When Oyá Cuban Café opened in February, we figured it was a casual hangout for Malden’s Cuban community. But according to manager and co-owner Maybi Torres, Malden doesn’t really have a Cuban community. And in any case, Oyá is a lot more than a café. It’s a fine-dining establishment that can hold its own against any restaurant in the North region.
Torres and her husband, chef Roberto Niubo, left Cuba in 1999 as part of the steady trickle of emigrants. They moved to Massachusetts in 2008 and opened Oyá, their first restaurant.
“We try to keep the food as traditional as possible,” she said in a telephone interview. “But we want to enhance it a little bit.”
She mentioned one of the appetizers that we had enjoyed during a visit a few days earlier, chicharrones y vieiras ($10). This was a trio of pan-seared scallops, each perched on a chunk of succulent pork belly, skewered with a toothpick, and doused in a sweet house-made barbecue sauce.
“A lot of Cuban cooking uses pork bellies,” Torres said. “By combining them here with local scallops, we can showcase the pork bellies a little bit.” You order the dish for the scallops; you end up falling in love with pork bellies.
Lacking a protruding sign, Oyá is barely noticeable from the sidewalk. People have found the place anyway — by 7:30 on the Friday evening that our party of four visited, the elegant little dining room was nearly full. Warm touches animated the space: vases of pussywillows, contemporary Cuban artwork.
In a corner by a front window, Manuel “Coco” Torres, Maybi’s father, played guitar and sang tunes by artists ranging from Buena Vista Social Club to Carlos Jobim.
As Austin Powers fans (some of us), we couldn’t resist ordering an appetizer of fried yuca “con mojo” ($6). Cuban mojo turned out to be a salty dipping sauce made with onions, garlic, spices, and a dash of sour orange juice. Fried yuca, or cassava root, is the Cuban version of French fries. We gobbled it up.
A large bowl of garbanzos fritos ($12) — sauteed chickpeas — hit the spot: hearty and filling, the mildly spiced beans came with chunks of chorizo and pork belly, potato, onions, and red peppers.
Each of our entrees was a photogenic assembly of ingredients. A plate of cordero al bohio ($23) was grilled lamb chops with a mango-balsamic reduction, set off with a block of fried polenta and sauteed vegetables. Asked how we wanted the chops cooked, we suggested that the chef decide. The lamb turned out to be delicious, but disconcertingly rare.
An unusual casserole, arroz imperial con maduros ($17), consisted of layers of chewy rice and tender pulled chicken with Cuban spices and a blended-cheese topping, accompanied by slices of fried plantain. As with the other entrees, the serving size was generous enough for leftovers.
Rancho guajiro ($17) was a plate of thin-sliced, slow-roasted pork with caramelized onion, fried yuca, and moro rice. The latter is the traditional Cuban take on rice and beans, the two mixed together and seasoned with garlic and other spices. The pork was very tender, thanks to the cooking time, and was served with a tangy, semi-sweet sauce.
Bistec encebollado ($20), a fricasseed 10-ounce sirloin steak with onions, came with fried green plantain slices, Cuban black beans and rice, and mojo sauce. The steak was tender and flavorful.
In general, though the fried ingredients at Oya were never greasy, we sensed that Chef Roberto didn’t stint on fats and oils. “Fat is flavor,” a cooking teacher once told us, and Oya is big on flavor.
To accompany our shared dessert, warm bread pudding with ice cream ($6), we sampled different coffees. Our favorite was leche y leche ($4), a three-tiered drink served in a glass: a dense layer of warm condensed milk at the bottom, then coffee, then hot milk.
Torres and her husband discovered the drink in the Canary Islands. Cubans have been borrowing flavors and ingredients from Spain, Africa, and the Caribbean for ages, she said. If Canary Islanders make tasty coffee, why not borrow that, too?