Jet black mussel shells in saffron-hued broth. Twining green fairy crowns of cilantro and cress. Hot pink radish slices beside edible orange blossoms. Rafts of pineapple afloat in rum potions; buttery slabs of avocado beneath crisp plantains. A meal at Gustazo, a modern Cuban restaurant with branches in Cambridge and Waltham, warms and charms from the very first glance. Each dish is lush, bright, and beautiful. Underscore the gustatory pleasures with sweet hospitality, add a little rum, and here is the perfect antidote to New England winter.
Gustazo’s food is suffused with flavor and presented with grace. It makes the taste buds hum with pleasure. This all makes sense: Owners Patricia Estorino and Adolfo De La Vega were artists first, before they were restaurateurs. In Havana, he played classical clarinet; she was a dancer with the National Dance Company of Cuba. The couple moved to Boston in 2001 after De La Vega won a scholarship to study music at Longy. Estorino worked with choreographers like Lorraine Chapman and Marcus Schulkind and taught dance. Then, a decade after their arrival, they switched gears, opening the first Gustazo in Belmont. They moved that restaurant to Waltham in 2014 and added the Cambridge location in 2019. It seems to be working out. Last year, Estorino — who is in charge of both kitchens — was a James Beard award semifinalist for best chef in the Northeast.
“We were always homesick for our food, and we thought there was not enough representation of Cuban food in Boston,” she says. Indeed, Gustazo is different from some of the area’s other Cuban restaurants, which tend to be cozier, homier. Both branches of Gustazo are sizable, seating around 260 indoors with additional patio space. They are stylish, romantic, and loud: filled with the sounds of traditional Cuban music and Latin jazz, decorated with tin tiles, colorful mosaics, and vintage Cuban-designed movie posters. And although there are some classic dishes on the menu, these are filtered through and reinterpreted with Gustazo’s own sensibility.
Ropa vieja, the dish of beef so shredded and ragged in appearance that it is named after “old clothes,” appears here in relatively elegant attire. The shredded flank steak — tender in its tomato sauce, piquant with peppers and olives — is contained between a regimented line of maduros, sweet, glossy plantains, and an inky pool of black beans, over a neat spread of white rice. Puerco asado, slow-roasted pork, comes mounded atop congrí, the Cuban dish of rice and black beans cooked together; caramelized onions and maduros bring rich sweetness to the dish, which is topped with a tangle of microgreens. Gustazo has mastered the garnish glow-up. Arroz con pollo features a burnished golden half-chicken with roasted heirloom carrots and matching saffron Calasparra rice, often used in paella. There is a soft-boiled egg to stir in, and a wreath of maduros, because one can never have enough maduros. Such traditional dishes taste as homey as ever here, just extra-delicious and made with finesse.
They act as anchors for a menu more oriented toward small plates and bright flavors, emphasizing seafood as much as it does meat. (Dishes can vary a bit between Cambridge and Waltham, but there is plenty of overlap.) Ceviche is ever-present, made with different fish but always rich with avocado and coconut milk, extra-savory due to dehydrated mushrooms and anchovies, and full of textural contrasts: the creamy avocado, the snappy fish, the crunch of crisped boniato, a kind of Cuban sweet potato. Smoky grilled octopus is served over rich potato puree with asparagus, confit cherry tomatoes, olives, and herbs. Crab stewed in warmly spiced tomato sauce is folded with avocado, watercress, and slaw into crunchy, taco-style shells made from plantains. (Gustazo also serves a delicious jibarito — a sandwich between tostones, fried green plantains, rather than bread — filled with roast pork, ham, Gruyere, pickles, Dijon mustard, and paprika aioli: a Cubano with maximum crunch.) Mariscada, a seafood stew, brims with shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels, and clams in lobster-coconut milk sauce. It is excellent, fragrant and flavorful, the seafood perfectly cooked.
And although meaty dishes are a strong suit — those grilled lamb chops with hazelnut-almond romesco sauce and mint salsa verde! that fatty-tender confit pork belly with citrusy mojo sauce over quinoa, black beans, and avocado! — Gustazo is a welcoming place for vegetarians. There is a Cuban take on hummus made with black beans, fresh vegetables arrayed on top and plantain chips served alongside. A mound of chickpeas and spinach is kissed with almond sofrito and smoked paprika. There are salads bright with roasted beets, herbs, and kumquats, and more decadent bites such as truffle yuca fries with cilantro aioli, fried cheese with stewed vegetables and candied walnuts, and squash fritters with kale, ginger, and sage creme fraiche.
Dessert ranges from wobbly, eggy, lovely flan to something called the Chocolate Cigar. This seems like it might be a gimmick: a cigar (get it? Cuba?) made from chocolate infused with smoked tea, served with a scoop of dulce de leche ice cream, sherry-poached cherries, and sliced star fruit in an edible fuchsia cookie cup. It’s not a gimmick. It’s just fun, and every bite is delicious.
Gustazo’s cocktails are a draw, including mojitos, daiquiris, and a mixture of rum, pineapple, apricot, and lime named for the Havana hotel where it is a signature. There is plenty of invention, in the form of drinks made with infused rums (with raisins, with tobacco), house-made syrups (guava, papaya-red bell pepper), and tropical fruit flavors. Wine and beer lists are thoughtful and varied, with Greek and Hungarian grapes alongside those from Spain and Argentina, Guinness alongside Guayabera Citra Pale Ale from Florida’s Cigar City Brewing.
But what Gustazo has that’s really a rare find in these parts is a serious rum program. The curious can explore a selection of five different flights, while connoisseurs sip from a long list of top-shelf Cuban rums. One needn’t (but can!) pay $850 for an ounce pour of Ron Santiago 500 Anniversary, the most exclusive rum produced in Cuba, according to the list notes. The Havana Club 15 Years Gran Reserva, at $26, is a more affordable luxury, slipping down the gullet rich, sweet, and smooth. Enthusiasts of agave-based spirits, bourbon, and Scotch will also find a wide array to sample.
Two large restaurants make for a lot to juggle. Service is sometimes top-notch, always warm. Food is sometimes stunning, always very good. It’s just nice to be here, in a lively restaurant eating food that tastes like a tropical vacation. A visit to Gustazo is infinitely more reliable than air travel, and close enough for that next date night, birthday celebration, or dinner with friends. The restaurant’s name means “great pleasure” in Spanish, and it’s apt.
2067 Massachusetts Ave., Porter Square, Cambridge; 240 Moody St., Waltham; 855-487-8296; www.gustazo-cubancafe.com
Wheelchair accessible; patio seating when weather permits.
Prices Small plates $8-$19. Large plates $25-$42. Desserts $5-$15.
Hours Sun 5-9 p.m., Wed-Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m.
Noise level Can be loud.
★★★★★ Extraordinary | ★★★★ Excellent | ★★★ Very good | ★★ Good | ★ Fair | (No stars) Poor