Monday, April 24, 2000

They know beans

Posted on Mon, Apr 24, 2000 at 4:00 AM

While some other Cuban kitchens tag onto the pan-Latin craze and expand their menus to include influences from Central and South America, the humble Black Bean Deli in Winter Park remains doggedly devoted to homespun Cuban food. After 18 years, it's still a prime choice for sturdy, soul-warming lunches and dinners.

As soon as you step inside, you barely have to close the door before you're at the front counter, facing a menu board and kitchen team. If you don't know what you want, ask for help, and they'll steer you in the right direction, with a hot meal usually ready within minutes, generally in the $4 to $5 ballpark.

For dining in, there's but a cluster of bar stools lined up at the window overlooking traffic on U.S. Highway 17-92. But the Black Bean Deli is better known as a dependable takeout joint. Although it's a sweet, cozy setup, don't expect any overly friendly schmoozing from behind the counter – they're just too busy. We stopped by at 7 p.m. one recent evening, about an hour before they closed. "There are no more Cuban sandwiches today, and we're all out of empanadas," we were told by a poker-faced guy wearing an apron and a tired expression. Mindful of a new wave of customers who had come in behind us, we quickly chose from the other dinner options – and there were plenty.

Side orders are an excellent place to start. Papas rellenas (two for $2.50) are mashed-potato fritters, rolled up almost as big as baseballs and fried into a kind of finger food. Inside are pockets of spicy ground beef, but I would have liked them better if there were more meat. Cuban tamales ($1.85) are classic renditions. The cornmeal is silky, sweet and highly filling, topped with a dab of pimento and a spoonful of peas. It gets better with a splash of hot sauce from the bar.

Sandwiches are long and flat, wrapped in wax paper and generally served warm. In lieu of the in-demand Cuban sandwich (sweet ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese pressed into a slice of Cuban bread), we chose the "media noche" (midnight) ($3.95), which is basically the same sandwich, only it's presented on a soft, yellow, toasted sweet roll.

Among the dinner specials, we found a spicy pan con lechon shredded-pork entree, drizzled with "mojo" garlic sauce. At $7.25, it was a couple of dollars more expensive than some of the other platters, but it did come with ample trimmings of sweet fried plantains, salad and, best of all, the diner's signature black beans and rice, which was thick, savory and buttery tender.

Flan de queso ($1.75) ended our dinner on a rich note. Black Bean's sinful version of the classic egg custard is sweetened up with melted cheese and caramel sauce.

Years ago the Black Bean Deli might have been open one Saturday and closed the next, or open one weeknight until 7 p.m. and closed the next night by 5 p.m. These days the deli is consistently open from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday.


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