IN THE KITCHEN Patricia Estorino spent hours at a ballet barre in her native Havana, not at a kitchen countertop, but you would not guess that from the imaginative dishes she serves at the Gustazo Cuban Cafe in Waltham.
Chef and owner of the restaurant, which moved to Main Street in November from a smaller location in Belmont, Estorino said she began cooking after missing the flavors of home.
“It was a combination of coming here and working so hard dancing and teaching dance, and getting into this vibrant food scene in Boston,” she said. “And I was also homesick for my food.”
She and her husband, Adolfo De La Vega, moved to Boston in 2001, when he was awarded a scholarship to study clarinet.
“We have a long tradition in my family of cooking, and I have a lot of friends who are professional chefs who really mentored me, and have been super, super helpful,” she said.
The result is a restaurant that serves a variety of traditionally Cuban dishes and flavors, but often with Estorino’s slightly different spin.
For example, the dinner menu is full of small plates, something that is not the norm in Cuba, she said.
“I wanted to give people an opportunity to try a lot of different things,” Estorino said.
THE LOCALE The restaurant is across the street from the Waltham Common, in the former location of the Elephant Walk restaurant.
But the space has been completely transformed by Estorino and her husband, who helped design and remodel the small restaurant with an eye to details that gives it a playful Latin feel.
One of the earth-toned walls is filled with small movie posters painted by Cuban artists. Another is tiled with gorgeous 19th-century hydraulic tiles, and still another has a wall-sized photograph of an old building in Havana.
And be sure to look above the entrance where the glass panel has been covered by a painting by Cuban artist Amelia Pelaez to give the illusion of stained glass.
ON THE MENU The decor and the soft Latin soundtrack selected by De La Vega playing in the background put us in the perfect mood for a Cubano sandwich as we settled into our seats on a recent Friday afternoon.
It certainly did not disappoint. Estorino puts her own spin on the sandwich of slow-roasted pork, smoked ham, Gruyere cheese, Dijon mustard, pickles, and pimenton dulce aioli pressed on a baguette; she said it is more a creation of Miami’s Cuban community than what she remembers eating in Havana.
But the Cuban flavors come through. She marinates pork shoulder overnight in garlic, oregano, cumin, and sour oranges, and then slow-roasts it for 8 to 10 hours.
The $10 sandwich is delicious, hearty, and plenty for two people to share with a cup of the superb black bean soup, which is $3, or $6 for a bowl.
The salads are interesting, beautifully colorful, fresh, and delicious. The Remolacha, $8, includes a medley of roasted beets, greens, orange slices, and slightly fried slices of queso cheese all drizzled with a touch of honey and sprinkled with sunflower seeds. It was wonderful, and a welcome change on a cold winter day from dreary iceberg lettuce and a cherry tomato.
The small plates offered at dinner serve up a variety of meats, seafood, and vegetables.
The paper-thin fried plantain chips, served alongside guacamole made with avocado, pineapple, and red onions, are not to be missed.
Estorino’s twist on traditional fried Cuban pork belly, called chicharrones, $6, is also irresistible. She roasts the pork belly until it is tender, and then flash-fries it just before serving to add crispness. It comes with avocado puree and pineapple-orange salsa.
The menu includes plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options, and Estorino said everything is made on the premises, so ingredients can easily be identified for people with food allergies.
There are a variety of soft drinks, coffees, and teas served. Estorino said she is still working on obtaining a liquor license from the city.
Gustazo Cuban Cafe is at 663 Main St., Waltham. For hours and other information, call 855-487-8296, or visit www.gustazo-cubancafe.com.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at email@example.com.