lovers might enjoy the “camarones al ajillo” ($12.95), garlic shrimp, which are presented in a garlic, sliced pepper and onion sauce. The thick, creamy sauce infuses the shrimp deliciously — however, there are very few shrimp on the plate.
Meals can be made of soups and/or sandwiches here as well. We sampled a respectable “caldo Gallego” ($3.25 cup, $4.25 bowl), a Galician-style white bean soup that’s flavored with salt pork and laced with Swiss chard. I dug into a “pan con bistec” ($6.95), a grilled palomilla steak sandwich, and found it to be 80 percent bread, 20 percent steak. That steak, however, was delicious — pounded thin and quickly seared on the grill, then topped with sautéed onions and crispy potato sticks, and some good, fresh lettuce and tomato. More steak and less bread would have made this an amazing sandwich.
Desserts are displayed on a tray that’s propped near the front door — so from the start of your meal, you know there are some sweet options awaiting. We opted for flan, sampling both the caramel ($3.95) flan and the coconut ($4.50) flan, topped with extra-sweet grated coconut in a syrup. The simpler caramel — a rich milk custard in a light caramel sauce — was my favorite.
Guarapo’s Cuban Cuisine
ADDRESS: 1795 N. Congress Ave., Boynton Beach
PRICE RANGE: Inexpensive to moderate
HOURS: Open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday from noon to 9 p.m.
CREDIT CARDS: Major credit cards
RESERVATIONS: Walk-ins welcome
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes, including restrooms
NOISE LEVEL: Pleasant, with vintage Cuban tunes and select Latin music playing in the background (but not overpowering)
FULL BAR: Wine, beer and wine-based sangria and mojitos are served (no hard liquor)
WHAT THE GRADES MEAN:
A — Excellent
B — Good
C — Average
D — Poor
F — Don’t bother