by Sara Dickerman

Mamey's Cuban Bistro
2620 Alki Ave SW (West Seattle), 933-0848
Tues-Fri 5-10 pm, Sat-Sun 12-10 pm.

For six years, now, I've been cooking professionally, and so for six long years I have been listening to the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack auto-repeated on restaurant stereos. I have a fond bitterness for the album--I liked it once, but now it's devolved into a kind of easy- listening music: a little sexy, a little Latin, and not so loud as that clave-banging salsa. When I walked into the new (since April) Cuban restaurant on Alki's main drag, I fully expected to hear "Dos gardenias para tiiii..." but at Mamey's, the atmosphere is more Alki than Havana or Miami. The Carlos Santana duet with that Matchbox 20 guy was about as Latin as the music ever got.

They have their priorities right--I'd rather listen to the adult contemporary station and chow down on good food than listen to son or mambo and get stuck with food that's been lightened up for Seattle palates. With its long-stewed meats and beans, its crunchy fried goodies, and its unflappable devotion to garlic, Mamey's serves the kind of earthy food we need more of around here.

Service is sort of beside the point, and there was little effort made to conceal the night's chaos. A manager, perhaps the owner, didn't seem surprised that we sat empty-handed a long while after ordering our mojitos. She just smoothed out her guayabera and purposefully walked back to the kitchen to get things moving. Moments later, our tie-dye-clad server, dumping a tray of water glasses at our table, dumped quite a bit of ice and water on our legs and the floor (perhaps a tribute to the physical comedy of the late John Ritter, who'd died that day...).

But we forgot our damp clothing when the appetizers arrived. The croquetas ($7) are little bullet-shaped fritters, breaded on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. Both ham and chicken were offered, but the salty ham was more distinctive against the béchamel smoothness of the filling. (In an impressive devotion to starch, you can also order a sandwich stuffed with croquetas--something I plan to do soon.) Empanadas ($8), bubbly crescents of fried dough, came stuffed with several different fillings. The guava and cheese had no discernable guava, and the pork filling was a little lackluster, but the ground-beef picadillo, a sort of Cuban Sloppy Joe made sweet and tangy with raisins, was outstanding, and so was a similar, juicy mince of chicken. Both the croquetas and the empanadas were well served by the smooth green dipping sauce, whose raw garlic sear hacked through their deep-fried richness.

For the main course, there was long-cooked beef, pulled and frayed to resemble the old clothes of its Spanish name, ropa vieja ($14). It was a spectacular mush: scented just lightly of cumin, and more heavily of garlic, peppers and tomatoes. One bite and I was already planning the sandwich I'd make with it the next day. Masitas de puerco ($13.50), chunks of fried pork, was the kind of hardcore meat-lover's dish that might overwhelm mere amateurs. The slightly citrusy chunks of pork were crusty on the outside and gave way to softer flesh below, but they still demanded some earnest chewing. Both meaty dishes were served with black beans and a firm and fragrant rice--basmati, I believe. It might not be classic Cuban, but it added lightness to an otherwise very solid meal. Arroz con pollo ($13), with rice yellow from saffron, or more likely Bijol (annatto powder), was comfortable and mellow. The tostones (plantains) that came with each entree were pressed and fried quite firm: a nice counterpoint to the denture-friendly comfort food that makes up many Cuban dishes.

For dessert, the guava-and-cream-cheese dish was tempting, but I had a bad flashback to a friend's 1950s-style cream-cheese-and-chutney dip, so we played it safe and ordered arroz con leche ($3.50). This was perfect in its plainness--the rice pudding was just lightly scented with cinnamon and lemon.

It was too cold to eat on the patio at Mamey's, but next time I visit, I'll come during the day and make sure to order that croqueta sandwich (or maybe a medianoche, the pressed sandwich that comes with both pork and ham). Who knows, maybe I'll hear a little Cuban music, too.

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