After more than half a century of communist rule and economic sanctions, it’s no wonder that gasoline shortages are a persistent problem in Cuba. Of course, with fuel prices rising again in the United States, the situation isn’t entirely favorable here either, making alternatives to driving even more appealing. It’s therefore ironic on multiple levels that a Cuban restaurant in Phoenix is operating inside a gas station that just happens to be along the light rail line. As improbable as that combination of characteristics may sound, it can be found at Cubanitas Kitchen.
Cubanitas is situated in a gas station convenience store at Washington and 30th streets on the east side of Phoenix. Due to the long distances between stations in this mostly industrial area, the nearest light rail platforms are found at 24th Street, three quarters of a mile to the west. Customers coming without a car and making a rare visit to a gas station should be prepared for a bit of a walk, a transfer to the Washington Street bus, or a short bike ride. Those choosing the last option should be warned that the gas station has no bike rack – just some random posts.
Upon arrival at the gas station, currently operating under the “76” brand, it may be confusing to see a big sign saying “Taqueria la Condesa” on the exterior. That’s the old restaurant tenant at this location. Indications of a change are found in the Cubanitas food truck, which is often parked in the lot outside, and a small sandwich board sign outside the entrance to the Kwik Corner convenience store. Enter through the doors near that sign and proceed through the store to a back room with seating and a counter. That’s where Cubanitas Kitchen can be found.
As would be expected with a gas station restaurant, the decor is sparse, but Cubanitas still manages a bit of warmth in terms of the colorful tables and a neon sign proclaiming the restaurant’s name. Customers order at the counter from overhead menus listing regularly offered items and a chalkboard with added daily specials. Customers may then choose to visit the adjacent Kwik Corner to purchase a beverage before finding a seat in the dining area.The food is prepared fresh with green bananas being visibly peeled in response to a new order.
Cuban tacos with ropa vieja and a side of congris
Those plantains are featured as small crisp chips called “chicharritas” served as a side with many on the entrees, but they’re also available cut thicker and fried as tostones, a strong choice as either an appetizer or a side, especially when dipped in the accompanying sauce of garlic and olive oil. A benchmark dish for any Cuban restaurant is ropa vieja, shredded beef that derives its name from its resemblance to “old clothes.” Cubanitas’ version comes with plenty of bell pepper and onion. Like most of the food here, it is gently seasoned but not overtly spicy.
The ropa vieja is available in a plated entree with chicharittas and congris, a mixture of rice and black beans simmered with bay leaves and sofrito made from onions, peppers, cilantro, and garlic. It can also be pressed between slices of bread as a sandwich or used as a filling for Cuban tacos, a nod to the restaurant’s prior identity as a taqueria. The tacos are hefty and hearty with plenty of beef, pork, or chicken served in large tortillas with cilantro, lettuce,and a mild chipotle sauce. Packets of Tapatio sauce are provided for customers who want added heat.
The same four meats — ropa vieja, steak, pork, and chicken – can each be the centerpiece of an entree plate, the filling for a sandwich or tacos, or a topping for a congris bowl, a lunch special that offers a choice of protein served over rice and beans with peppers and onions. Of course, another expected signature item is a classic Cuban sandwich, which combines both roast pork and ham with pickles, mustard, and Swiss cheese. When the bread is pressed, the contents meld together harmoniously. Crinkle cut fries are served with all of the sandwiches.
While these sandwiches and plates occupy the permanent menu overhead, the chalkboard adds more items. While they are generally classified as breakfast food, they’re available throughout the day. Choices include breakfast sandwiches or wraps with eggs; however, the croquetas are a Cuban specialty worth trying. They’re essentially fritters filled with minced ham, coated with breadcrumbs, and then fried. The papas rellenas are a similar concept that incorporates a ground beef core surrounded by an outer spherical layer of mashed potatoes.
Both the croquetas and the papas rellenas are equally good as a snack or an appetizer. At the other end of a typical meal’s chronological sequence, Cubanitas also features several desserts. Arroz con leche and flan are among the classic choices with the latter sometimes available in variations like guava that add a layer of tropical fruit beneath the caramel and custard. The most recent addition to the dessert menu is something called “mani.” Big enough to share, it’s a soft, buttery bar made from peanut butter, milk, and sugar with bits of hazelnuts and almonds.
The sole drink offered by Cubanitas Kitchen per se is a milkshake that can be given a tropical flavor with fruit such as mango or guava. Otherwise, beverage selections in bottles and cans are found in the refrigerated cases of the attached convenience store. Although Kwik Corner sells beer, the establishment is not licensed for on-premises consumption. Cuban gas supplies come and go like the on-and-off again relaxation of sanctions under different U.S. administrations. Even if it’s hard to buy gas in Cuba, it’s easy to enjoy Cuban food in this Phoenix gas station.
3001 E. Washington St., Phoenix AZ 85034